What does it mean to be human? This question has inspired philosophers, artists and scientists for a long, long time.
Leonard Nimoy's death reminds us of his answers to this question through his beloved work on "Star Trek," and beyond.
Leonard Nimoy (Photo: Beth Madison)
As linguists, we study one of the most complex features of humans — namely, language. Nimoy understood this complexity and much more.
It was under his direction of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" that Paramount Pictures commissioned linguist Marc Okrand to develop the Klingon language. Klingon has since become one of the most famous constructed languages. By using grammatical and phonological features that are rare across Earth's roughly 7,000 languages, Okrand made Klingon a system that sounds distinctly alien to the human ear. You can view more of Okrand's work on Klingon online. Okrand also developed a partial grammar for the Vulcan language that is spoken mainly by Spock. Such serious attention to the structural complexity of language was groundbreaking for a film series. Since then, constructed languages have been developed for many film and television franchises, including "Game of Thrones" and "Avatar."
As Spock and as himself, Nimoy appreciated language used both for the profane and the poetic. An accomplished writer, he used language for its beauty and its capacity to articulate old questions in new ways. As Wilhelm von Humboldt put it, "language makes infinite use of finite media." Thus, language allows for unlimited expression of ideas. This feature of language echoes the Vulcan symbol "Kol-Ut-Shan," which represents the Vulcan philosophy of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination."
Throughout the "Star Trek" television and film series, the question of what makes us human was essential to Nimoy's character. Being half-Vulcan and half-human, Spock grappled with the conflict between his human emotions and his Vulcan logic. In this way, the show defined Spock's humanness by his ability to feel, an approach that also has been taken by many psychologists. Through the development of friendships with Captain James T. Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy, Spock gradually embraced his humanness. As his life progressed, Spock and Nimoy challenged prevailing views of what it means to be alien or different.
While his character long resisted his human side, Nimoy took full advantage of what it means to be human. In addition to acting and directing, he worked as a writer, a photographer and a musician.
In light of all he taught us, we want to honor Nimoy. It seems appropriate to repeat here the words of Kirk at Spock's memorial service after he sacrificed himself to save the crew of the Enterprise in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn": "Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most ... human."
Elly Zimmer is a doctoral student in the UA Department of Linguistics, and her research interests include early syntactic development and early literacy development. Cecile McKee is a linguistics professor and the associate dean for research at the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. McKee's research expertise is in children's syntactic development.