Natural Gender in Klingon

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Becci Cat

Queer, disabled, polyamorous transgender lunatic. ✨✨ Kvira, malkapabla, pluramema transgenra frenezulino.

Warning: Non-linguist talking about linguistics ahead.

Recently I started putting some time into learning Klingon, though I’m not capable of conversing in it and reading it is also very difficult still. My reason for wanting to learn it, more than anything else, is that it’s there.

Klingon is a language designed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek films, based essentially on a dialog written for the first film by James Doohan. It was deliberately written to be as unlike English as possible, and many of its features are also very unusual for human languages: for example its Object-Verb-Subject syntax is rare, though not unheard of. At the same time, none of its features are completely alien to human language, either.

One of the more common human-like characteristics of Klingon is the existence of gender. It’s important to note, however, that grammatical gender has nothing to do with masculinity and femininity per se. The word “gender” is ultimately derived from a Latin word that simply meant “class” or “category,” and has the same root as “genus.” While this root did have a reproductive meaning, this does not seem to be the meaning when applied to Latin words. Latin writers would talk about the “genera” of nouns but also the “genera” of verbs, by which they just meant “type,” since Latin verbs are not affected by gender, linguistic or colloquial.

From what I have read, mainly in the World Atlas of Language Structures (an extremely helpful resource for conlangers), the linguistic definition of a gender is a class of nouns with bearing on the inflection of other parts of speech (pronouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.). A language may distinguish between rational nouns (humans and gods) and non-rational nouns; or between animate nouns and inanimate nouns; or between 10 or more  categories such as plants, animals, concepts, etc. These are all genders, despite them saying nothing about masculinity and femininity. Not being a linguist, I am using the definition given by the World Atlas of Language Structures, but it’s controversial whether pronouns count. According to WALS, English has gender due to the effect that nouns have on the pronouns he, she, and it. It’s uncontroversial to say that English has natural gender, and so does Klingon.

Klingon distinguishes between (1) beings capable of using language; (2) everything else. The second gender is further differentiated into two classes: (1) body parts; (2) everything else, but this only has bearing on the inflection of the nouns themselves, specifically the formation of the plural. ghaH is the independent pronoun referring to any being capable of using language, while ‘oH is the independent pronoun referring to things and to beings incapable of language. There are also possessive pronominal suffixes, like in Hungarian, Hebrew, Arabic, and many other languages, which are influenced by the gender of the possessed noun. For example, to say “you are my loved one” you say “bangwI’ SoH.”  To say “it is my home,” you say “juHwIj ‘oH.”

It’s interesting to think about how the separation between beings capable of language and not capable of language conforms to the speciesism of Klingons, who have been shown on the series to dislike unintelligent animals such as tribbles and cats. It’s also interesting to consider the parallels this might have to the commonality of masculine and feminine genders in human languages.

Obviously this is all science fiction, but it’s interesting to think about. It also shows the many potentials for gender in conlangs beyond just masculine and feminine. It’s worth mentioning that, according to WALS, a little over half of the world’s languages have absolutely no gender distinctions in pronouns… which is interesting in the context of the debate over pronouns in international auxiliary languages. It’s interesting how many such languages distinguish some form of natural gender, even Lingua Franca Nova (people and things), despite gender’s lack of universality.

Sorry if this post rambled a bit, and if you read it, then thanks for reading.

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