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.’
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
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.
Excellent subject for an article as well as an excellent article! Thanks!
Thank you for reading, Chris. I find it very interesting how this fictional ‘alien’ language has come to life.
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How do I get hold of klingon dictionary cos am studying secrete engagement in South Africa
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.
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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…!
Thanks, Ollie. I love the idea of people wandering about Galway speaking Klingon, even if it’s only the cúpla focal!
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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):
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.
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It is better to learn an actual living language…What is the point of learning an artificial language that virtually nobody speaks?
Linguistic curiosity is one reason. I wouldn’t rush to judge.
With all due respect, I am not judging anything. I am just voicing an opinion. Again, in my opinion, there are thousands of languages to satisfy one’s linguistic curiosity. Try Arabic, German or Chinese to name a few and you’ll know what I am talking about…
But some people want to learn Klingon or another conlang. And when a few others do, there’s a potential community. I’ve had conversational fluency in four languages, none of them artificial, but I would not assume this is “better” for everyone regardless of their wishes and circumstances.
Amen, I will applaud that. Let people learn what they want to learn. Just hope that they are wise and mature enough to make their decision. Thank you. I did learn from your post and from our exchanges. All the best!
Thanks for your visit and the enjoyable exchange. :-)
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