Some Comments on Orthography

Lawrence M. Schoen

Those first three years of TOS were rather stingy. While we were allowed the occasional inference of Klingon culture, our exposure to Klingon
language was limited to the rare and frustrating glimpse of signage aboard a Bird of Prey. Frustrating because there is something about unfamiliar writing systems that tantalizes and entices, that beckons to us promising exotica, that hints of secrets and understanding if only we could read those strange glyphs. If only...

In 1980 the U.S.S. Enterprise Officer's Manual was published. Though now out of print, in its time this volume was perceived as a great treasure trove of information. Among its inclusions was the following table of characters, which has since come to be known as the Mandel system:

And so at last, after so many years of wondering, there was a key to the
Klingon writing system! Except, it wasn't. This incredible alien alphabet
was presented to us as little more than another way of encoding English; a
second--order symbol system in which the letters of the roman alphabet
could be mapped onto a different collection of symbols, not so different
from similar systems such as Morse code or semaphor. Admittedly there
were a few differences. A character for a velar nasal stop was included
("NG"), as well as one for dental fricatives was added ("TH"). Unfortunately
in the case of the latter, no indication of voicing was provided. And
although the "C" and "Q" characters were left out (though they
subsequently surfaced in several fan variations of the alphabet), one
supposes because of redundancy, the "X" character was retained, though
with no indication of being a voiceless velar fricative (a common
substitution). There is also the addition of a sixth vowel character. But
that's all. Nothing alien, nothing particularly exotic. Sure the letters looked
interesting and may have caused some speculation as to what instrument
(stylus? brush?) might be used to shape them, but that was the extent of it.
And yet, none of it seemed to matter. It was Klingon, and fans eagerly
clasped it to their collective breast. No matter that there was nothing to
write in it, it served quite well for English, and that was enough until real
Klingon came along.

More recently we've been treated to a different alphabet, (often
incorrectly attributed to Michael Okuda, scenic designer for TNG), one
which corresponds to the phonemes of Klingon as described by Okrand in
TKD. While the characters themselves are easily identifiable from
background displays on TNG (assuming one has access to video equipment
and a reasonably large television screen), there has never been an "official"
release describing the particular relationship between individual glyphs and
specific sounds. As Okuda has indicated (see the interview elsewhere in this
issue) all Klingon background displays are composed for appearance, not
communication. And yet, an unofficial letter to a Klingon fan group from
an unnamed source at Paramount resulted in the following alphabet^1^:

Unlike its predecessor, these glyphs provide an excellent fit to the
phonology of Klingon, or more specifically that of tlhIngan Hol. However,
other questions still remain.

The keen observer^2^ of ST6 will note several Klingon glyphs which are not
included in the alphabet above. While some appear to be simple rotations of
characters (and one is reminded of Sequoyah's creation of the Cherokee
syllabary), others appear to be completely novel. That they are not included
in the alphabet need not necessarily be cause for distress, nor tempt us to
suspect the assignment of sound to sign. Our own writing system is replete
with logographs, single characters representing whole ideas or words (e.g., !,
@, #, $, %), clearly a part of the system but not a part of the alphabet.

^1^ Laser fonts of both alphabets are available for Macintosh and PC computers for $11.50 ($10 +
$1.5 shipping et al.) from the KLI.

^2^ I am indebted to David Sturm, this article's original keen observer.


Then too, it may be helpful to keep in mind Allan Wechsler's remarks
(also elsewhere in this issue) on the sparse distribution of consonants in
tlhIngan Hol. While perhaps a bit far fetched, the unexplained characters
might be instances of alphabetic characters from an earlier, and
phonemically larger, form of the language, maintained either for historical
purposes in affairs of state (I refer here to the trial scene in ST6), or more
simply as decoration.

In any case, there is clearly much much more to be learned about
Klingon orthography, more tantilizing promises and secrets to discovered.
Of course it's unknown whether any further explantions are apt to be
forthcoming, but at least the exotica is there. Or, to make the case more
clear by example, what precisely is "the Klingon mummification glyph," and
what is its role in a larger writing system?