Research will discover if were crazy for Klingon

Published: 12 August 2014 at 14:58

Linguistics expert to carry out live experiment into ‘alien speak’ at sci-fi event

Are you crazy for Klingon or do you prefer Tolkien’s Elvish tongues?  Well, a linguistics expert is carrying out a live research experiment to discover the public’s reaction to different constructed languages, or “conlangs”.

Dr Bettina Beinhoff, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Anglia Ruskin University, will be surveying 100 members of the public during a special session at Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, at ExCeL London on Sunday, 17 August.

Figures in science fiction and fantasy do not always speak a human language, and unless there is a mode of translation involved, such as the Babel Fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series or the translation circuit in Doctor Who’s Tardis, the sounds of these languages have a crucial role in contributing to the alien’s characterisation.

The audience will be played short clips of 24 different languages – a combination of well-known and rare natural languages, and conlangs – and they will be asked whether they sound aggressive or friendly, familiar or unfamiliar, beautiful or ugly, human or alien!

Many of the audio clips have been specially recorded by their creators, including David J Peterson, who developed the language Dothraki for the Game of Thrones television series, and Grayson Richardson, who is reading his new conlang called Celestial.

Dr Beinhoff, who is currently learning the conlang Toki Pona, said:

“Conlangs in science fiction can range from just a few words to reasonably functional languages like Klingon.  Regardless of how extensively these languages are developed, they all tend to be carefully crafted to reveal certain qualities of their speakers.
“Associations we make about characters through conlangs are caused by sounds rather than meaning, and therefore make use of sound symbolism, which is the mental connections caused by sounds.
“In the live experiment, the audience will give their feedback on the 24 language samples played.  The aim is to find out if certain languages and sounds evoke specific responses.
“Following the experiment I will present results of a survey of language constructors to show the work that goes into constructing languages and discuss some of the decision-making processes behind them.”

Dr Beinhoff will also take part in a “Universal Language: Good or Bad?” panel debate at Loncon 3 on Thursday, 14 August.  It will question whether a universal language is possible, whether it would be a good thing and whether achieving it would involve destroying our existing languages?  

Professor Farah Mendlesohn, Head of English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University and a Hugo-winning author, is Project Manager of the Loncon 3 Exhibits Hall, which is sponsored by Anglia Ruskin.