Does Worf’s name hold the key to understanding the Klingon language and culture?

Michael Dorn as Worf and Joanthan Frakes as Will Riker in "The Bounty" Episode 306, Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Trae Patton/Paramount+. ©2021 Viacom, International Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Dorn as Worf and Joanthan Frakes as Will Riker in "The Bounty" Episode 306, Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+. Photo Credit: Trae Patton/Paramount+. ©2021 Viacom, International Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Was The Enterprise-D’s no-nonsense security officer, Worf, named after a foundational neurolinguistic principle that explains Klingon culture?

You gotta admit, it’s the sort of nerdery that you’d expect from the Star Trek writers. In 1954, linguist Harry Hojier coined the term “Whorfianism”, named after his colleague Benjamin Lee Whorf, to describe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, The Sapir-Whirf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, is the theory that the language we speak influences our worldview, to the extent that we cannot conceive of concepts that we don’t have words for. Benjamin Lee Whorf was responsible for the popularisation of the idea that Inuit languages have fifty or one hundred words for snow (though the “many words for snow” idea is a vast oversimplification, it’s a neat example of Whorfianism).

The most famous usage of Whorfism in sci-fi is in George Orwell’s influential dystopian novel 1984, in which the mysterious dictator Big Brother intended to replace the English language with ENGSOC, a version of English that was reduced to only the concepts that Big Brother deemed permissible.

What does this have to do with Starfleet’s finest Klingon warrior?

Well, Worf wasn’t just Star Trek’s first Klingon main character; he was the first Klingon character who was more than a two-dimensional villain. He was the first character through whom we might come to understand the Klingon people. But he wasn’t the first opportunity we had to understand the Klingon people.

The Klingon language predated Worf. And everything you need to know about the Klingons is right there in their language

We first heard the Klingon language in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, but it was just a few lines of random gibberish. Five years later in 1984, during the production of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who was directing, wanted the Klingon villains to speak an actual structured language and commissioned linguist Marc Okrand to expand the random gibberish from TMP into a whole constructed language (also known as a “conlang”).

Klingon is by necessity a very limited language and understandably lacks the versatility of a language that evolved to describe everyday situations. For instance, while there was always a Klingon word for the bridge of a ship, there was no word for a structure that spans a body of water until 2012.

Then there’s the story of d’Armond Speers, a computational linguist who attempted to raise his son bilingually in both English and Klingon. He spoke to his son, Alec, exclusively in Klingon (while his mother spoke to him in English). Alec’s first Klingon word was “HIvje”, which is a drinking vessel. It was the closest the Klingon language had to a word for a milk bottle, which would’ve made differentiating it from a cup difficult. There was no word for “table” either, so Speers used a word that meant a flat object. Which is probably why Alec strongly preferred English and stopped responding in Klingon after a few years (though he continued calling his father “vavoy”, which translates to “daddy”, “vav” means “father”).

Perhaps the most illustrative and simple example of how limited Klingon is, is the fact that Klingon has no word for “hello”. The closest approximation is “nuqneH”, which translates to “What do you want?”. The Klingon language is a good example of the Whorf hypothesis, in that it’s a language with no chill for a species with no chill. Whorfianism is as much an insight into the Klingon culture as Worf is, as Whorfianism draws a straight line from the Klingons having no word for “hello” to their renowned brusqueness.

I actually can’t find any confirmation that Worf was named after Benjamin Lee Whorf; the connection is all speculation. But I think the case is strong. I am convinced that Worf’s name is a nod to linguistic relativity. After all, Worf must have been conceived of shortly after the Klingon language was, and both allow us to see the Klingons as a complex and three-dimensional culture.

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