How the Klingon language was invented

November 22, 2011

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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