How the Klingon language was invented

For Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), linguist Marc Okrand was asked to develop the Klingon language. Most of it he made up, but there was some raw material to begin with: Klingon names, improvised speech from an earlier film, and aspects of Klingon culture (they are a warrior race, honourable and direct).

“Human languages are very patterned,” he says. “There’s no 100% rules, but there’s a lot of tendencies, and more-likely-than-nots.” Creating Klingon allowed him to subvert these patterns. So, for example, syntactically Klingon has OVS (object-verb-subject) word order, which is very rare in human languages.

Because Okrand was working with filmmakers to a studio budget and schedule, he couldn’t be too fussy. Sometimes he would make adjustments to the language (phonetic, lexical, or grammatical) simply in order to accommodate an actor’s imprecise delivery of a line.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal if he drew from real languages, he replied:

You can’t help being influenced by what you know, which (for me) was a bit of Spanish, French and American Indian. I also knew Southeast Asian languages. I’d be writing something and suddenly realize that it sounded like Navajo. I’d stop and make sure the next thing sounded as different as it could possibly be.

Okrand wrote a Klingon dictionary (which to date has sold hundreds of thousands of copies), and the language soon took on a life of its own. It remains a niche within other niches — Star Trek, conlanging — but by the standards of invented languages, it is thriving.

The Klingon Language Institute, founded in 1992, publishes a quarterly journal (HolQeD) and a literary supplement, offers resources for people who want to learn Klingon, and has created an extended corpus of Klingon vocabulary. People get married in Klingon ceremonies; one man tried (unsuccessfully) to make it his son’s native tongue.

Few of its many enthusiasts are fluent, but all are surely encouraged by the growing body of Klingon literature, which includes translations of Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, and other great works.* Arika Okrent, a linguist who has studied Klingon, told me a Kama Sutra translation may be on the way.

In Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, she describes Klingon as “the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one”; in this respect it is similar to Na’vi and Tolkien’s languages. She writes that Klingon

both flouts and follows known linguistic principles, and its real sophistication lies in the balance between the two tendencies. It gets its alien quality from the aspects that set it apart from natural languages . . . . Yet at the same time it has the feel of a natural language. A linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it with the same tools he would use in describing a remote Amazon language.

In the video below (21 minutes), Marc Okrand explains how he created Klingon. If you’re into Star Trek or constructed languages, you’ve probably seen it already. If, like me, you’re not particularly so, don’t be put off. It’s aimed at a general audience, and anyone curious about how languages work is likely to find it interesting.

* Jeremy Kahn says Gilgamesh seems most suited to Klingon; Hamlet “seems more of a Romulan thing; Tao [Te Ching]: Vulcan.”

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15 Responses to How the Klingon language was invented

  1. I would love to see something a romantic comedy in Klingon… Four Weddings and a Funeral would probably become A wedding, a blood feud and a whole lot of funerals

  2. Stan says:

    Probably, Jams! It would be more of an anti-rom-com. Apparently they are great fans of opera, which sounds much like your revised film.

  3. Excellent subject for an article as well as an excellent article! Thanks!

  4. Stan says:

    Thank you for reading, Chris. I find it very interesting how this fictional ‘alien’ language has come to life.

  5. sandile says:

    How do I get hold of klingon dictionary cos am studying secrete engagement in South Africa

  6. Stan says:

    I don’t know if a Klingon dictionary is ideal for your purposes, sandile, but you can order the dictionary from online bookshops. There’s also a searchable lexicon and various iPhone apps.

  7. [...] lost to history, and some that still survives. Stan Carey gives us an introduction to how Klingonwas invented, and while still on something of a Scifi theme introduced us to the Spaceage Portal [...]

  8. [...] Carey explored how the Klingon language was invented; hybrid etymology; and strange usage of the word too. The Virtual Linguist noted that Brits are [...]

  9. ollie says:

    great article Stan. i used to own a comic/sci-fi shop in galway and had a few regulars who had the cupla focal as Klingon. think they had a fair bit of spare time…!

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks, Ollie. I love the idea of people wandering about Galway speaking Klingon, even if it’s only the cúpla focal!

  11. [...] film a more realistic feel, they asked an expert to invent the Klingon Language. Iintersted read: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/how-the-klingon-language-was-invented/) this is an example of economic power. Hollywood, with economic control of the world film industry [...]

  12. Klingon is my go to language when I need an example of a language that no one in the room speaks. One day I will run into someone who can say more than Qupla, but that day has not come.

    Why would I need a language nobody speaks? To demo language teaching strategies. Here’s a lesson in Klingon, (plan in English):

    http://arynnmckenzie.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/what-its-like-when-nerd-collides-2/

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks, Arynn. I enjoyed your post. It reminded me of a similar experience I had during a TEFL course, where the teacher taught the class some basic Swahili to demonstrate our capacity to pick up a very unfamiliar tongue.

  14. [...] posts on conlangs looked at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “secret vice” of language construction, how Klingon was invented, and the Na’vi language in James Cameron’s film [...]

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