Newsgroup message of October 17, 1997

Subject: Re: Klingon Alphabet

Summary

about the Klingon alphabet

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Newsgroup: Microsoft Network expert forum
Date: Fri, 17 Oct 1997 19:34:45 -0700

Quote

I'd love to know more about pIqaD as well. At the risk of shedding very little light on the situation, I'll ramble a bit.

I assume the distinction SuStel and Qermaq are making between a "phonic" (or "phonical") writing system and a "phonemic" (or "phonemical") one is that "phonic" refers to a writing system which indicates all sorts of phonetic detail (more, even, than the guides to pronunciation of words in English dictionaries provide). I think I'd use "phonic" more generally. A "phonic" writing system is one based on the sounds of the language (as opposed to the grammar or something else). In such a system, a written character could stand for an individual sound (in which case we'd probably call the character a "letter" and refer to the writing system as an "alphabet"), or it could stand for a group of sounds (typically a syllable).

A "nonphonic" (?) writing system would be one in which each written character was based on something other than the sound of the word (or part of a word or whatever) it represented. Perhaps each character stands for a full word, regardless of the sound. The system we use to write numbers (1, 2, 3, and so on) is of this type. The character "4" stands for four in an English context, but for cuatro in Spanish and, I suppose, for loS in Klingon; same meaning (Klingon mathematicians, let us not quibble just now), different sounds.

A "phonemic" system is one in which each character represents a distinctive sound in a language. (It's possible to go on at great length about the meaning of the phrase "distinctive sound." For now, let's just say it's a sound that speakers of a given language agree is the same sound, even though, if instruments were to analyze the specifics, it might be different for different speakers or vary depending on surrounding sounds. English speakers agree that the t in "stuck" and in "tuck" and in "pats" is the same sound, and they also agree it's a different sound from the d, say, in "duck" and "pads.") Ideally it's a one-to-one match, that is, one symbol represents only one distinctive sound, and any such individual sound is represented by only one symbol. But it often doesn't work out quite that way. Klingon, as luck would have it, is a good example of this. The romanization system commonly used for Klingon is a phonemic one in that each distinctive sound of the language has a unique written representation. Thus, the sound j is always written with a "j" and the letter "j" always represents the sound j (as in jej "be sharp"). But in three cases, two (Roman) letters represent a single sound ("ch," "gh," "ng") and in a fourth, three letters are used ("tlh"). It didn't have to be this way. For example, rather than using "c" plus "h" for the sound at the beginning and end of chach "emergency," using "c" alone could have sufficed ("c" would be described as a letter representing the sound at the beginning and end of the word for "emergency"); "emergency" would then be romanized as cac. Anyway, if we look upon these four combinations ("ch," "gh," "ng," "tlh") as if they were four individual symbols (as opposed to combinations of six Roman alphabet letters), then the Klingon romanization system can be said to be phonemic.

(There's a good reason that "ch," rather than "c" alone, was chosen for that sound in the romanized version of Klingon; likewise "tlh" rather than, say "L," and so on. But that gets us off the subject.)

So the Klingon romanization system is a phonemic system, but what about pIqaD? How, exactly, does pIqaD work? I'm not sure. Mike Okuda (who puts the characters on various control panels and other displays for the various Star Trek series and movies) and I have discussed it. We're pretty sure it's not an alphabet (and it's therefore not phonemic in the way the romanized version is), but we don't know the details. Prodding of Maltz is definitely in order here.

There is no problem with pIqaD being used for the various dialects, regardless of how it works, because it does not necessarily work the same way (or, better, the details are not necessarily the same) for all of the dialects. Since the system has been around for a long time (if Kahless was literate, he was literate in pIqaD), it could provide some insights into earlier stages of the language. The rules for mapping the old pronunciations represented by the pIqaD writing conventions onto the new pronunciations surely differ for the different dialects, but the rules – with varying degrees of complexity, to be sure – certainly work.

I agree with SuStel. Once we know the details of pIqaD, I'm sure we'll find it a more interesting system than the romanization system we're all used to.

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