It’s been 34 years since Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was first shown, with the Klingons speaking the Klingon language in full. The Klingons are Star Trek’s alien characters featured in the sci-fi TV and film series.
In a few of the films, the Klingons were speaking gibberish. Later, Canadian actor James Doohan, who is also a voice actor, made up some phrases during the filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Doohan played the role of Montgomery Scott (Scotty) in both film and TV series of Star Trek.
Creation of Klingon language
As mentioned, the Klingons already have their own language early on in the series. However, those were just phrases, not full sentences. In 1984, for the filming of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, production people, including Harve Bennett, the writer-producer and the film’s director, Leonard Nimoy, wanted a Klingon language that sounded more realistic. Marc Okrand, a linguist from the United States, who specializes in Native American languages, was commissioned to develop the Klingon language.
Marc Okrand joined the National Captioning Institute and worked on the initial closed-captioning system to help people with hearing disability understand the dialogue while they watch TV. He was working at the institute when he was called upon to construct Klingon.
Basis for the language
The Klingon phrases that Doohan made up were the bases for the grammar and vocabulary of the language Okrand created. Consonants and various combinations thereof were used to make the language alien sounding. Okrand used several uvular, velar and retroflex consonants that are rare in natural languages. He also combined the sounds from dissimilar languages but making them sound like they were from one language.
Okrand first came into the scene when he was commissioned to create gibberish Vulcan language to match the movement of the lips of the alien characters in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Incidentally, the Vulcan’s spoken language at that time was English.
Paramount liked what Okrand did with the Vulcan language, which led to him getting the commission to create a language for the Klingons.
To maintain continuity, Marc Okrand listened to the phrases made up by Doohan earlier. He said that he added to those phrases, keeping in mind that the Klingons are not human therefore their language should not sound human as well. But since the words will be spoken by human actors, he added sounds that are not usually found in most human languages. He was not constrained in the creation of the language like when he did the Vulcan language because the actors would be speaking in Klingon.
He kept in mind that the Klingons are tough characters because they are warriors. They are mostly violent, crude, rough but honorable. They live to fight in the battlefield. Thus, Okrand created the language rich in vocabulary of war, with many sounds coming from the back of the throat. He added some pleasantries such as hello although it sounds tough as well. The nearest translation for the Klingon greeting is nuqneH, which means, “What do you want?” more or less.
The linguist worked to create a full Klingon grammar by lifting from several natural languages, borrowing rules for building sentences, picking out sounds and switching languages to ensure that Klingon becomes different from any language.
The result of Marc Okrand’s work is something that sounds like a combination of Yiddish, Tlingit, Arabic and Hindi, with Mohawk, Turkish and Japanese thrown in.
Okrand says the despite the lack of 100% rules, patterns exist in human languages and in creating Klingon he counteracted those patterns. In syntax, Klingon word order is object-verb-subject (OVS), according to Okrand. This is something that is rarely found in other natural languages.
The filming process
Okrand coached the actors playing the Klingon characters on its correct pronunciation. Realizing the difficulty, he made adjustments to the words when actors mispronounced them. He also corrected the subtitles.
It was a laborious process as the actors were unfamiliar with the language. He wrote the actual Klingon text in the combination of lower and upper cases, with the latter indicating emphasis on the syllable. He recorded audio tapes of the script lines in Klingon so the actors can study them. Marc Okrand recalled that his first student by Christopher Lloyd who showed interest in knowing the meaning of the words.
The Klingon difference
The Klingon language constructed by Marc Okrand is different from other languages created for films or TV shows. In most cases, the created languages were often word substitutions. For example, in A Clockwork Orange, man becomes moodge. In Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks only made noises that meant nothing.
Klingon has its own grammar, vocabulary, alphabet, figures of speech, even regional dialects as well as slang. It sounds like a newfound indigenous language. This is something that you’d expect from a linguist whose field of study was in Native American languages.
Those who have tried to study and learn Klingon found that they are linguistically challenged. The language as a whole is difficult and speaking it requires more work compared to other natural languages. The language has five vowels. But it has 21 consonants, 29 prefixes, 26 noun suffixes and 36 verb suffixes. The orthography is case sensitive and changing the form will change the meaning.
Words and phrases in Klingon
While it may be difficult to pronounce the words, here are examples of the hard work of Marc Okrand, which continues to live and prosper, which he realized after his work in Star Trek was done.
- Yes – HIja’ or HISlaH
- No – ghobe’
- Yes, OK, I’ll do it. – luq or lu
- No, don’t, I won’t – Qo’
- What’s happening? – qaStaH nuq?
- I understand – a jlyaj
- I don’t understand. – jlyajbe’
- Good! – maj
- Well done! – majQa’
- We are Klingons! – tlhlngan maH!
It does require warrior-like fortitude and discipline to say a word of Klingon and you’d think that it’s going to be a waste of time to study it. After all, if you want to listen to it, you can just re-watch the Star Trek movies.
However, for many people, it is not about the constructed language for a movie. It can be likened to the popularity of Esperanto, whose native speakers are only about 1,000 to 2,000.
Klingon has its own dictionary and even has a Klingon Language Institute (KLI) that publishes Klingon articles about the language, culture and linguistics. The institute also regularly comes up with a magazine and holds annual conferences. The KLI was founded in 1992. It is located in Flourtown, Pennsylvania.
The number of people who can conduct a live conversation using Klingon is very small, probably about 20 to 30 persons only. Many are more adept at written Klingon. Would you believe that over 300,000 copies of the Klingon Dictionary have been sold? The Klingon dictionary is also a creation of Marc Okrand.
It’s said that many owners of the dictionary do not often bother reading the rules on grammar. They are more interested in the word list. Star Trek fans refer to them to make up song lyrics and even wedding vows! Others who are fond of role-playing games string up several words to create insults, without a thought to ungrammatical combinations.
But get this! Despite the complexity and difficulty in learning the language, the Epic of Gilgamesh (an epic poem about Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, a Sumerian state), Tao Te Ching (a classic tale in Chinese written by Laozi), Hamlet and other works have translations in Klingon. They have also translated Much Ado About Nothing, The Little Prince and The Art of War.
The Klingon language continues to thrive and Dr. Marc Okrand still supports Klingon. He attends the annual conferences, provides more clarification on its grammar, adds to its vocabulary and even publishes books about the language. The first edition of the Klingon Dictionary came out in 1985. He had another edition published in 1992.
And it’s amazing to know that the dictionary has translations in Portuguese, Italian, Czech and German.
Klingon in popular media
Star Trek’s popularity continues and so does the interest in Klingon language. Movies and TV series reference the language even if the shows do not have anything to do with the popular sci-fi series. Klingon is used in art and advertising. Some software even offers it as a language option.
There was an original stage opera called u that was written and performed entirely in Klingon. For seven years, a Klingon language-based stage play of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was staged in four cities.
Indeed, Klingon continues to live and prosper. As a constructed language, it goes beyond its original purpose, with many finding it as a useful communication tool.
For accurate translations
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