Shakespeare in the original Klingon

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 June 2016


“All the world´s a stage and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7)

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

(Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and movement, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)

I am an English-as-a-second-language teacher, both by profession and by preference.

And as such, having lived and taught in countries like Canada, South Korea, Germany and Switzerland, I have found myself mostly teaching English grammar and vocabulary to students whose goals were functional and practical in regards to applying English for their future in business.

As the chief goals of English language learning in capitalist countries tend to be focused on acquiring more capital, it is sadly rare to find myself discussing literature and culture in my classes.

Happily, at present, I find myself teaching a conversation course in Winterthur every Friday morning that allows me to bring into discussions these oft neglected ESL themes.

My modus operandi (m.o) is as follows:

Every two weeks the students are given works of literature, in easy reader editions, to read and to be prepared to discuss.

So far this year I have had them read Nick Hornby´s About a Boy, Eric Emmanuel Schmitt´s Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur´an, Agatha Christie´s Murder on the Orient Express, Johann Wyss´s The Swiss Family Robinson, Jojo Moyes´s Honeymoon in Paris and Nevil Shute´s On the Beach.

My choices of literature have been rather serendipitious and randomly haphazard and I have longed to have them attempt more powerful works, but I have shied away from the works of William Shakespeare with my conversation ladies.

Shakespeare is not an easy author for readers whose English is still in formation.

In the weeks between their receipt of books to read and their discussion of them, I bring in newspaper articles for them to discuss.

I am particularly fond of a publication from Sprachzeitungen called World and Press, which takes articles from various British and American newspapers and combines them into a small compendium newspaper with the potentially difficult words translated into German below the articles.

Three recent articles in particular caught my eye and have made me think about how language is invented and how language has affected my life:

“William Shakespeare may have fancied himself as a playwright of infinite jest, but dozens of his jokes fall flat with modern readers because of changes in English pronunciation over the past 400 years.

Modern audiences experience several jarring moments in each of his plays because his puns no longer work.

David Crystal, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, spent 12 years combing through the plays to create versions that Elizabethean audiences would have understood.

Cover for The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation

Crystal´s work is designed to enable theatre companies to put on plays spoken in their original pronunciation.

In Hamlet, the title character tells the audience:

“Frailty, thy name is woman.”

A pun of the period was to pronounce woman, with a long vowel so that it sounded like “woe-man“.

When a scurrilous Greek named Thersites insults the warrior Ajax, in Troilus and Cressida, merely by saying his name, one thinks:

“Why is that an insult?”

You have to know that Ajax was pronounced “a jakes“, which was an Elizabethean word for “shithouse“.” (The Times, 16 February 2016)

Back in high school, I found myself often surprised and shocked by how rude and ribald Shakespeare could be, when I was not distracted by our English teacher Miss Duke´s tendency to wear short skirts as she taught!

“For centuries theories have swirled about whether Shakespeare´s heart – as well as his muse – resided in Stratford-upon-Avon rather than London.

Now those in charge of excavating his final home believe that they have established that instead of merely retiring to Stratford after a glittering career in the capital, Shakespeare based himself there, with only the occasional commute to London.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been charged with reimagining Shakespeare´s final home, New Place, which he bought in Stratford in 1597, but which was destroyed in the years after his death in 1616.

Archaeological excavations at the site – a five-million-pound project for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare´s death – have unearthed what they believe is a pleasure palace that nobody would want to leave for lodgings in London.

There were up to 30 rooms, 10 hearths, a beer-brewing room, the only house in town with a courtyard, and a Long Gallery – in short, a good house for parties.

“This is not a house you would want to stay away from if you owned it.” 

(Dr. Paul Edmondson, head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

Beyond the charms of the family home, there was also the presence of a London courier, William Greenway, across the road from New House, who could have brought the playwright books and messages from the capital, reducing Shakespeare´s own need to undertake the three-day journey.

Shakespeare, as far as it is known, only ever lodged in London, which was unusual for actors of the day who often bought properties.

Shakespeare is known to have bought one London property – at Blackfriars Gatehouse – which he immediately rented out to tenants.

There is in fact little evidence of Shakespeare being in the capital at all, although there is little doubt he would have attended performances of his plays at court and theatres.

The Trust is convinced that the playwright would not have hung around in London if he had a country place to go to.

Stratford-upon-Avon offered the inspirations Shakespeare needed to write his timeless works.

“A picture emerges of Shakespeare being nothing more than an intermittent lodger in London.  New Place is part of how Shakespeare had a rhythm to his writing.  He was writing two to three plays a year.  He had to produce blockbusters.  He needed time, focus and energy to do that.”(Edmondson)”

(The Times, 6 February 2016)

Stratford would have great effect upon my life as well.

St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, February 1991

“Hitting the open road with a open mind to match is the agenda for Adam Kerr (25) during the next five years…completing his adventure – a “walkabout” across Canada…

…the backpack-laden Mr. Kerr wandered into Stratford for a brief stay…

“The reason to travel is to meet people – people are what make a country.”

But in as much as his journey is an adventure, it is also a learning experience and a test of resilience.

“I don´t take being told “No” personally anymore.”

But “no” is what he sometimes hears when he knocks on farmhouse doors looking for someplace warm to sleep on cold winter nights.

Although he carries a “supposedly” four-season two-man tent and down-filled sleeping bag, he said nights can get really cold.

The other night in Shakespeare, Kerr got turned down everywhere he went, prejudicing his opinion against the hamlet.

“If you didn´t know who William Shakespeare was and you walked into Shakespeare, Ontario, you´d think he was a truck-driving antique dealer.”

As for Stratford, Kerr frankly said he was disappointed.

Kerr compared the East End up to Romeo Street to suburban Scarborough in Toronto.

Things improve after that, with Ontario Street conjuring up images of Shakespeare´s The Winter´s Tale.

The county courthouse and the city hall also drew high praise.

Above: City Hall, Stratford, Ontario, Canada

“If the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) gods looked down, they´d say “Bravo”.”

But Kerr´s overall impression of Stratford trying to imitate its namesake in England has turned out more like “Tweed-upon-the-river-Nith”…

(St. Thomas Times-Journal, 28 February 1991)

To say that my remarks annoyed the locals of Stratford and Shakespeare would be an understatement!

But I felt then, as I still feel today, that Canada should have an identity of its own rather than be a copy of the colonial powers that usurped the land from the native populations already residing there and whose names for places were both original and beautiful.

I don´t want London, Ontario to be a pale awkward imitation of London, England, but instead I want it to have an identity separate and proud.

As much as I admire Stratford´s dedication to the heritage of William Shakespeare, and have had nothing but the highest of praise for its excellent Shakespeare Festival Theatre and its performances, Stratford should celebrate its uniqueness as Canadian and not a namesake of a far distant city in England.

(Above: Shakespeare Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, Canada)

And what was wrong with the first name, Little Thomas, that the colonists chose before Thomas Mercer Jones, of the British land development company, Canada Company, dubbed the place Stratford?

I have always felt it rather arrogant and historically disrespectful of folks to rename a place with little regard to the name it first had.

History and the names we give places are truly written by the conquerors.

Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 27 July 1996

After my walkabout and after a time of working and saving money in Ottawa, I decided I wanted to follow another dream of mine: to explore Europe.

And it would be in Stratford-upon-Avon where a new chapter of my life would begin:

“I had everything planned for travelling about Europe.

I had bought an open-ended airline ticket valid for a year.

I had work waiting for me in Oxford.

I was footloose and fancy-free, no ties, no commitments.

That year, my 31st, I worked in Oxford, Leicester, Nottingham and Cardiff at various “McJobs” I could find: in factories, in old age homes, on the street, in a youth hostel, for the University.

SHE meanwhile was studying medicine in Freiburg im Breisgau in the Black Forest of Germany and was doing an apprenticeship in Liverpool.

I was working in Leicester at this time.

One long weekend, I impulsively decided to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace.

(Above: John Shakespeare’s house, William Shakespeare´s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)

SHE, having completed her apprenticeship period, was travelling around England.

We met that evening of 27 July 1996 at the youth hostel in Stratford.

(Above: YHA hostel, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)

It was love at first sight.

I thought she was HOT.

SHE thought my guidebooks were terrific.

For five years, we lived on separate continents: SHE remaining in Freiburg, I in Canada, then in South Korea.

For another five years, we lived together in Freiburg.

We’ve been married for ten years.”

(“How SHE came to be”, The Chronicles of Canada Slim, 6 August 2015)

Ute and I explored Stratford-upon-Avon together, not only learning about one another, Stratford-upon-Avon taught us many things about Shakespeare we had never known:

  • Shakespeare invented many new words in the English word, including the word “assassination”.
  • The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare: He invented over 1,700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.
  • Shakespeare willed his fortune to his daughter and only a bed to his wife.
  • Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets and 36 plays.
  • There have been more than 500 film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare´s dramas.
  • Shakespeare was said to have had a huge vocabulary:  His works contained some 30,000 words compared to just 3,000 used by the average adult today.
  • Shakespeare is generally acknowledged to be the greatest imaginative writer in the English language and his works have been translated into most of the world´s languages and are read, taught and performed all over the globe.

Suwon, South Korea, 1999 – 2000

To ensure myself an easier time finding work in Germany, to join my German girlfriend living in Freiburg im Breisgau, I decided I needed to work / teach overseas / out of Canada.

I worked in Suwon, a 30-minute train ride south of Seoul, teaching English to children ages 4 to 14 at a hogwan (private school) and conversational / medical English to doctors at a hospital.

As impressive as Shakespeare was in regards to inventing new words into the English language, I learned that a note of respect must also be extended to Korean King Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450), who took a spoken language that had been considered only to be a Chinese dialect and created a written language that forged a nationality that only the Second World War could sever.

조선의 제4대 국왕 (Korean for King Sejong the Great)

The Korean language, hangul in Korean, like its cousins Chinese and Japanese, is a very tonal language where a slip of the tongue could find yourself calling your mother-in-law bountiful (as in overweight) rather than beautiful (!), but it is surprisingly a relatively easy language to learn to read as it possesses only 14 consonant symbols and 6 vowel symbols, so within a short time I was able to read bus and train signs.

Korean is spoken by 63 million people in North and South Korea and by 80 million people worldwide.

Not bad for an invented language…

Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 2000 – 2004

After South Korea I moved to Germany to be with my girlfriend, who would later become my wife, and there would I learn that here too Shakespeare´s magic wound through German culture.

“Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were, and still are, revered across Europe, but even they were indebted to the English.

Goethe´s mentor Johann Gottfried Herder was convinced that in order to find their proper voice, German writers had to first look to the British Isles: Schäkespear was destined to create us Germans.

For the generation who laid the foundations of German culture, there was no way around the English playwright.

Wieland and Schlegel were considerably more famous for their Shakespeare translations than for their own writing in their lifetime.

Schiller adored Othello at school and died trying to write his own version of the play.

Goethe felt a deep inferiority complex when faced with Shakespeare:

“I am often ashamed before Shakespeare, for it often happens that at first glance I think: I would have done that differently, but soon I realise that I am a poor sinner, that nature prophesies through Shakespeare and that my characters are soap bubbles from romantic fancies….

Hamlet and his monologues are ghosts that haunt all young German souls.  Everyone knows them by heart and everybody believes that they can be as melancholic as the prince of Denmark.””

(Philip Oltermann, Keeping Up with the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters)

In downtown Freiburg, in a bookshop devoted to science fiction, I would learn of Shakespeare´s effect on one of my favourite TV and movie franchises: Star Trek.

In Star Trek “historical” canon:

1986: A painting of William Shakespeare is on sale at an antique store in San Francisco. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)

2153: Shakespeare´s works are among the examples of Earth literature provided to the Vissians. Vissian Captain Drennik quotes from Hamlet and expresses admiration for Macbeth.  Captain Archer advises them to take their time in reading the plays. (Enterprise: Cogenitor)

2155: In the mirror universe Phlox commented that Shakespeare´s work is similar in both unvierses. (Enterprise: In a Mirror Darkly)

2266: The Enterprise hosts the Karidian Company of Players, a travelling Shakespearean acting troupe.  While on board they put on a performance of Hamlet. (Star Trek: The Conscience of the King)

2269: At the Elba II asylum, Marta cites Shakespeare´s Sonnet XVIII and claims that she wrote it. but Garth corrects her. (Star Trek: Whom Gods Destroy)

2293: The works of Shakespeare are already well-known to Klingons, such as Chancellor Gorkon and General Chang, with Gorkon stating that Shakespeare could only be understood in the original Klingon and Chang quoting liberally from Shakespeare´s plays. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

Shakespeare is mentioned and often quoted in many episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, showing not only an ongoing love of Shakespeare in our time of the TV production of these series but a suggestion that in the imagined future Shakespeare´s works will continue to hold sway.

But it is in the suggestion of “Shakespeare in the original Klingon” that members of the Klingon Language Institute (an independent organisation based in Flourtown, Pennsylvania) translated the text of Hamlet into Klingon.

Klingons are a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid species in the Star Trek franchise.


The key word here is fictional.

But for the sake of a sense of realism and to create empathy for aliens Star Trek manufactured alien cultural attributes akin to humanity.

As originally developed by screenwriter Gene L. Coon, Klingons were swarthy humanoids characterized mainly by prideful ruthlessness and brutality.

Totalitarian, and with a martial society relying on slave labour, they reflected analogies with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Although Cold War tensions are apparent in the characterization, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did not intend any explicit political parallels.

With a greatly expanded budget for makeup and effects, the Klingons were completely redesigned in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), acquiring ridged foreheads that created a continuity error not explained until 2005.

In later films and in the spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the militaristic traits of the Klingons were bolstered by an increased sense of honour and strict warrior code similar to those of the Japanese warrior code of bushido.

Among the elements created for the revised Klingons was a complete Klingon language, developed by American linguist Marc Okrand, from gibberish suggested by Canadian actor James Doohan.

Spoken Klingon has entered popular culture, even to the extent that the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible have been translated into it.

A dictionary, a book of sayings, and a cultural guide to the language have been published.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Klingon is the world’s most popular fictional language as measured by number of speakers. (Wikipedia)

Which finally leads me to the article which inspired this post:

“A dispute over the ownership of the Klingon language is boldly going where no legal row has gone before after two major Hollywood studios cited their copyright of the fictional Star Trek tongue to block the production of a fan-funded film.

Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios are locked in a battle with the production team behind Star Trek: Axanar, an independent Star Trek prequel, amid claims that the fan film infringes copyright.

The use of the Klingon language was first spoken in the first Star Trek film in 1979 and has been used by the franchise ever since.

Estimates vary, but there are thought to be just 20 to 30 fluent Klingon speakers worldwide, though the independent Klingon Language Institute in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, is attempting to boost numbers through a scholarship programme.

However linguistic experts say the cumbersome language is struggling to attract new speakers as it is useful for discussing intergalactic warfare and blood feuds but with just 3,000 words lacks everyday vocabulary.”

(The Independent, 15 March 2016)

It is believed that 90% of the 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will have become extinct by 2050, as the world’s language system has reached a crisis and is dramatically restructuring. (Wikipedia)

Despite the popularity of the Star Trek franchise I can´t help but wonder if this battle over a 3,000-word, 30-speaker invented language of a fictional alien species is nothing more than Much Ado about Nothing.

I remain ever grateful for the ways that William Shakespeare has woven his way through the thread of my life, but I wonder what William Shakespeare would have thought about this strange modern age we live in.

Would he say…

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” ?

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

I wonder.
























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