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Discussion point: Is the Klingon language copyrightable in US law? Should it be?

As linked to by two different posters at Instapundit and semi-reformed Trekkies everywhere, Paramount Pictures, in the course of a claim against the makers of a film set in the Star Trek universe, are claiming to own the copyright on the Klingon language. Thirty years ago linguist Marc Okrand was hired to take the snatches of made-up Klingon dialogue in the early Star Trek movies and flesh them out into a useable language. This he did. The idea took off and all sorts of people since then have learned Klingon to some degree for fun and intellectual stimulation.

A press release from the Language Creation Society says,

We firmly believe that conlangers should receive credit for their work. Specific works describing a conlang, such as the Klingon Dictionary, Living Language Dothraki, or Ithkuil website are creative works in their own right, entitled to full legal protection. So are works that are in a conlang, such as Klingon Hamlet, Esperanto poetry, Ithkuil music, and Verdurian stories.

However, a constructed language itself is not protected, and should not be. Copyright law is simply too blunt a tool for this.
Allowing copyright claims to a language would create a monopoly on use extending far beyond what is needed to protect the original work or to claim credit for the language’s creation. The potential threat of a lawsuit for merely using a conlang, or creating new works to make it more accessible, has a chilling effect; it makes conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others less likely to build on and enjoy each others’ work, to the detriment of conlanging in general.

We believe that everyone has the right to use any language — including conlangs — without having to ask anyone’s permission. We hope that our participation in this lawsuit will help to make this belief into legal precedent.

Marc Randazza’s diverting amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Language Creation society is here.

I’m not going to do it. I AM NOT going to do it. I am not going to say “Qapla’!”

Except I just did. You will have deduced that I am sympathetic to one side of the case. But there is another. Property rights matter. Why should a bunch of flakes and dilettantes reap what another sowed? Why shouldn’t they pay a fee, in person or under licence, for the privilege of using Klingon just as they pay, directly or indirectly, to use a computer program? Let’s discuss this like Klingons. Which need not necessarily mean with a bat’leth.

73 comments to Discussion point: Is the Klingon language copyrightable in US law? Should it be?

  • Certainly Klingon is a thing of artifice, first arising from the films rather than Star Trek – The Original Series and therefore the franchise holders at the time Paramount have some justification to copyright as does James Dohan who came up with the initial phrases before Okrand took over the language development to its full extent.

    How is the Klingon language any different than the Star Trek figurines of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock?

    Since this is a product of Paramount Pictures, just like their movie scripts, they should have the right to determine how it is used and consequently how it is applied, saving any “fair use” protection. Does that mean that Paramount deserves some royalties or control over “Hamlet in the original Klingon”?

    I think it does.

  • Mr Ed

    How do you say ‘Samizdata jumps the Shark‘ in Klingon?

    I really want to know, he lied. 🙂

    Declaration: I only worked out what the Romulans were when I found out that my team leader’s nickname was ‘the Romulan’ because of his haircut.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    John Galt asks, “How is the Klingon language any different than the Star Trek figurines of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock?”

    By being a whole fricking language. To quote from Mr Randazza’s brief:

    “To claim copyright in a language is to claim ownership over all possible thoughts and artistic expression that might employ that language. If not ownership, such a claim at least provides some support for the idea that the copyright owner could, at some point, simply pull the plug on any future development in the language. It is a breathtakingly vast legal assertion that encompasses particular expression that the claimed copyright owner, by definition, cannot even conceive of.

    The Framers of the Constitution would have been familiar with the role of the Académie Française, which exercises oversight of the entirety of the French language. In effect, significant parts of French are constructed. The Framers would have been shocked to learn that they might be prohibited from writing and speaking in French were the Academy to register copyright in its constructions. However, that would be the eventual result, if this court commits the qa q334 of blessing Paramount’s claim to the intellectual property inherent in a language.”

    Mr Ed,   .

  • Does that mean that Paramount deserves some royalties or control over “Hamlet in the original Klingon”?

    Then I look forward to some descendent of Shakespeare also demanding royalties from Paramount.

  • That would be fair if you were talking about English, even US English, but a language of complete artifice such as Klingon, Silvan, Quenya, etc. cannot be held to the same standard.

  • Then I look forward to some descendent of Shakespeare also demanding royalties from Paramount.

    But any such claim by the Shakespeare estate has long since expired. If we were talking about a more recent text then I would agree.

  • Nemo

    “Each others’ work”? I think if you’re going to call yourself the Language Creation Society then the least you can do is master your own first. There should be a Misuse of Apostrophe’s Act to deal with this sort of thing…

  • With regard to Esperanto which is mentioned in the original posting, this was explicitly put into the Public Domain to avoid copyright issues.

    There remain “Fair use” exemptions from copyright, covering such things as parodies (i.e. “Bored of the Rings”) and less clear derivatives such as fan fiction which is a bit of a grey area.

    It seems to be that anything written in Klingon should be considered a derivative work of the Paramount original.

  • Mr Ed

    There’s no hope for a copyright on Esperanto.

  • Mr Ed

    I am not sure if there is really scope for copyright in a language, after all, a language is a means for conveying thoughts and concepts, and in a way is not quite that e.g. I have personally witnessed Japanese and a Chinese scientists exchanging ideas via kanji when they didn’t have a word for the concept in English. Yet although the words they wrote were the same idea, they pronounced the idea in a completely different and mutually incomprehensible way. The language wasn’t quite the idea, but its written form was. Could English be rendered in Chinese characters, thereby rendering those literate able to have written conversations without speaking a word of each other’s language? Could you copyright a new symbol in Mandarin (never mind enforcement) or would some knock-off come out of Taiwan? 🙂

    The very nature of a language is that it belongs to no one, but, as someone said, it is a collective (I would prefer ‘collaborative’) work of genius. A language is a sort of code for ideas, yet more than that.

    And I’ll be dashed if Samuel Morse had a copyright on his code.

  • Alsadius

    I’m pro-IP, and there’s certainly a creative effort involved in conlanging that ought to be rewarded. That might be doable by making the original dictionary a copyrighted work but leaving the language public, which would in practice mean that nobody could learn it without payment to the creator, but works using it would be treated just like works in English. That’s probably the best solution I can think of, but I doubt it’s optimal.

    Another question: if languages can be copyrighted, can words? Do I owe the estate of Grace Hopper a licensing payment every time I discuss a computer bug?

  • QET

    Copyright protects only expression, not ideas. The most Paramount could copyright would be the words invented by its paid scriptwriters. That might be sufficient to render the remainder useless. I would also think those Paramount-owned words could be trademarked (maybe). They are, after all, noting other than symbols specific to the production of the artistic work, like the arrowhead insignia.

    Klingon is not a language analogous to English or French. Closer to programming languages, I think. If FORTRAN and C++ can be copyrighted, why not Klingon?

    A language is more than just its lexicon. What are the syntax and grammatical rules of Klingon? Who invented those?

  • And I’ll be dashed if Samuel Morse had a copyright on his code.

    Thread winner 😀

  • Where would it end? Riot cops at SF conventions? I think perhaps there could be some sort of idea of fair usage applied here. I mean if I whisper sweet nothings in Sindarin as I make sweet, sweet love is the notoriously litigious heirs of Isildur gonna kick my door in at 2am?

    Now if I made a movie for commercial release. Different issue.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I should make clear that Mr Randazza’s amicus curiae brief for the Language Creation Society explicitly takes no view as to the rights and wrongs of the dispute between Paramount Pictures and the makers of the film Prelude to Axanar. I get the impression that Paramount’s belated assertion of such a wide view of copyright on Klingon was something of a case of reaching for a weapon, any weapon, with which to hit the Axanar people. I, too, am not taking any view on the dispute about the film. It is, as you say, a different issue altogether. It looks quite good, though.

  • The concept of ‘Klingon’ is entirely a fabrication of the literary works of the Star Trek universe, of which Paramount owns the copyright. However, a language is a different thing than a body of written words; indeed, a language is useless unless people… use it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    QET: “Copyright protects only expression, not ideas.”

    Yes. Quite! (“Expression” in physical form, which would include speech and music as well as visual art, drama, and writing.)

    Alsadius gets at the same idea with his suggestion that a dictionary of the language night be the copyrightable element.

    Essentially patent law aims to protect the same thing: not the “pure idea” as such, but the physical expression of it, to within some degree of particularity (hence the requirement of “novelty”).


    Musing on this:

    Suppose someone makes a small sketch of something he’s imagined, a Crooked House or a Cruik Shank, say. Under U.S. copyright law (at least pre-2011) it was technically copyright as soon as he made it, although he might have difficulty proving his origination and the date thereof, if he hadn’t registered the copyright.

    Now suppose somebody else copies it onto a full-sized sheet of drawing paper and extends it outwards in all directions, so that it ends up being a mere 5% or 35% of the whole. Did he transgress copyright law? I would say, No. The original small sketch served as inspiration; the large work is the second artist’s own.

    If you hear a few measures of somebody Beatle’s attempt at music [Snark!] and you are Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or even Prokofiev (at his best) and it triggers an entire symphony in your head, have you transgressed copyright? Nonsense. It’s that “novelty” thing again.

    What if you wrote the original “Sumer is Icumen In,” and your contemporary, Ezra Pound, took that and ran with “Winter is Icumen in,” is that Fair Use (assuming you both live in 20th-century America)?

    I don’t see how extending a small artifical vocabulary with a few basic grammatical rules to a reasonably usable language is any different.

    JRRT, of course, constructed Elvish himself. The Great Foot:

    The language has quickly spread among modern day use, resulting in Quenya and Sindar to become legally stated languages.


    What does “legally stated” mean? I should think it means “legally protected,” i.e. “copyrighted” in essence…but I do not know.

    Getting back to Alsadius’s point, one would say that the language itself — the words and the grammatical rules — are distinct from works rendered in the language, for instance poems written in Elvish.

    One might also take the original few words of Klingon (from which Mr. Okrand built the rest of the language) and use them to construct a different language entirely. Again, if the original words (and minimal rules) were only a minor part of the second language built on them, I should think the “novelty” criterion would be (or better, “should” be) met.

    . . .

    JG (John Galt) and others also get at what I would call the distinction between a “natural” (for want of a better word) and an artificial language. And in any case, long usage without any claim of origination would, I think, debar a language from being copyrightable: “novelty” yet again. Just as letting the neighbors traipse along some route across your property eventually results in your legal inability to stop the trespass going forward, or so I hear. This being, I believe, a matter of Common Law since Ælric was a pup. (Be it known that I have a YUUUGE !!! problem with this. But we’ll save that rant.)

    By the way. Under this theory of the case, Fortran itself may be copyrightable, but the copyright would not extend to debarring other people from using it to right their own programs. If, however, the copyright holder wishes to sell the right to use it to write programs which will be marketed, then it would seem reasonable that he could do so…just as with Butterick and the sewing patterns.

    Which leads to the further thought that if I produced a poem in Elvish for pay for a magazine, or a book of poems in Elvish for sale, I should expect to pay JRRT’s estate a royalty. That would be fine with me.
    . . .

    All of the foregoing is, of course, only As I See It.

  • Laird

    I am a supporter of IP rights, but I agree that one cannot copyright an entire language, even an invented one. And it should be noted that Paramount did not commission an entire language, merely a few words and phrases of dialog. It wasn’t until some years later that the creator (Marc Okrand) fleshed it out with actual rules of grammar and syntax. And it has grown and evolved substantially over the years since then, with Paramount having almost nothing to do with it. Paramount can properly copyright specific lines of dialog, as one could copyright any story, but not the “raw materials” in which the story is written. The amicus brief makes a compelling (and entertaining!) argument; I encourage even you poor benighted non-lawyers to read it.

    Oh, and Nemo, you should exercise more care in criticizing others’ grammar. That is the proper plural possessive.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Umm, Laird, it’s true we speak of “others,” plural, meaning other people or other persons (both plural); but when we speak of “each other” we are speaking of each other, not “each others,” which would be nonsensical. The “other” in the phrase “each other” is singular. It might be helpful to remember that another way of saying “each other” is to say “one another.” “We should treat each other decently” = “We should treat one another decently.”

    Note that “another” is just a compound word: “an other.” The article “an” (which is singular) and the adjective “other,” also singular in this case, as indicated by the singular article. “An other person prefers chocolate” can be shortened to “Another prefers chocolate.” These are different from “Other people prefer chocolate.”

    Although all that analysis really is unnecessary. The word “each” in the phrase “each other” indicates that the reciprocating parties are individuals, since “each” is distinctly singular.

    Consequently, when we are constructing the possessive of the phrase, we do correctly get “each other’s,” as in for instance “My best friend and I used to sleep over at each other’s house when we were kids.” “My sister and I used to cut each other’s hair.”

    Thus “We should respect one another’s property rights” is the same as “We should respect each other’s property rights.”

    Nemo is correct.

  • Mr Ed

    Languages can and do mutate, so being ‘wrong’ may be simply the start of a process of change. Grammar is emotive, and I hope that Nemo hasn’t made anyone hyphen-ventilate.

  • Roue le Jour

    “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves…”

    So does the Carroll estate own all the made up words in Jabberwocky then?

  • Paul Marks

    Every time Intellectual Property defenders go into absurdities such as this, Stephen Kinsella rubs his hand with glee.

    They make his case for him.

    If people want to retain some patents and copyrights, they have to learn not to be silly.

    As for the long term.

    Relying on patents and copyrights will not work – not without a World Government to enforce them (do people really want that?).

    So writers (and others) are going to have to find TECHNICAL not LEGAL ways to defend their work.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed, for goodness’ sake! I just don’t know what I’m going to do about you and Toastmaster Gray. (Who has already chewed me out once, insisting that he is the sole member of his club.)

    Anyway, I’ll hyphen-ventilate anytime I please, even in the counterrevolutionary tunnels of Samizdata and in Zanzibar. I have the right of free gasping! So there!

  • Alisa

    What Paul said.

    I now cannot help but wonder about possessive apostrophes in Klingon…

  • Mr Ed, April 30, 2016 at 4:56 am “Languages can and do mutate, so being ‘wrong’ may be simply the start of a process of change.”

    Or it can be, and statistically much more often is, simply wrong.

    Or, as Obama showed when he was elected on “hope and change”, it can be both. 🙂

    I’m with Nemo and Julie on the grammar of the thing.

    It was the habit of a researcher I once knew for to discard any candidate from a grammar school (in the old days in England, that meant a selective school, more predominantly middle and upper class) if they misspelt grammar (usually, that meant an ‘e’ in the 2nd syllable). She said attending a grammar school without noticing how the word was spelt indicated a limited learning capacity while it might not be diagnostic of those more usually working-class types who attended a “secondary modern” or “comprehensive” (as the cant of the day had it). This use of a disparate test would once have made her rather PC, but given the recent denunciation of grammar as oppressive, maybe she is now no longer between those ever-moving goal posts.

  • Mr Ed

    Niall, it could of been wrong, but being ‘wrong’ long enough can, sadly, become right.

    In a reverse of your acquaintance’s diagnostic test for learning capacity, the Ukrainian ex-Soviet Army officer ‘Victor Suvorov’ recounted how in inter-war Latvia, counter-intelligence officers looking for Soviet spies amongst refugees from the Soviet Union had a simple test for a ‘defector’ claiming to be a persecuted former Tsarist Army officer: They would ask them to tie a necktie. Those who failed were clearly lying proletarian spies and were shot.

  • Laird

    Julie, in context “others” (as used both in the original quote and also in my previous comment) is plural. It refers to usage of Klingon by “all the others.” I stand by my comment. At the very worst you can say that the usage is ambiguous, which still makes Nemo’s criticism (and yours) incorrect.

  • Tedd

    The claim that Klingon is a “language” is a classic equivocation. Using the same word to describe a deliberate human creation as we use to describe a naturally-occurring phenomenon doesn’t make them the same thing, or even comparable in this context.

  • Paul,
    As to the technical solution stuff Apple demonstrated that over that terrorists iPhone. The US had to get Israel to hack it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, there’s nothing ambiguous about it. The usage of “each” in the (grammatically incorrect) phrase ” each others’ ” rules out the possibility that “others” — before we even get to the possessive — is plural. It simply isn’t.

    The fact is that the writer of the passage made a grammatical error in verbalizing his thought.

    Excerpted from the cited quote:

    …[I]t makes conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others less likely to build on and enjoy each others’ work….

    Corrected, simply by leaving out the “each”:

    It makes conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others less likely to build on and enjoy others’ work.

    [Here, “others” is used in the inclusive, plural sense.]

    [But note also, this is awkward because of “others” repeated closely in the short sentence. This is also a problem in the original. For others’ work, one could substitute their confreres’ work, or their fellow enthusiasts’ work.]

    . . .

    To dig a little deeper, “each other” is a phrase that refers to a reciprocity between each set of two members of a group [of humans, here], or between each pair of subsets of a group. Either way, it includes all the members of the group, or all the subgroups of a larger group where the subgroups are considered as individual entities, because it is intended to apply for every pair of people, or every pair of subgroups. If the group consists of persons P, P1, P2, P3, …, Pn-1 (for whatever value of the integer n, which denotes the number n of members in the group — P himself being a member but not counted among the not-Ps), then the reciprocity relationship applies across the board: The fact is that “each other” applies to (P and P1), (P and P2), (P and P3), and so on through (P and Pn-1). And this is true for each member P of the group. So it’s true when P = Jones and when P = Smith and when P = Brown and when P = Farmer and when P = Throckmorton, for instance.

    In this way, “each other” covers the reciprocal relationship amongst all the members of the group by stating that it exists between each of the two members of every pair of members in the group. But “other” here is still singular (one member is in the the position of being the “each,” or P, and the other member is in the position of being “the other,” or Pi); and the possessive of the singular term “other” is other’s.

    In this usage, “other” itself is singular, not plural, although the term “each other” is all-inclusive.

    So we write “each other’s,” not “each others’,” which as noted before is nonsensical.


    Niall and Nemo are right.

  • Alisa

    What Julie said.

  • Julie near Chicago


    ‘To dig a little deeper, “each other” is a phrase that refers to a reciprocity between the two members of each pair of members of a group….’

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Tedd, I am really going to have to disagree with that. While it is arguable that the artificial origin of Klingon affects its legal status, it makes no difference to its status as a language. That’s like saying that a human being born as a result of artificial procedures is not a human. However Klingon came to be, it is a language now. You can put together its elements in a systematic manner to generate an infinite number of new sentences to describe anything, given time.

  • Laird

    Not so, Julie. The operative word/phrase in the sentence isn’t “each”, it’s “conlangers, poets, authors, educators, and others” to whom the writer is referring. And that’s clearly plural. I would have used it in exactly the same way (and, in fact, I did). If you read it differently, that’s fine, but it merely means that the word “others” as used there is ambiguous, as I’ve already said. If you feel differently, we’ll just have to disagree. But I’m right.

  • Mr Ed

    NickM mentioned Quenya, one of Tolkien’s languages. A comaprison of the ‘richness’ (should that be possible) of Quenya and Klingon would be interesting.

    And while I am here, I recall almost crashing my car in disgust, driving back from a holiday in Cornwall some years ago, when I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in whcih 2 celebs swapped books. One, foreign-born, chose the Hobbit, as a book that helped him learn English, and the other, some common Lefty novelist woman (BBC norm) deprecated the writing of a children’s book and said, unchallenged ‘He had a pretty limited vocabulary our friend Tolkien…’.

    Of a man who when his publisher moaned about his spelling of ‘Dwarves‘, reportedly replied “Yes, I’ve changed my mind since I wrote that entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.”.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Regarding the richness of Klingon vs Quenya, I don’t know. I find Quenya infinitely more aesthetically attractive. But aesthetics was never meant to be the appeal of Klingon. I am not making any claim about how good Klingon or any of these constructed languages are at doing the things we want a language to do (what those things are is a surprisingly difficult question), merely that Klingon has long since passed the threshold of complexibility and extensibility necessary to make it a true language.

  • Mr Ed


    We, the People’

    E Pluribus Unum?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, the word “each” signifies one, no matter what anybody hopes.

    I explained above, in detail, how “each other” extends to include the entire group: I showed how every member of the group occupies the position of “each,” so that all the people in your list are covered by “each,” individually; and how every member of the group stands in the position of “other,” in relation to each member of the group except, of course, himself, so that all the people in your list are also covered by “other,” individually. Thus, singly. “Each” is an individuating word.

    In particular, what is true of each item in or member of a group is true of all the items in or members of the group. “Each of these tomatoes is red” is effectively identical with “All these tomatoes are red.” But note that in the general statement and the example, “each” is used before the singular noun, whereas “all” modifies the plural noun.

    Each of the words in list “conlangers, poets, authors, educators, others” is itself a plural.

    I explained that the phrase “each others” (the “s” indicating a plural, not a possessive, adjective) is intrinsically nonsensical: a contradiction in terms in fact. Therefore you cannot make a genetive (possessive) adjective out of it, in this phrase. It’s a case of being unable to make the contradictory non-contradictory by adding something; all you end up with is another contradiction.

    And I showed the very simple fix to the sentence.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed,

    Not when it extends to pretending that “each” can modify a plural noun.

    🙂 !

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird — I hope I’m not sounding snarky in this little disagreement. I certainly don’t intend to, and I don’t question your smarts or your good-faith. I can see how you can easily read it as if it said correctly what I’m sure we both know it meant.

    Just sayin’. :>)

  • Sai

    I’m the one who wrote the press release you just dissected.

    Julie, I hope you’ll be happy to note that I’ve just updated the page to say rather than .

    Y’all are geeks, and I mean that in the most loving way possible.

    (Feel free to ask if you have any questions actually about the amicus.)

  • Laird

    Julie, I don’t disagree that “each” is singular. My point is that it is not the operative word in that sentence; see my previous comment. And since you admit that “I can see how you can easily read it as if it said correctly” you have conceded my assertion of ambiguity.


  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh for Pete’s sake. I have to apologize to Laird, Mr Ed, and anyone else following this linquistic soap opera, for going off the rails and headfirst into the swamp in one respect.

    In the phrase “each other,” the word “each” is NOT an adjective modifying the word “other,” so the part of the argument based on that error is bilge and should be flushed.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, despite my comment directly above, the fact that A can read a passage differently from B does not mean the passage is ambiguous, unless you want to argue that something like 95% of all writing is ambiguous. (It’s amazing, the amount of writing that can be reasonably read in more than one way.)

    This could develop into a “whole ‘nother” (as we Northern Illinois natives sometimes say) fascinating exploration, but perhaps this isn’t the place.

    Nevertheless, the word “other” in the instant phrase is indeed singular, and its possessive is indeed “other’s.”

    I would like to go back and rewrite all that stuff without the weedy part, but whether I actually will is another matter.

  • Julie near Chicago

    And just so everybody knows, I did in fact write the “apology” at 10:34 p.m. before I saw Laird’s comment directly above.

    Nevertheless the word “other” in the phrase “each other,” while it does refer to the members of the group in the list, does so as individuals. That is the force of the phrase “each other” in general, and not just here.

  • Julie near Chicago

    This is coming out in dribs and drabs. But for instance, suppose you’re talking about a close circle of friends consisting of Objectivists, dog owners, and knitters — say at least three or four of each.

    It’s perfectly reasonable that one of them might say, “We, the dog owners, knitters, and Objectivists, all like each other.”

    I would be amazed if someone said, “We, the dog owners, knitters, and Objectivists, all like each others.”

    In the phrase “each other,” other is singular even though context indicates that it is understood to indicate reciprocality among all the members of the group.

  • Laird

    I think we’ve tried the patience of everyone else in this thread quite enough over a grammatical quibble. I don’t back down, but I’ll allow Julie the last word. The rest of you can decide for yourself who is right (if anyone even cares).

  • Julie near Chicago


  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I would like to draw people’s attention (and “peoples’ attention”. I also address the peoples of the world) to the comment by Sai made at 10:24pm but held in moderation until now, when, sleepless with worry about the apostrophe, I saw it and freed it. Sai wrote the press release under discussion and has amended it. Go, click on the link, look, and wonder at your mighty power.

    Sai, a gremlin that hates funny formatting has eaten the words others’ and other’s in your comment. Gremlins do that.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    All this talk of constructed languages and apostrophes and addressing the peoples of the world has reignited a fantasy of mine.

    If I were Empress of the World, like the good little libertarian I am, I would renounce my powers.

    Eventually. Even us good libertarians are human. This is my fantasy and I’ll do what I want in it, OK? Anyway, sometime between throwing open the jails to free all the people convicted of victimless “crimes” and attempting to blow the DVLA building into orbit, I would issue an imperial decree for the improvement of the English language. English does too many things by sticking an “s” on the end of words. This must change. Using “s” for plurals can stay. But the “s” on the end of third person singular verbs is ridiculous. It adds nothing to comprehensibility and just messes up what would otherwise be gloriously simple: I love, you love, he/she/it love, we love, you (pl) love, they love. Love it! As for apostrophe-s or s-apostrophe or s-apostrophe-s, begone foul demons. I invite submissions from my loyal subjects as to better ways to mark the possessive case.

  • Sai

    @Natalie You have weird gremlins around here.

  • Mr Ed


    That verb modification would conflict with the present subjunctive, be that as it may.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Yes, I see. You done good. I can rest easy tonight, always a relief. :>)!



    Until There Was You, the only gremlin I’ve ever known to have a name was Gizmo, if you happen to remember the old Gremlins movie.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed, were I to be Empress of the World the subjunctive and the indicative would lie down together and share a spelling.

    Julie, Eeek, you didn’t think it was me that took the words others’ and other’s out of Sai’s comment, did you? I certainly didn’t mean to give that impression. It was some computer error I can’t begin to understand. The same sort of thing has sometimes happened to me when I sent emails containing something the computer (or the browser, or the gremlins) interpreted as HTML.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, no no no, I know that these vexing and perplexing occurrencess are not so much a matter of deus ex machina as of gremlins ex machina, so to speak. But in this case the machine is attached to someone whose name I know, and by transitivity so its gremlin. :>)

    Heh! I must say, Natalie, that your postings do often manage, as in this case, to swell a progress, not to mention starting a scene or two.

    And a good thing too. :>))

  • Natalie, Empress of the World, I fear your proposal must have originated with an unworthy advisor.

    Firstly, were we masters of the subjunctive denied our ability to distinguish ourselves from they who know not the words and worlds of possibility and conditional proposition, the one true elite of the multiverse would be undermined. It is important that this be understood. (Tony Blair was once heard to say, “It is important that it is understood” in a prepared speech, thereby demonstrating that posh Edinburgh boys who went to Fettes College, like him, could not compare to those who attended the older Royal High school, like yours truly, in mastery of the subjunctive.)

    Secondly, your proposal will violate the law of conservation of S: compare ‘the grammmarian thinks” to ‘the grammarians think’ to see the law of conservation of S in effect.

    On a more serious note, I’d like to join with others in thanking Sai for the courtesy of noticing us and the promptness in correction.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Well, I’ve ‘created’ an artificial language, by mixing and mashing Aboriginal words together. Some linguists here commented that some words seemed common throughout Australia, so my ‘creating’ simply meant compiling existing words into a new format.
    The letter and sound of ‘S’ does not appear in most Aboriginal languages! Benelong, a native translator, always amused the settlers by asking for talt instead of salt, for instance. I think it was just a precaution- if you don’t have ‘s’ sounds in your language, then you’ll know that the ‘s’ sound is a slithering snake- time to run!
    In fact, this tongue-second (Vurla-Wiynna) will be a gift to the aboriginal nations, as a way of uniting them, if I can find who will have the most impact, and give them a copy.

  • Laird

    Natalie, I join Niall in his appreciation for the subjunctive mode which, as he says, distinguishes “the one true elite of the multiverse”. And as to the use/misuse of apostrophes which seems to have you so exercised, The Oatmeal explains all. It’s* really not that difficult.

    And I note that Sai has acceded to Julie’s (and Nemo’s) position, as is certainly his/her prerogative. But I still don’t back down!

    * See?

  • Sai

    @Laird I asked my bf about it (who’s an even bigger language geek than I), and he persuasively argued Julie’s right. To me ‘s feels stylistically a bit weird (I wrote it with s’, after all), but I think that’s just by association e.g. plural possessive (“others’ stuff”).

    (BTW, my pronouns are they or he.)

    I find it kinda amusing that y’all have spent most comments on this tangent about where to put an apostrophe, rather than the actual OP topic. 😛

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray,

    I’ve recently been reading a lot about languages. It saddens me to see so many small languages become extinct. I have often thought that the relatively strong position* of the Maori language in New Zealand compared to the Aboriginal languages in Australia owes a lot to the fact that Maori is fairly unified whereas the Australian languages are very different from each other. Given that each typically only has a few hundred speakers at most, it seems, sadly, as if they are doomed by fragmentation.

    So I am sympathetic to your idea. But I do see a huge problem. To learn a language takes a lot of effort. Aborigines for whom English is a second language might well be motivated to improve it in order to get on in the world. Aborigines whose best-spoken language is English might well be motivated to re-learn their tribal language to preserve their personal heritage. But I don’t see a large group of them willing to learn a third language which does not give either of those benefits in full form. Turning to non-Aboriginal Australians, again, I would have thought that most of those motivated to learn an Aboriginal language at all would be the sort of people who would seek to preserve one of the dying natural languages.

    However perhaps the coming of new technology that allows us to learn languages more easily might tip the balance.

    *Not that it isn’t declining too, only slowly. As I said on the older post where you first mentioned your Aboriginal lingua franca, I think that the obsession on the part of those who wish to preserve languages with getting governments to pass laws is counter-productive.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Sai, to the vast majority of the human race “people who create their own languages” and “people who obsess about apostrophes” are indistinguishable members of the category “geek”. Geeks unite! We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately!

    Geek that I am, I have been toying with the idea of a conlang for a science fiction novel. (Although maybe that’s just another excuse for faffing about with getting ready to write the damn novel rather than actually writing it.) I’ve read Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit and a few other books and articles on the subject, more for fun than anything. I know you are active in the Language Creation Society – can you recommend a forum for beginners and/or people without detailed knowledge of linguistics? To be honest, I am a lot more likely to have the characters in my long-postponed novel talk about translating between human and alien languages than to create a language myself. But I’d like them to talk knowledgeably.

  • Sai

    IMHO, CONLANG-L is the best forum. People there range from total newbies to linguistics PhDs w/ a few decades of conlanging.

    But there are others, too. See e.g. http://conlang.org/resources/ & http://library.conlang.org for a bunch of resources.

    (Incidentally, I’m in Mark’s LCK2, http://www.zompist.com/lck2.html, for http://s.ai/nlws. :-P)

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Many thanks, Sai, I’ll certainly take a look at these. I’ll probably post under another screen name, though. Like Tolkien with his secret vice, I feel kind of shy about this sort of thing.

  • Laird

    Sai*, veering of on these extreme tangents is typical of the threads here at Samizdata. But your observation is a good one; we have gotten lost in the weeds. To return to the principal topic, I would again recommend that anyone who hasn’t already done so read the LCS’s amicus brief (linked in the original post). It actually is “brief” (as these things go), but is also enlightening and entertaining. (An oblique reference to The Big Lebowski? Really?)

    * By the way, did you know that SAI, or Sigma Alpha Iota, is a professional women’s music sorority?

  • Sai

    @Natalie There’s no reason to be closeted about it these days. We’re out and proud. 🙂

    @Laird: Among several other homographs, yes. However, TTBOMK I am the only entity in the world whose *full* name is Sai. (I’m mononymic.)

    And yes, Marc certainly has a flair for style. 🙂

  • It’s my understanding that large portions of the Klingon language were fan created, and adopted as cannon by Paramount.

    If true, this undermines Paramount’s claim, and makes the constructed language of Klingon a little more like a real world language.

    That said, the actual court case being filed isn’t just about the language. It’s about a film studio making it’s own Star Trek movie apart from CBS and Paramount. (It claims to be a fan-film, but it’s has enough commercial aspects, with too many people getting paid salaries for this to be credible).

    However Paramount’s complaint has some ham-fisted claims in it… Such as the ownership claim on the Klingon language.

    So, the amicus brief serves a purpose, but will likely not decide the case.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Natalie, a benefit of my language is that it could be marketed to Australians as a viable second language for all Australians. English is becoming the global language, so patriotic Australians might like a local lingo. A nation-wide alternative, based on Aboriginal roots found across the country, might be just the thing!
    As for languages in general, like Klingonesian, there might be a central language academy, but ownership of a language defeats the purpose of a language, I would have thought.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray, I completely agree that it would be a good idea for multiple reasons. The study of the structure an Australian language would broaden the minds of those from other language-families who learned it. It would cement an Australian identity in a nice way, and bring to the fore the Aboriginal culture as part of that identity. If the individual Aboriginal languages mostly die off, as I regret to say seems probable, it would preserve something of them as a living language. As I think you suggested at some point, it would be fun for Aussies abroad to have a semi-secret language of their own.

    Essentially your problem is the same as that faced by proponents of Esperanto: it would bring benefits for many if it happened but the payoff for individuals just isn’t big enough to make it happen. A well-devised conlang or auxlang (I think this would be both) will probably get a few tens of learners, but what is going to draw people in their thousands and millions? Human beings are lazy and language learning is hard work.

    I sure we agree that compulsion is wrong and doesn’t work anyway for anything short of totalitarianism. Look at Irish: ninety years of state promotion and where is it now? The “miracle of Hebrew” only happened because of unique and terrible circumstances.

    I’m repeating myself, but it looks to me like the only way your language could achieve a number of speakers big enough to make it self-sustaining would be if some advance in language-learning technology, or educational psychology, or marketing, or neuroscience made it easier to learn all languages. I don’t mean smartphone translation here, that will probably make most people stop bothering to learn foreign languages at all.

    All this is said in a genuine spirit of admiration for your project and hope that circumstances will allow it to work one day. Is it described on a website anywhere? Does it attempt to replicate such fascinating features as avoidance speech for certain relatives? Although at first sight that concept seems unattractive to me, one can imagine it sometimes helps maintain politeness in tense relationships, in line with the proverb “good fences make good neighbours”.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Natalie, quite right! My tongue lacks avoidance language, as I hope all Aborigines/Australoids/First people would use it. In small groups, to avoid adultery and/or too much intimacy, you might need to avoid people, or use stilted (Newspeak) languages, though I imagine they might use their tribal languages for that.
    One way to make it popular might be to get the Aborigines to adopt it, and then insist that this second language be used in official documents Australia-wide, as well as English. This might add more weight to the attempt to get Aborigines recognised in the Constitution, which is something being discussed over here.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    As for your other point, it is not yet on the internet. i hope to give the Aborigines the chance to contribute to it, before anyone else. That way, they might be more attached to it.

  • Richard Thomas

    Niall, it could of been wrong, but being ‘wrong’ long enough can, sadly, become right.

    Mr Ed, you were being ironic, right? 🙂

  • Mr Ed


    If ye thynks that the language doth not change, thou shalt be surprised one daye to find that events shall shew thee to be wrong.

  • Sai

    FYI, there are updated legal motions (Paramount opposition, LCS reply, & Axanar reply re LCS motion for leave to file amicus), LCS plain language statement on that, and multiple interviews @ http://conlang.org/axanar/#press