Qapla' -- Klingon Language Creator Marc Okrand, Part 1

By Staff - November 14, 2011

Of all the phenomena within the phenomenon that is Star Trek, one of the most fascinating is the fact that the Klingon language is pretty much considered a real language, spoken fluently by many fans around the world. There's been a Klingon dictionary, an opera, games, clubs and more. Shakespeare has been performed in Klingon. People are Klingon krazy, and for that they can thank Marc Okrand, the linguist who is considered the creator of the Klingon language and worked on several TOS features, TNG and Enterprise, as well as Star Trek (2009). tracked Okrand down while he was on the road -- on a trip that would find him touching down in Belgium, France and Germany -- for an exclusive interview. Below is part one of our extensive conversation, and check back tomorrow to read part two. 

For the sake of Star Trek newcomers, you are considered the creator of the Klingon language. But before we get into that, take us through what you were doing before you connected with Trek, how you first connected with Star Trek, and what you actually did on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Okrand: My background is in linguistics, and I have a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.  For a while, I taught linguistics, but for the past 30 years or so, I’ve been involved with the closed captioning of television programs. Closed captioning first went on the air in 1980, and for the first couple of years, the only programs that were captioned were those on tape -- movies, sitcoms, dramas, and so on. In 1982, we devised a way to caption live shows like news and sports. The first program to be captioned live – besides some tests that we didn’t publicize -- was the Academy Awards presentation in 1982. That was chosen because we wanted something with high publicity value -- and with the Oscars, that’s obvious -- and low possibility of things going wrong. The Oscars are mostly scripted, so we could get the script ahead of time, enter it into a computer file, and then just play back the dialogue as it was spoken. When the got to “And the Oscar goes to…” we’d switch to live and caption the winner’s name and the acceptance speeches. If the new technology didn’t work, only parts of the show would be affected, and everything else would be fine. Everyone thought that was a good plan, but the production people pointed out that the script keeps changing up until the last minute, so we’d need someone to keep track of all of that. I was chosen for that task.

So I arrived in L.A. the Monday before the Oscars and called the people I was supposed to call. They said something like, “Welcome to L.A. We’ll have a script for you on Thursday.” So I had Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with no Oscar work to do. I grew up in L.A. and had family and friends there, but I hadn’t contacted any friends because I thought I’d be working the whole time. Now that I had free time, I got on the phone and started making lunch and dinner plans. During one of these calls, one friend asked where I was calling from. My company at the time had an office in Hollywood and I told her that’s where I was. She said, “That’s about a mile from here. Why don’t you come by today for lunch?” By “here,” she meant where she worked, which was Paramount Pictures. 

Your friend was Sylvia Rubinstein, who was the administrative assistant to Star Trek II executive producer Harve Bennett…

Okrand: Star Trek II was in postproduction at the time. She and Harve and I had all known each other for many years.  I knew my friends were working on Star Trek, and I thought that was very cool, but I had no further connection. Anyway, Sylvia and I and Deborah Arkelian, another producer’s assistant, went to lunch, and during the lunch conversation, somehow the fact that I had a degree in linguistics came up.  Deborah said that that was interesting because they’d been in contact with the Linguistics Department at UCLA. I asked why, and she told me that there was a scene in the film where Mr. Spock and a new character, a female Vulcan, have a brief conversation. This conversation was filmed with the actors speaking English, but, for various reasons, they thought it would be better if they were speaking Vulcan accompanied by English subtitles. The person they were talking to at UCLA was to make up nonsense phrases that matched the English lip movements, then they’d dub them in as if it were a foreign film. I said I thought that was a good idea – a linguist would know which sounds you can see on the lips, which you can’t, and so on, so a linguist would do a good job. Deborah and Sylvia said they thought so, too, but there was some sort of logistics problem and they were worried that the work would not be done in time. I asked when it had to be done. Deborah said, “By the end of this week” – which was exactly how long I was in town. I said, “I can do that.” Sylvia concurred. And at that point, Bill Phillips, one of the producers, walked by with his lunch. They told him about our conversation, and he said, “Come see me after lunch.” And I was suddenly working for Star Trek.

I need to point out that the fact that I was friends with Harve Bennett is not irrelevant to the story. He and I had talked about linguistics over the years from time to time. It was Harve’s decision to hire me. I was a known quantity, not someone who just showed up. But, honestly, I thought I was just going over to have lunch with a friend. Later that afternoon, Bill Phillips, the producer, showed me the scene in the film that needed to be switched to Vulcan. I wrote down the dialogue, only four lines, and then went back to where I was staying and made up syllables that matched the lip movements but sounded different. For example, if the English syllable were “boo,” I’d switch it to “Moe” – looks the same, sounds different.

The next day, Bill showed me a bit of the beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Mr. Spock is about to accept his achievement of Kohlinar. This scene was entirely in Vulcan, but I hadn’t heard it before I had devised my lip-sync lines. So I quickly made a few changes so the “new” Vulcan would fit in with what was already on film. I then was introduced to the actress playing the female Vulcan, an actress very new to Hollywood by the name of Kirstie Alley, and began working with her so she could dub in her lines. On Friday of that week, I worked with Leonard Nimoy so he could dub in his. By this time, Oscar rehearsals were under way, and I had to attend them. So after helping Leonard with his lines, I got in the car and drove downtown to the Oscars, thinking, “I just taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan.” 

For Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, you basically created the Klingon language. What went in to doing so?

Okrand: I started by looking at Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because that’s where Klingon was actually first spoken. There are perhaps a half dozen lines in Klingon with subtitles at the beginning of the film.  I wrote down those lines as best I could, made a list of the sounds in the words and figured out what a legitimate syllable was. That was the beginning. All of the sounds and all of the syllables and, for that matter, all of the phrases in the first movie formed the skeleton of what I was to build. When I was looking at the first film, I didn’t know who made up those lines. When I met Mark Lenard, the actor who spoke them in that film, he told me that they were devised by James Doohan. So James Doohan actually originated Klingon. I came along and fleshed it out.

In this process, I had four things in mind as far as the sounds go: (1) the language had to include all the sounds in the first film; (2) the language had to have non-English sounds since it was to be alien; (3) the language had to be guttural, since the script for Star Trek III explicitly referred to Klingon as a guttural language; and (4) it had to be learnable and pronounceable by the English-speaking actors, so it contains many ordinary English sounds in addition to the more exotic sounds. I also tried to make the grammar non-English-like. The vocabulary was easy – I made up only what was needed for the film. If a word didn’t come up, I didn’t come up with a Klingon equivalent. The same went for the grammar – if a particular construction or grammatical element, say a pronoun, wasn’t needed for the film, I didn’t make it up. Later on, I added lots of vocabulary and grammar – stuff not in the film. But initially, the script drove what was made up. 

What was it like, teaching the actors to speak Klingon and/or Vulcan for Star Trek III?

Okrand: The main speaker of Klingon in Star Trek III was Christopher Lloyd, who played Captain Kruge. He was a great student. He was interested not only in getting the pronunciation right, he wanted to know what the words meant and how the sentences fit together. We’d work together pretty much every day they were shooting a scene with spoken Klingon. Most of the other speakers of Klingon in the film were Kruge’s crew.  For the most part, they had one line apiece that they shouted out as things were going wrong. I don’t think I ever saw a group of people more enthusiastic about what to them must have been gibberish. Oh – there was one other key speaker of Klingon, and that was Captain Kirk. He had one line, the Klingon equivalent of “beam me up,” towards the end of the film. I wasn’t able to be on the set the day William Shatner filmed that scene, but I worked with him a bit a week or so beforehand. I had no idea how it would come out until I saw the film. He remembered his lessons well and did a great job. There was only one speaker of Vulcan in that film, and that was the new Saavik, Robin Curtis. Robin was a quick study and gave the Vulcan an appropriately emotionless – but still meaningful – reading. 

On that film, Lloyd was your best student. Be honest: who was the worst?

Okrand: The worst was a member of Kruge’s crew – whose name I don’t remember – who just couldn’t get it. I’m not quite sure what he was shouting out, but he got the spirit right. 

You worked as well on Star Trek V and Star Trek VI. Give us a memory or two from each production. And in what ways did the Klingon language evolve from film to film.

Okrand: Star Trek V was different from Star Trek III in two ways. First, the characters had conversations. In Star Trek III, it was mostly, though not entirely, Kruge giving orders. But in Star Trek V, Klaa and Vixis had, relatively speaking, long lines. This was really more of a challenge for the actors than for me because each one had to learn not only his or her own lines, but also the lines of the other actor so that they knew when to begin speaking. The other way Star Trek V was different from Star Trek III is that after Star Trek III The Klingon Dictionary had come out. When I was making up the lines for Star Trek III, I was doing just that – making them up. If I didn’t like something, I could change it. And if an actor mispronounced something, but it still sounded like Klingon, I could change the Klingon word to match what the actor said. In Star Trek V, I had to go by the book. I was stuck with what I had written whether I liked it or not. Of course, there were new words and new pieces of grammar I had to devise for Star Trek V, but I had to make sure that I used material from the book if it existed. 

Speaking of the book…

Okrand: The book was originally supposed to come out at the same time Star Trek III came out, but it was delayed for reasons that are actually interesting and that I should have written down, but now I mostly forget. After I had finished it, and while nothing was happening with getting it published, the film went into postproduction. During postproduction, they changed some lines that were originally in English into Klingon, so we did something like we did with the Vulcan for Star Trek II, except I had to make it sound like the Klingon in the rest of the film, both in terms of sounds and grammar. I didn’t have the relative freedom I’d had with Vulcan. They also changed a couple of subtitles, so a Klingon line that had originally meant one thing suddenly meant something else. This, of course, meant that, in some cases, the dictionary no longer matched the film or lacked some words that were in the film. Because of the delay in publication, however, I was able to make changes to the dictionary so that all of the changes made in postproduction were incorporated into the book.

But by the time of Star Trek V, the book had been published, so I could no longer fudge. This made the creation of dialogue for Star Trek V actually harder than it was for Star Trek III. It’s harder to follow rules than to make them up. Actually, one of the actors did misspeak a line in Star Trek V in a scene that was too complex to reshoot. After Star Trek VI came out, the dictionary was reissued with an addendum to incorporate material created after Star Trek III. I figured out a way for the muffed line to make sense and match the subtitle and included that in the revised book. So the line in Star Trek V is correct after all. 

The major new thing in Star Trek VI was the incorporation of Shakespeare...

Okrand:  The script was filled with lines from Shakespeare, some spoken in English and some in Klingon. So I had to translate bits of Shakespeare into Klingon, which meant I had to figure out what a Klingon “petard” was, among other things. None of the Klingon lines was used in the film – by the time it was finished, they’d been switched back to English or cut out. There is one line of Shakespeare that is spoken in Klingon in the film, though it wasn’t part of the original script. That line is “To be or not to be.” When the film’s director, Nick Meyer, asked me to create a Klingon version of that, I said “okay,” but I thought “oh, no.” The problem was that there is no verb in Klingon that means “to be,” and I make a big deal about that in the book. I thought a bit and asked Nick if the line could mean “to live or not to live.” He said that was fine and I should go teach Chris. Chris was Christopher Plummer, who was playing General Chang and who was to speak the line. The word for “live” in Klingon is yIn, and what I came up with was yIn pagh yInbe’, literally, “live or live not,” though there are many other ways I might have done it as well. When I said the line for Christopher Plummer, he thought it was a little too timid and asked if there might be some other way to say it. I thought some more, and suggested that taH replace yIn:  taH pagh taHbe’. This sounded good to him, especially with the harsh, guttural H at the end of taH, so that became the line. The syllable taH, up until that moment, had been a suffix meaning “to continue doing” whatever the verb it was attached to was, so “eat” plus taH meant “to continue eating.” I sort of gave it a promotion to full verb status, but keeping the same meaning. So a new word meaning “to go on, to continue, to endure,” was created: “To continue or not to continue, to go on or not to go on.”

If you listen carefully in Star Trek VI, you can hear me speaking Klingon. There’s a scene on the Klingon ship after it’s been attacked where there is chaos – loss of gravity, then gravity returns, lots of casualties. And there’s lots of shouting and orders being shouted out by various people. My voice is in the mix there. Somewhere. In the background.


Visit again tomorrow to read part two of our interview with Marc Okrand.


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