How Star Trek: Discovery brought back the lost Trill language
Trill hasn't been spoken on Star Trek in over 20 years. Here's how a linguist revived it.
This post contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 4 of Star Trek: Discovery.
Alien languages are a hallmark of the Star Trek universe, but while some, like Klingon, have rich vocabularies, complex syntax, and online schools dedicated to teaching them, others are shrouded in mystery. On a recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery, listeners heard a snippet of one of the most obscure languages in the galaxy: Trill, spoken by the eponymous aliens known for their unique symbiotic biology.
In “Forget Me Not,” the fourth episode of Discovery’s third season, leaders of the Trill home world briefly switch from English (or something the universal translators can decode) to their native tongue during a heartfelt scene in which they accept a human, Adira Tal, as one of their own.
This is the first Trill that has been spoken on a Star Trek show in more than twenty years. Snatches of spoken Trill can be heard during rituals performed by Jadzia and Ezri Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but the language has lain dormant ever since.
In order to bring Trill back in a way that was both scientifically plausible and consistent with Deep Space Nine, the Discovery team enlisted writer and linguist Nick Farmer. In an exclusive interview with The Science of Fiction, Farmer, who previously developed the “Belter” language spoken on The Expanse, explains how he created words and syntax for an alien tongue known only from a handful of previously untranslated snippets. He also reveals what Leader Pav, Commissioner Vos and Guardian Xi said in the caves of Mak’ala after Adira—the first human ever joined to a Trill symbiont—reclaimed the memories of their former hosts.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Maddie Stone: Thanks for chatting with me today, Nick! Before we get into Star Trek, could you briefly introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
Nick Farmer: Well, I got started in linguistics, and language change in particular, because it was kind of the family business. My godfather was a linguist at MIT, my mother was his student, and I just grew up in a household where people were always talking about language. And because I lived in a few different places, I grew up speaking different languages and got interested in the variation that you could find and why that variation exists. I studied that more formally at Rutgers and Berkeley and then, never wanted to go into academia, so in a sense I'm really lucky that I managed to get a side gig making languages for shows.
The first one was The Expanse. And I got that opportunity because 10 years ago, I met George R.R. Martin in a bar and as we were talking, he said you know, you should meet my assistant. And his assistant turned out to be Ty Franck, who at the time was working on the books, The Expanse series, that would be turned into the show [Editor’s note: George R.R. Martin wrote the Game of Thrones novels. Ty Franck is one half of the duo writing The Expanse novels under the pen name James Corey.]
Somehow Ty remembered me, and then a few years later, he reached out asking if I'd be interested in working on the show. The language that I developed for them, Belter, is a creole, which is all about extreme language change due to contact. And the dialect coach with that project was also working with Star Trek, and so that was how that connection was made.
Maddie: Is there a general process you follow when developing a language for a science fiction show?
Nick: There kind of has to be because it's such a big undertaking that if you don't limit yourself, you're going to be swamped. So what I do, in the very beginning, is just try and understand the characters, the people that are supposed to be speaking this language and their context—cultural, historical, et cetera. And there’s kind of two big divisions. You can either have something like The Expanse, with Belter, where it is existing in our reality and our timeline. And so it is based off of languages that actually are spoken in the real world. Or you can have, say, Star Trek. There, you don't necessarily have the human real world languages to base things off.
But regardless, there are still associations that the audience is going to have with the way things sound, especially keeping in mind that the primary audience is generally going to be English speakers, because certain sounds have certain associations for us. So, a very typical example would be any time you want to have an aggressive or violent group, you just make their language have a lot of "Kh" sounds in it. And the audience knows exactly what's going on there. Or if you want to have an elegant or refined group, like elves, then you'll have a lot of "l" and "s." Just think about Tolkien and how the Elvish languages sounded.
Maddie: So it sounds like a lot of the process is watching the show, reading the source material, and thinking about how you want the characters to come off on screen.
Nick: Yeah, it's supposed to be part of the world building, which is all for the experience of the audience. I mean, you also have to take into account the actors who often are not given a whole lot of time to prepare, and may not necessarily have a lot of experience producing these kinds of sounds. It's really difficult to act already in another language. It's even more difficult to act in a language that was just designed, constructed artificially, and you are maybe given an hour to prepare. So there's a compromise that has to be made there. You can't make things sound too crazy because the actors probably would have a hard time doing it. I mean, whenever folks are speaking Klingon, it's very impressive because that's a particularly challenging one.
But the other thing is you do want everything to be plausible sounding. And that's challenging in a way, because our brains are wired for language. We are really good at recognizing languages even if we don't speak them. And so with those two things, plausibility and entertainment, there's a bit of give and take, because sometimes for the sake of entertainment, you have to do something that maybe isn't entirely plausible. Which I'm okay with. I mean, it is for a TV show. If we were trying to run a scientific experiment, that would be a different matter.
As an example of that, with Belter, the number of languages that are involved in the contact there is way more than you would really expect to find. Usually you'd have one superstrate language and maybe one or two substrates as opposed to like, six. [Editor’s note: During language contact, a superstrate language is one that forms the basis for most of the grammar and vocabulary. A substrate language has a more subtle influence.] But the whole idea is that they're supposed to be very international, cosmopolitan. So you just fudge it, and you put in more.
With Trill, I wanted to emphasize what is unique about them, and that, of course, is the symbiotic relationships that they have. Because their whole culture and spirituality, sort of the foundational aspect of it, is the joining, I wanted to make sure that is featured in the language.
Maddie: When you came on Discovery to work on Trill, were you given any parameters or guidelines, or was it more like ‘hey, we need a bit of spoken Trill in this episode, go do your thing’?”
Nick: The main one was that they wanted something that was consistent with what was in Deep Space Nine. And so, given that the previous example is a ritual context and how it appeared in Discovery is also in a ritual context, I could kind of give myself a little bit more leeway in that this may not necessarily be every day spoken Trill. This is, maybe, a highly ritualized form of the language. Which was useful, because I had to kind of work with the phonology that was in Deep Space Nine. And then you’re given the lines you need to translate, which helps because you know the context for that.
One of the things that I did to reflect the symbiotic relationship is that rather than having gender in the language, there is a grammatical distinction between someone who's joined and someone who's not. And so, actually, the pronoun that is used in this episode is one that would be used when addressing [someone] in the second person singular, joined.
Maddie: Oh, interesting. So there are no gender pronouns in the language?
Maddie: Could you expand on how those earlier examples of spoken Trill in Deep Space Nine informed your work in Discovery? Did you bring over words or syntax?
Nick: So, as far as I could tell, there was no translation of what was spoken in Deep Space Nine. That meant I was kind of working with a Rosetta Stone that didn’t have any other language. I had to create a translation myself, and then, I had to interpret the words to create that syntax. So I would kind of think to myself, well, does this make sense as a morpheme. So a morpheme is essentially a building block of a word.
And one of the decisions I made was to use a morphology that exists in real-world languages, agglutination. We have the ability to add all these prefixes and suffixes in many languages, including English. So I decided Trill was going to be a very agglutinative language, and I was looking through these words to say okay, which of these are going to be affixes.
[Editor’s note: Affixes are building blocks that can be attached to words to make new ones or alter the original word’s meaning, but that can’t stand alone. For instance, the English affix “re” can be attached to many words, like “reform” and “regenerate.”]
So, things like that I had to delve into to try to create a translation that would make sense. I mean, it’s easy enough to just say ‘this means this, and this means that’ and just make it up as you go. But further down the line, if you’re trying to keep it somewhat consistent and you’ve already established certain things randomly, then there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work out in a way that feels plausibly right.
Maddie: So it sounds like you effectively translated what you heard in Deep Space Nine and built off that. Is that the right interpretation?
Nick: That is the correct interpretation. So basically, I made a translation myself, trying to make it the most plausible translation. And once I had that, I had a few pieces of the puzzle, and I had a template for creating more pieces.
Maddie: In the episode ‘Forget Me Not’, we learn that Adira, a human, was forced to join with a Trill symbiont. They then travel to Trill and reclaim the memories of their symbiont in the caves of Mak’ala. And then, as you were saying earlier, several Trill leaders start speaking in what sounds like a very ritualistic language, almost a prayer.
What are we actually hearing spoken here?
Nick: So the translation of the line is simply ‘we welcome you home.’
That would have been the greeting that they would have given to Adira at the very beginning if she had spoken her names in the way they were expecting. Now that she has spoken all of her names, she’s getting the greeting that is appropriate to greet symbionts with. So it has the pronouns there that are appropriate for symbionts.
Maddie: Do you have a favorite Trill word or phrase that you invented, or ‘discovered,’ through this process?
Nick: So one of the things that I noticed with the Deep Space Nine Trill, and I'm not sure if this was intentional or unintentional, but I chose to interpret it as intentional because I thought that it made the phonology, that is, the sound of the language, a little more interesting. And that is, there's something called a geminate, which is a consonant that is held longer. Like in Italian, you can have a distinction between [two words] if you hold a consonant for a little bit longer.
So in Deep Space Nine there's a line that ends with “garu’koj,” and I thought, ok, I'm going to interpret that as if that's a geminate, which means that in Trill you now have two sounds that are distinct; they can distinguish between two different words. And I decided that I was going to make sure that there was a word in this line which had that kind of geminate. The line [in Discovery] ends with "majashsh," and the actors, thanks to the dialect coach, got that correct and held it a little bit longer.
And that just means “having in abundance,” and the only reason the word is that way is because of the phonology of it.
[Editor’s note: “Garu’koj” is how the Deep Space Nine Trill word Farmer references above is written down in Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. “Majashsh” is how Farmer says he would transliterate the word at the end of the new Trill line in ‘Forget Me Not.”]
Maddie: Is there anything else you want to add about the process of working on Trill?
Nick: Well, I guess I would like to say that it’s a big honor to be able to contribute a language to Memory Alpha. That was pretty cool.
A lot of times I would say to people, ‘I’ve worked on languages for a couple different TV shows’ and they’d say ‘oh, cool, like Klingon’? And before, I would say ‘well, no, not Star Trek.’ But now I can say ‘yea, like Star Trek.’
Update 11/23: After publication of this interview, Nick Farmer provided a transliteration of the entire Trill line from ‘Forget Me Not’ on Twitter. The line is: “Iituja ro motux shi zhian kalasham tanula ranupakala majashsh.”