The Creation of the Klingon Language Was Bizarre, Funny, and Utterly Unique

Saturday, 02 September 2017 - 5:47PM
Alien Life
Saturday, 02 September 2017 - 5:47PM
The Creation of the Klingon Language Was Bizarre, Funny, and Utterly Unique
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Image credit: Paramount Pictures
Here's a fun piece of trivia for Star Trek fans: Klingons spoke Klingon before the language was actually created. How is that possible? Well, Hollywood's a strange place. Even Marc Okrand, the inventor of Klingon, admits that the language has grown and developed in ways he never expected, and probably couldn't imagine. Today, we sat in on a talk hosted by Escape Velocity, the annual science and sci-fi con, to hear Marc tell the story of the origins of Klingon, its development, and what makes it so iconic.

The Original Klingon

According to Okrand, the vast majority of science fiction films and TV shows that portray alien languages don't have an actual system behind the spoken words-it's mostly just gibberish, usually based on English syllables (Okrand cites "klaatu barada nikto" as an example of this). In some cases, like Star Wars, the team will actually listen to non-English languages, like Finnish or Tibetan, and try to imitate their sounds, though not the words themselves.

One of the quick and dirty methods used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was something even more crude: actors playing aliens would say their lines, then the post-production team would dub over them with made-up words that matched the actors' lips. Naturally, this happened with Klingon characters too, creating a language that was based more on style than substance. Okrand actually used this lip-syncing technique to create phrases in the Vulcan language in Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. It was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, however, that the Klingon language was truly born.

Star Trek III and the Birth of Klingon

When The Search for Spock began pre-production, Okrand got a call from the team to help make sure that the Klingon in the movie was accurate, at which point he decided that the best way to make the Klingon sound real was to make it a real language.

Okrand wrote down all the Klingon sounds from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and settled on two ideas to guide the creation of the new language: first, Klingon had to be guttural, and second, it had to not resemble Earth languages, but still be pronounceable for human speakers. "There's no sound in Klingon that you can't find in a human language," he says.

Along with syllables and sounds, however, there's grammar. Okrand recognized that most existing languages, like English, follow a similar pattern: they generally arrange sentences with the subject first, the verb second, and the object last. "I violated those patterns," Okrand explained. Instead of the usual pattern, he structured Klingon speech backwards: Klingon sentences go object, verb, subject, leading to sentences like "hostage one kill I."


Teaching Klingon

The trials Okrand went through during the production of the movie were almost as difficult as creating the language in the first place. The first major hurdle was the actors, who had to be coached in a new, utterly foreign language. Okrand helped them learn their lines in two major ways: 

Okrand wrote out the actual text of the Klingon language with the now infamous (and seemingly random) capital letters, which signaled to the actors that some syllables were meant to be pronounced in a special way. These passages were included in the script (presumably along with English translations), so that actors could study them.  From there, Okrand had audio tapes made and sent to the actors so they could listen to them while driving in their cars.

By the time Okrand landed on set to help Klingon actors through their lines, he was nervous that no one would have the patience to learn the actual language. What he did not count on was Christopher Lloyd. "Christopher Lloyd was my first Klingon student," recalls Okrand. "He actually wanted to know what the words meant. He was really great."

"Why Are You Calling My Klingon a Dork?"

Okrand recounted one story from the production of Star Trek III where Christopher Lloyd's Klingon character, Commander Kruge, addresses one of his right-hand men, Torg. Since Okrand didn't create the names for the Klingon characters ("'Maltz' is not good Klingon," he says. "'Torg' is not good Klingon."), Lloyd asked Okrand for the right way to pronounce Torg's name, to which Okrand responded with a word like "Torkh."

The scene went ahead, and Lloyd shouted "Torkh!" at Torg, at which point Leonard Nimoy (the director) stopped the scene and asked "Why are you calling my Klingon a dork?"

As for the rest of the production, Okrand admits that he had to make compromises in order to keep the film moving: "If it sounded like Klingon, even if the actor didn't say what I wanted it to say, I decided it was correct." This, of course, caused major problems with the first Klingon Dictionary, which was scheduled to come out with the film's release. Luckily, the book was delayed, and Okrand was able to change the words and grammar to fall in line with the film, which had changed the definition of entire words.

The Legacy

Today, Klingon has become coherent enough to allow fans to translate entire books and epics into the language: Hamlet, The Art of War, Gilgamesh, and much more have all been translated, not to mention the conversation clubs who practice speaking Klingon to one another. Klingon has become so prevalent in Western culture that Wikipedia's old logo, which showed a globe made of puzzle pieces, actually featured a Klingon symbol in its upper left!

Stay tuned for more coverage from Escape Velocity 2017!
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