Klingon creator was just going to lunch, not setting out to create a new language

By: H&I Staff     Posted: July 10, 2018, 4:00PM Tags: Tags: Star Trek

Marc Okrand was in Los Angeles for work — live closed-captioning the 1982 Oscars — when he met for lunch with a friend, according to The Washington Post. His friend was working for Paramount, on Star Trek II. They got to talking, and it came up that Okrand is a linguist. He has a Ph.D. on the subject, in fact. Well, it just so turns out that the producers of Star Trek II were right in the middle of a linguistic debacle.

The producers believed that a specific scene would be much better if the characters were speaking Vulcan. The scene had already been filmed though, so they needed a linguist to come up with the words to match the actors’ flapping lips on film. They had been in connection with linguists at UCLA, but the quick turn-around time caused scheduling issues between the two parties, according to The National Museum of Language.

Dr. Okrand quickly volunteered for the job, and was hired with confidence due to his previous relationship with executive producer Harve Bennett. His deadline was at the end of the week and he was paid just a few hundred dollars. Okrand recalls, "Friday of that week I coached Leonard Nimoy on his lines. And I remember driving to downtown L.A. and thinking — and I’ve said this to other people: I just taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan. And I thought that was the end of it."

That was just the beginning. A year and a half later, Okrand received a call from Star Trek III’s producer. They wanted him to create Klingon.

Okrand built Klingon upon the few lines that had already been written by Jon Povill and James Doohan for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Additionally, he made decisions based on the script and the Klingon culture that had already been established by the franchise.

"The script for Star Trek III said the language spoken by the Klingons was 'guttural,' so I had to do that. Later on, as we learned more and more about Klingons (mostly from the later TV shows, especially The Next Generation and Deep Space 9), I could both expand the vocabulary based on what those shows talked about and I could also expand the vocabulary based on a now more fully developed understanding of Klingon culture."

He did not create an all-encompassing language from the get-go. Words were created as scripts developed.

"The directness and lack of subtlety of the culture is reflected in the quick, choppy syllable structure and the fact that long or complex sentences (though grammatically possible) are rare. Klingon discourse is usually made up of lots of shorter sentences."

One example of the lack of subtlety in the language is the translation for "I love you," which doesn’t exactly exist. The closest phrase in Klingon would translate to "I dis-hate you."

Okrand tried his best not to let Klingon be influenced too much by any one existing language. He wanted to make sure that the sounds of the language sounded inhuman, but at the same time, they needed to be physically spoken by human actors.

Klingon was named the most widely spoken fictional language by The Guinness Book of World Records in 2006. Operas, weddings, songs, books, games, and more have been performed, written, and spoken in Klingon. Today, it is taught in the popular language education app Duolingo.

What’s the Klingon creator’s favorite place to see his work? In non-Star Trek context — TV shows and movies.

Thinking back to the birth of the language, Okrand said, "At the time I didn’t know it was going to, you know, live long and prosper."

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