Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vulcan Language Dice From "Unification"

A friend of mine from the Star Trek Prop and Costume Forum has agreed to let me share some great items from her Vulcan collection.  These were purchased in week 34 of IAW's eBay Star Trek auctions in 2007.
These are wonderful props because, although there were hundreds of Vulcan costumes created for Star Trek over the years, there were very few Vulcan props.  These were also handled by the father of all Vulcans, Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  In "Unification, Part II" a young Romulan named D'Tan (Vidal Peterson) brings these dice to Spock.  He tells Spock that they were his toys as a child and Spock tells him that they are very old and that the symbols form the syllabic nucleus of the Vulcan language.
The description of the symbols as being "syllabic" is in line with what little else we know about the Vulcan language.  It suggests that each symbol represents a group of letters or a sound.  Costume designer Robert Fletcher who designed the wonderful "trinity" of symbols often seen on Vulcan costumes has said that the symbols he created represented entire thoughts or ideas rather than letters.

Each of the dice is uniquely shaped; one is a pyramid, one an octahedron (8-sided), one a tetradecagon (14-sided) and one a icosikaihexagon (26-sided).
The five symbols on the pyramid

 The eight symbols on the octahedron

Fourteen more

 The final twenty-six

As far as I can tell, no symbol on the dice is duplicated exactly.  That means there are 53 individual symbols or sounds (phonemes).  Of course, we cannot be guaranteed that these dice represent a complete set so there could be more but 53 seems a reasonable number.  There are 36-44 phonemes in the English language (depending on dialects), Mandarin has a total of 56 basic sounds, other Earth languages have as few as 20 phonemes or as many as 60.  

The next step would be to assign each of the symbols a unique sound to begin to create the language.  Linguist Marc Okrand created a few Vulcan words for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, however, he was limited because the dialogue had originally been recorded in English so he had to create words with sounds that seemed to fit the actors' mouths.  Hopefully, someday Okrand or other linguists will be given the opportunity to develop the Vulcan language as fully as Klingon has been.

The first photo in this post is credited to IAW.  The screencaps belong to CBS/Paramount and the close-ups of each symbol belong to my friend the photographer and owner of the dice.


  1. This is absolutely fantastic! I’ve recently been delving into the Golic dialect of Vulcan created by Mark R. Gardner and other members of the now defunct Vulcan Language Institute (VLI). Much of the grammar and likely all of the vocabulary is still documented elsewhere online and there are folks out there who use this dialect and/or variations thereof in fanfic. I have completed a way to write this dialect of vulcan in the other calligraphic style, and have begun tackling the *syllabic* script. Having these images from the original dice/dreidels is invaluable. I speak, read and write Japanese and know the evolution of the Japanese use of the original Chinese manyōgana into modern Japanese syllabaries (hiragana and katakana). I am also familiar with abugida systems originating out of India, the fidel syllabic writing of Ethiopic Amharic, and Cherokee, which is also based on a syllabary (as opposed to an alphabet). Golic Vulcan has roughly 27 consonants and 20-ish vowels including diphthongs. CV/DC, CCV/D, CCV/DC, and CCV/DCC syllables are common. Even without the complexities of the consonant clusters, this would produce well over 100K unique symbols if rendered purely as a syllabary, but if we take a modified abugida approach, I believe that this "syllabic nucleus" method could be do-able with a rich, yet approachable system. Golic Vulcan is based primarily on the language spoken by T’Sai, Spock, Saavik & T’Lar in TMP, IIKahn, & IIISforSpock but also pulls here and there from other canonical sources. It has a very robust vocabulary of over 10K words and is well-suited for both the fan-base and franchise. I would love to collaborate with you and your friend if you are interested. Basing the letterforms of a modern typeface/font genetically off of the canonical dice is preferable to me over just coming up with something that’s visually interesting. I’m happy to show you the letterforms I have already in process (not ready for primetime) that are based on a theoretical evolution from RATA, TAFAR, & TAPAN. Coincidentally, many of the things I had come up with even without knowledge of these artifacts bear a nice synergistic similarity to the symbols on these dice. You can reach me via regular e-mail at upxare (at) masempul (dot) org. In English I’m Britton - in Vulcan Briht’uhn. The Prrton that you see here is the spelling in Na’vi. I’m a man of many languages. Even if you’re not interested in collaborating with me in creating the system/fonts, etc., I thank you very much (Wa’itaren..) for sharing this information and these photos via your blog. I really appreciate the thorough nature of your research and the fascinating (sem-rik) way that you present it all here. Please send my regards to your friend the owner of the props too. It’s wonderful that these have been saved for posterity. Dif-tor heh smusma.

  2. It's amazing to me that all the sides have different symbols and none are duplicated exactly. That is an incredible effort of design for a TV show where they would never be seen in their entirety on the screen. The care is designing them and putting them on the dice goes far beyond what most Hollywood types would do.

    However, it does fit with the completeness we often saw on Star Trek. and the effort to make it a believeable world.

  3. Frederick, I agree! The amount of effort by Star Trek's designers over the years is one of the things that really sets the franchise apart from other science fiction.

  4. I enjoyed seeing Vulcan letters. Thank you for posting this!

  5. My pleasure! Hopefully you'll find some other things of interest here :)