White Trash Talk


The American language spoken by so few people you’ve likely never heard of it: Boontling, used by men in a remote California logging town, is being kept alive by just 12 speakers – 140 years after it was first devised
Boontling is a language specific to Boonville, California and was first said to have been spoken in the 1870s
It is a combination of English, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic and Pomoan Indian
Rumored to have originated from efforts to keep adult business out of children’s earshot – as well as the town’s attempt to hide their disdain for a visiting pregnant woman
The language supported the agrarian lifestyle of Anderson Valley
Only 12 people speak the language today including Wes ‘Deacon’ Smoot and Rod ‘Tubbs’ Dewitt, aged 84 and 59
There are roughly 1600 words spoken in Boontling but anyone in the town can come up with a new word as long as it is vetted by other speakers.

Comment: You see, anyone can come up with a conlang, “even” redneck crackers. Note the vetting process.

Can you copyright language?

Can you copyright the Klingon language?

There has been a disturbance in the Force, have you felt it? Wait, wrong franchise. To Boldly Go Where No Copyright Suit Has Gone Before! Yes, Qapla’ !

Occasionally there are cases that seem to be tailor-made for legal geeks: Naruto v Slater; Lucasfilm v Ainsworth; DC Comics v Towle. Now we are witnessing one such case in Paramount v Axanar, which features the owners of the Star Trek franchise against the makers of a crowd-funded fan film called Axanar (watch thePrelude to Axanar short documentary).

There is a long line of fan fiction based on the Star Trek, including several fan-made films, fan art, and thousands of written stories (yes, this includes a long tradition of slash fiction). For the most part Paramount has been content to allow most of these expressions to go ahead, even if they are infringing copyright. One of the first rules of maintaining a profitable science fiction franchise is not to alienate your core fan-base, and this means allowing them to creatively interact with your stories. However, the Axanar project is an entirely different proposition, we are not talking about a few fans dressed as Starfleet officers filming on their garage, this is a $1.1 million USD behemoth that includes several veteran actors (including Richard Hatch of BSG fame), and some decent special effects. The project is big enough that it crosses the border of what a copyright owner will consider acceptable, and enters the realm of becoming a commercial competitor.

So Paramount sued Axanar productions for copyright infringement. The complaint describes several aspects that are “substantially similar” between Axanar and Star Trek, including several characters, but also story elements such as races, starship names, uniforms, prosthetics, ship designs and back story. An amended complaint provides further details of the many infringing elements in Axanar, which include pictures and quotes of the many similarities between both properties. Most of these elements are clearly protected by copyright, and to me it is quite evident that Axanar infringes Paramount’s copyright in several ways. While I tend to hold favourable views of fan fiction, the scale of the Axanar project makes it difficult to defend as fair use, and if the case is decided only on these elements, I would expect that Paramount to win comfortably.

But one part of the complaint has raised a lot of eyebrows (and not just in a Vulcan way). The initial complaint reads [highlight mine]:

“Plaintiffs own the exclusive right to develop, create, and/or produce motion pictures and television shows based on the Star Trek Copyrighted Works, including but not limited to the characters, themes, plots, dialogue, settings, sequences, situations, and incidents therein, and also the props, character makeup, costumes, sets, fictional language, events, and fictional history. Plaintiffs are entitled to all of the protections and remedies for the Star Trek Copyrighted Works accorded to a copyright owner.”

Most of the above are indeed protected by copyright, but are fictional languages protected as well? Even in the amended complaint, Klingon language is included as one of the infringing details, but other than explaining the origin of the language, Paramount does not explain how the language is protected by copyright.

This is a very interesting legal question, and one that may arise again in the future with the growth in fictional languages such as Dothraki, Valyrian, and Na’vi. Tolkien is evidently the father of fictitious languages, as he invented several Elvish runes and rules for his works, including Qenya, Sindarin and the Black Speech, but these languages have never been subject to copyright enforcement. The question is then whether Klingon is protected by copyright. This is explored in a fantastic amicus brief favouring the defendants filed on behalf of the Language Creation Society by attorneys Marc Randazza and Alex Shepard. The brief is a work of art, filled with Klingon language history and references.

The brief describes the history of the Klingon language, which was created for Paramount in 1984 by Marc Okrand to be shown in the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; before that, actors just made random guttural noises. While Okrand created the language, the language really took life when it was adopted by fans, who started learning it, improving it, and even using it as a second language. This is in accordance to the ethos of the Klingon culture, which values communal enhancement in “wa’ Dol nIvDaq matay’DI’ maQap” (“we succeed together as a whole”). In fact, there is no word in Klingon for copyright, or for intellectual property. The brief expands on the rich history of the language and the extent of the fan input into it. The amicus brief then goes on to propose why languages are not protected by copyright:

“What is a language other than a procedure, process, or system for communication? What is a language’s vocabulary but a collection of words? The vocabulary and grammar rules of a language provide instructions for a speaker to articulate thoughts and ideas. One cannot disregard grammatical rules and still be intelligible, and creating one’s own vocabulary only worked well for the Bard. Vocabulary and grammar are no more protectable than the bookkeeping system in Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99, 101 (1879). Plaintiffs are free to register copyright any particular expression that they create using the language, such as the Klingon Dictionary or the dialogue of a particular Star Trek episode, but they cannot claim ownership of the building blocks of the language.”

Moreover, a language is akin to a computer language, and they claim that “Phrases in a constructed language, like Klingon, are the functional equivalent of computer language instructions.” Such functional elements are not worthy of copyright protection. The brief concludes with the assertion that no court in the United States has been asked to determine whether a language is subject to copyright protection, and they call on the judge to “declare that there is no basis in either law or policy to allow copyright in a spoken language.”

I completely agree with the legal analysis presented by the Language Creation Society and its attorneys. Interestingly, US courts could learn from European legislation and case law in this area. We have had several decisions that look at computer languages, and if we equate a computer language with a spoken language, then there are strong authority on which to dismiss claims that Klingon can be protected by copyright. Firstly, recital 11 of the Software Directive (2009/24/EC) says that “to the extent that logic, algorithms and programming languages comprise ideas and principles, those ideas and principles are not protected under this Directive.”

Case law is similarly clear. The first case is Navitaire v Easyjet, in which Pomfrey J declares that “individual commands […] are a computer language, not a program, and they should not be entitled to copyright.” Furthermore, he says that “There is a respectable case for saying that copyright is not, in general, concerned with functional effects”. Language has a functional element, that of allowing communication, and therefore it should not be protected by copyright. In the landmark case of SAS Institute v World Programming Ltd, Arnold J agrees strongly that computer languages are not protected by copyright, even if there is some argument as to what actually constitutes a computer language. The case was referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (C‑406/10), which similarly ruled that computer languages are functional and therefore not protected by copyright. The Court says:

“On the basis of those considerations, it must be stated that, with regard to the elements of a computer program which are the subject of Questions 1 to 5, neither the functionality of a computer program nor the programming language and the format of data files used in a computer program in order to exploit certain of its functions constitute a form of expression of that program for the purposes of Article 1(2) of Directive 91/250.”

This is consistent with earlier decisions that declared source code can be protected in different embodiment of a computer language (see Bezpečnostní softwarová asociace C‑393/09).

If the case was only about the Klingon language, I would expect the defendants to win easily. But as it has been said earlier, Paramount has a much stronger copyright case regarding the other elements infringed in Axanar, particularly characters, races, costumes and ships. The best result that we can expect is that even if Axanar loses on most of the copyright infringement charges, we may get a declaration from the judge regarding the copyright status of the Klingon language.

On an interesting side note, I have been engaged in a Twitter conversation about what is the Klingon term for copyright. I initially suggested “ghItlhvam lugh” (image right) because there is no word for copy, but this would be more consistent with publicity and personality rights. The amicus brief uses the term “yab bang chut” (mind property law), but it does not sound right. I toyed with “chenmoHwI’ lugh” (creator right), but Twitter user qurgh ‘aj, a proper Klingon speaker and Klingon Language Institute staff, made several valid observations about all of the above. He pointed out that “chenmoHwI’ lugh” actually translates as “the correct creator”, and “yab bang chut” actually translates as “mind one who is loved’s law”, which is wholly inadequate. He suggests that we use “chenmoHwI’ DIb chut” (creator rights law), and here it is in pIqaD:


I may have had too much fun writing this post.


The good people at the Language Creation Society have sent this update:

“The court in Paramount v Axanar just issued two orders:
a) denying Axanar’s motion to dismiss;
b) denying *without* prejudice our motion for leave to file amicus re Klingon.

Both orders, and the updated docket, are available in full at

We’ve also published a short statement from us about it there,
including relevant quotes from the court orders.”

Bad news for Axanar, but not bad news for the Klingon amicus, it just has been ruled not to be admissible now, it might be allowed later.

And now for something completely different…

A phonology using the Latin alphabet, but using random graphemes:


Labials:                   Dentals:                   Palatals:                     Velars:

Stops:                                        V                              W                               J                                  T

Glottalized stops:                    Z                              I                                 G                                  H

Fricatives:                                Q                              L                                 C                                  S

There is no phonological opposition between voiced and unvoiced stops, but as most speakers prefer to realize the glottalized stops as ejectives, the pulmonic stops tend to be voiced, especially between vowels. Of course, the phonological opposition between voiced and unvoiced fricatives is even weaker. The dental fricative can be pronounced sulcal or non-sulcal, without phonological consequences.



The sonorant is phonetically nasal at coda, phonetically liquid at onset. This liquid is a lateral after labials and velars, and a trill after dentals and palatals. Most people use an uvular trill.


Front:                                                                         B

Central:                                                                      P

Back:                                                                           L

In their neutral forms, the front vowel is phonetically unrounded, the back vowel rounded. The central vowel prefers low realizations. There is no phonological opposition between the laryngeal stop and the laryngeal fricative for words beginning with a vowel. Loanwords from languages that do, use the velar fricative for the laryngeal fricative.

Acceptable syllable structures: CV, CVS, CSV, CSVS, CSVC, CVSC, V, VC, VS, and VSC.

Having sixteen phonemes available should be enough to produce a lot of words.

Octal system

Humans use a decimal system because humans have five fingers on each hand. Computers prefer a binary system. A hexadecimal system is usually used as a compromise. But what about an octal system? Simply not using your thums when counting.

0           0      00000        0

1            1      00001          1

2           2      00010          2

3           3       00011          3

4           4      00100          4

5            5       00101         5

6           6       00110         6

7           7       00111          7

10          8      01000        8

11           9      01001         9

12          A      01010         10

13          B       01011          11

14          C       01110          12

15          D       01111           13

16          E       10000         14

17           F      10001          15

20          10     10010         16

The most important advantage is that humans don’t have to shift to new numerals for decimal 11, 12 etc. if they want to leave decimal thinking.

A hexadecimal system in Astoshur

0       ABUS                BOKARG

1        TAR                   TAR

2        HOD                 HOD

3        DAR                  DAR

4        KELT                KELT

5        SHOM              SHOM

6        TILT                  TILT

7        YAB                   YAB

8        HOLT                YABAM

9        NIRD                 EKHEST

A       JAK                     TAREKH

B       KHLUST            TAREKHTAR

C       DHUN                TAREKHHOD

D       GHLID               TAREKHDAR

E        ITHT                  TAREKHKELT

F        PART                 TAREKHSHOM

10      TAROD              TAREKHTILT





The first column gives the traditional hexadecimal numerals, while the right column gives the decimal translations. Note that bokarg is a grammatical plural, requiring e.g. kaaz instead of kaz.

Note also that the numerals 0, 8 and 9 have different forms although this isn’t strictly made necessary by the counting systems.


Do Constructed Languages have Linguistic Value?






So I unleashed a giant can of worms today on Reddit, asking if there were any graduate programs centered around or dabbling in constructed languages. The second response I received was from a user who insisted that constructed languages weren’t real languages (with the inevitable example of…(with the inevitable example of Klingon).

And then there was confusion over what actually constitutes a constructed language and why there is an academic stigma against even mentioningthem. Is ASL a “conlang”? What about Modern Hebrew? Or Wampanoag? What about pidgins?

So my question to Tumblr is: What linguistic value is there to studying existing constructed languages?

Perhaps there is no practical value to studying conlangs but for budding linguists, they provide a wealth of opportunity to explore and practice analysing.

Even more than that, they can reveal something about the how the human mind interacts with language and allows for an outlet of brilliant creativity.

Its been proved over and over that learning another language helps brain functions, I doubt it matters whether the language is constructed or not.

Besides, most languages are constructed or manipulated in some way to serve the political or social needs of the time. At the end of the day, even ‘natural’ languages are only a product of the human interactions with it.

I agree with all of the above (with some caveats with the last paragraph…), and I’d like to add some thoughts. ConLangs clearly *do* have some kind of stigma attached to them among “professional linguists”. Even those of us who are interested in them can’t do “real research” on them (in the US especially, though there does seem to be some professional interest in AuxLangs over in Europe). There hasn’t always been this stigma— Edward Sapir was a supporter of the idea of an international AuxLang and many of his contemporaries were as well (not to mention Tolkien!). So what’s happened? What changed? And why?

Why does it offend people— not just strike them as silly and banal, but outright offend— when I tell them I teach a class on ConLangs?

It can’t be because they’re “useless” or lack “practical value”. If that were the argument, then we could say the same thing for Tucano, which has fewer speakers than Esperanto, Arapaho, which has fewer speakers than Klingon, or even Wolof, which has quite a few speakers, but is not exactly a “practical” language to learn for most people. Indeed, in terms of “practicality” let’s all learn English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic and chuck the rest, yeah?

CLEARLY, THAT IS A RIDICULOUS STATEMENT that no respectable linguist (really, no respectable person) would consider. So the anti-ConLang sentiment can’t rest on ground of “practicality”.

Well, what of the issue of time/resource management— the idea that learning Klingon takes away from learning Michif? While this is at least a better argument, it’s still not a very solid one; it falls back on a notion of utilitarianism that always falls apart. Why waste time on Novial when you could learn Kawaiisu? Well, why waste time reading Willa Cather when you could be reading Shakespeare? Or why waste time on Language when you could learn Programming? In a humanities-based endeavor especially, there’s always a danger in this “why waste time” argument because the utilitarian value of things isn’t always immediately recognized— nor is it even always clear. If learning Loglan gets you interested in language, there’s already value, I feel. And if it doesn’t? So what?

So the anti-ConLang sentiment really can’t rest on a utilitarian argument, either.

So what’s left? Honestly, I’ve thought about this for a long while now and I just don’t know. Is it a kind of Frankenstein revulsion at “playing god” with language? Is it the fear that “normal linguists” will be tainted by association with “those dorks who speak Dothraki”? Is it some hold-over connection that people make between the AuxLang movement of the 19th Century and the kind of Romantic Notion of The Folk that justified racism and eventually leads to Hitler? Is it, like most things in modern linguistics, Chomsky’s fault?

I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know. Every single other field has a notion of what I call the “artefactual approach”— a practice-by-doing, toy-model-testing, break-it-to-see-how-it-works way of investigating their objects of study. Clearly, natural science and engineering take this “artefactual approach” with At Home Chemistry Sets, Build A Clock From A Potato, Make Your Own Sundial, etc etc etc. But even most of the humanities teach artefactually as well— Anthropology has us to “study” our family home, archaeologize our own trash cans; Math gives us calculator games and blocks for comparing powers of ten; History tells us to look into our family trees (which is as far removed from ‘Professional History’ as anything); Computer Programming, Art, and Music are *literally* a learn-by-making approach to knowledge; Economics and Psychology have almost nothing but toy models we’re encourage to play with, even if they aren’t physical artefacts. Even English wouldn’t expect us to develop an appreciation of the written word without DOING SOME WRITING, right?


So, if we want to make a case for the value of Linguistics— for the value of LANGUAGES— we can’t afford to keep ignoring ConLangs. We can’t even afford to treat them as polite oddities that “those people” do. We have to welcome them into the fold, develop the respect for them they deserve, and we have to start using them as teaching tools. Basically, if linguistics wants to survive the next century, it has to start making language into an thing to be played with, not a thing to revere.

I’ve gone back and forth on ConLangs, but I agree with the points here now. And one of the Ling Space team is big into them, too, so I’ve heard about them more, too.

Back in the day, my main complaint about them was trying to use ConLangs to prove things that they weren’t really constructed to do. Or, to put it differently, trying to make points about natural language syntax or phonology or such. Often, I thought that the people doing this were being oversimplistic and not taking into account factors that could come to bear on the thrust of whatever argument they were trying to make. And so the experiments they were doing were then of dubious value.

But there’s a lot to be done with them and playing around with them and all that for helping draw people in and having fun with language and understanding how languages can work. It’s accessible and can help draw people into thinking about language in general. And if you’re careful, you can build experiments around them that could tell us about language in general, for sure. It’s not off limits.

And really, they’re fun, on top of the rest of it. If you like analyzing real languages and working out how they tick and cultural and historical influences, why not have fun with thinking about it from your own world? I always really appreciate it when someone’s clearly done the work to make a language really work like a language in a fantasy world. It makes the world feel more real.

So yeah. Making languages can be just as valid as studying ones that are around already. You just need to know what your goal is for doing it. ^_^

I was making up languages back when I was a big nerd writing Epic Fantasy in high school, and it would be a flat-out lie to say that doesn’t strongly tie in with the fact that I eventually went on to study linguistics. I think interest in ConLangs goes hand in hand with interest in capital-L Language, that weird thing we do with our hands and faces that makes us understand each other, that’s built communities, that’s started wars. I can’t agree more with dsbigham‘s idea that linguists should embrace ConLang as the hands-on lab for its science, just like home chemistry kits or Meccano sets or whatever. I’ve sort of been pushing for thelingspace to eventually do an episode about ConLangs, actually, because yeah, even though they’re not usually umbrellaed under Linguistics proper, they definitely are super neat and interest a lot of people.

I’m thinking, could it be that the generalized disdain for ConLangs in the academic linguistic community might spring from a fear of not being taken seriously? After all, even as it is, we sort of have to struggle to be considered a science sometimes (you just have to look at my degree to see that). This being in spite of, you know, systematic methodology, testable predictions with reproducible results, practical and theoretical applications, heck, I even used electrode caps in my thesis research. I don’t especially take issue with having gotten an arts degree for a neuroimaging study myself, but I know stuff like that doesn’t sit well with some people; maybe those are the same people who shun ConLangs as somehow not being “real” linguistics?

One more point. The whole deal behind (a major part of) linguistics is that language is a thing that just sort of happens, through no individual or social effort – people might spend a lot of time thinking and teaching and working with and debating language, but fundamentally, it’s a magical wonderful miracle sprung from the brain of every typically functioning infant in the history of the species. This idea, itself, has not been without contention (maybe babies are just really reallygood at learning from behavioural patterns, etc), so maybe there is a tendency among generative linguists to discredit ConLangs as fake and offensive because they obviously aren’t sprung from the literal mouths of babes. If people start thinking that ConLangs are linguistically valid, WELL. So long, Universal Grammar. It’ll be an uphill battle to fight all over again.

I dunno. Some of the coolest, smartest people I know have made languages up. But I definitely remember the red hot shame of being a Ling undergrad and being ridiculed for my interest in ConLangs. Complicated issue.

Swearing in a conlang

Chce cie jebac analnie = Ashtul zag nyak gandalf
Chcialbym wylizac twoja slodka cipke = Asolt shod ilpidan zi rode qodhk
Cholera = Shiss
Chuj ci na ryj = Erpem zag qosh yella
Chuj ci w dupę = Erpem zag bet gandi
Chuj/Kutas = Erpem
Cipa = Qodh
Cipka = Qazhedh
Cwel = Poshte
Cycki = Khlidleg
Debil = Thrade
Dupa /dupeczka = Gand/ganazhd
Dupek = Gandeqedh
Gswno = Udgar
Idiota = Buren
Idz pierdol matke twojego kumpla = Ashtul dhenke zi chkarna
Ja Jebie = Tan nihak/ Anhakt
Ja pierdole… = Kraaa…
Jebałem twoja matka = Ankashe za dhenke
Jebałem twoja matke = Kash azin
Jebac = Nyak
Jestes totalna zdzira = Akzaz hol litird
Kurde = Niharg
Kurwa = Shorshek
Kurwa! = Shorshek!
Kutas = Kelet
Li¿ dupê = Ilpid gandak
Mam duży chuj = Hadel boze erpenk
Niech ciê diabli wezm± = Irt Obliss azg geret
Odpierdol Sie = Shachek veg