The Big Picture
- Star Trek’s Klingon language is a fully developed artificial language with grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, making it unique among fictional languages.
- Linguist Marc Okrand played a crucial role in taking the Klingon language from its beginnings created by James Doohan to a fully realized language with over 3,000 words.
- Klingon has developed its own community and culture, with a non-profit organization dedicated to studying and exploring the language. It has been used in various media, translated works, and even a Pizza Hut commercial.
Over the course of its 57-year history, Star Trek, throughout its multiple iterations, has seen a wide variety of alien races: Vulcans, Ferengi, Cardassians, the Borg, and even Tribbles. Though just as guilty as any other sci-fi franchise of having aliens that speak fluent English, efforts have been made to give the races in Star Trek a language of their own, be it a word or two, or full conversations. The most developed of these is Klingon, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most widely spoken fictional language. It may surprise you, then, to know just how extensive the Klingon language actually is.
The Klingon language is one of many fictional languages, which are a subset of Constructed Language specifically created for a fictional setting. J.R.R. Tolkien is widely acknowledged as being the first person to invent whole, complex, languages for use in fictional works. In Tolkien’s case, the Elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, among others, are used in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 1974, linguist Victoria Fromkin became the first person hired to create a language for a television series, developing Paku for Land of the Lost, a children’s action series that ran from 1974 to 1976. Since then, many series and films have utilized linguists to develop languages, like David Peterson, who created Dothraki for Game of Thrones, and Paul Frommer, who worked with James Cameron to develop the Na’vi language for the Avatar films. What sets Klingon apart from its peers is that it is a fully developed artificial language, complete with grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
Who Created the Klingon Language?
Klingon was first referenced in the beloved classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, but was never actually spoken or heard until 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In that film’s opening scene (which also saw the debut of what is now the de facto Klingon ridged forehead look), three Klingon warships are engaged in battle with a massive cloud of energy that quickly disposes of them. Before their demise, the Klingons aboard the ships are shouting commands in their native tongue. Those words weren’t simply gibberish for the sake of sounding alien. Instead, they were actually created by none other than Scotty himself, James Doohan. Doohan was an experienced voice actor and took it upon himself to create dialogue that sounded distinctly alien. With that, the seeds of Klingon started to grow.
The man who took the language much, much farther was a linguist who had worked on the first television real-time closed captioning systems: Marc Okrand. A friend working on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan brought Okrand to write dialogue in Vulcan for a scene between Leonard Nimoy and Kirstie Alley. The scene had been filmed in English, so Okrand was brought in to create dialogue that could be dubbed over the existing lines while matching the actors’ mouth movements (so not Godzilla-like). Or, as Okrand himself said in a 2018 interview with The Washington Post, “They wanted a linguist to come and make up gobbledygook that matches the lip movements. And I said, ‘I can do that!'” Having successfully delivered, when the production team of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was looking to add scenes in Klingon, they called upon Okrand again. But this time there were no constraints: the actors would be speaking the dialogue that Okrand created.
Is Klingon a Real Language Now?
While it was true there were no constraints akin to matching mouth movements, there were still a few things that Okrand had to take into account. First, he had to work from the Klingon created by Doohan for the first movie. Secondly, the language should match the toughness, crudeness, and violence associated with any warrior race. Finally? Make it a fully realized language. No problem. Okrand started with back-of-the-throat sounds, based on stage direction from the script that indicated the language should be guttural, and a vocabulary that was bereft of anything resembling social pleasantries. He established patterns and rules, pulled sounds and other elements from other languages, and toyed with the grammar structure to get it right. What he established was a language with a limited vocabulary but a complex sentence structure. With the language ready to go, according to Klingon’s history, Okrand coached the actors on pronunciation, a mutually beneficial process that allowed Okrand to amend Klingon to match the more common mispronunciations, and worked on the subtitles after the lines were recorded. Okrand released The Klingon Dictionary in 1985 after his work on the film, selling over 300,000 copies.
Since then, Klingon has taken on a life of its own. From the skeleton of the Klingon language, Okrand told Mashable that he created to cover the Klingon words needed for the film, the language has grown to nearly 3,000 Klingon words. A non-profit organization, the Klingon Language Institute, was created “to facilitate the scholarly exploration of the Klingon language and culture” in 1992, fostering the growth of Klingon linguistics and ensuring the use of Klingon in other media is accurate. Works like A Christmas Carol, Hamlet, and even the Bible have been translated into Klingon. There was a Pizza Hut commercial spoken and written entirely in Klingon. There are online sources where anyone can learn how to speak Klingon, like Duolingo, for example. Forums and internet chat groups have been solid contributors to the growth of Klingon, as have references in popular media, most notably The Big Bang Theory. However, it should be noted that there is a small group of people that are actually fluent in Klingon, estimated to be between 30 and 200 people worldwide. So apologies for bursting your bubble of belief, but the odds of four nerds in Pasadena, California, nerds who spend an oddly high amount of time together, all knowing how to speak the language are pretty remote. As for Okrand, he is still involved in the evolution of what he created, coming up with new words when needed, including words for… well, as Okrand said to Mashable, “When a Star Trek Monopoly board came out, I added new vocabulary. I guess ‘mortgage’ never came up in Klingon before.”