Qapla' -- Klingon Language Creator Marc Okrand, Part 2

By StarTrek.com Staff - November 15, 2011


Yesterday, in part one of our interview with Marc Okrand, the veteran linguist told us how he came to create the Klingon language and described his involvement in several of the TOS features. Today, in the second half of our conversation, Okrand talks about his experiences on TNG and the subsequent Trek series, as well as on Star Trek (2009). He also brings us up to date on what he's doing these days -- and, yes, much of it involves Star Trek.


What did Gene Roddenberry ever say to you about your work and how it complemented his creation?

Okrand: I met Gene Roddenberry a couple of times. He thanked me for my contribution to the films and, by that time, TNG. I remember thinking that the thanking should go the other way – I should thank him for his contribution.

How different a challenge was TNG?

Okrand: I wasn’t involved at all during the first season of TNG.  There is at least one episode with spoken Klingon from that first year. I guess the writer made up whatever it was they said. I got involved during the second season, which was being filmed, in part, while Star Trek V was being filmed, so at lunch time you’d see a mix of 20th, 23rd, and 24th century people wandering over to the cafeteria. The TNG people were working on an episode that involved Klingons and wanted a Klingon line or two. They had a copy of the dictionary, but couldn’t find what they needed. They heard that I was on the lot for Star Trek V, so they asked me to come by. I met with them and gave them the lines they needed, and I was consulted for a few more episodes. I didn’t work directly with any of the actors. Later on, most of the Klingon heard in TNG was devised by the writers, some of whom followed the dictionary very closely, some not so much. But any Klingon spoken during TNG counts as legitimate Klingon, whether I made it up or not, and I’ve incorporated all of it into the language.

What, if anything, did you do for DS9, Voyager and Enterprise

Okrand: DS9 and Voyager mostly worked like TNG – that is, the writers created the Klingon dialogue, sometimes based on the dictionary, sometimes not. I got involved towards the end of Enterprise, providing some Klingon dialogue and helping with some Vulcan as well – and then the show was canceled.

How were you approached to consult on Star Trek (2009), and what was that experience like for you?

Okrand: I received a call from the Star Trek office asking if I’d be willing to help out with the film. I was asked to come up with a few lines of dialogue in four languages – Klingon, Vulcan, Romulan, and a new language for a new kind of alien. The scenes with Klingon and the new language were cut out of the film relatively early on. For Vulcan, I built on what I had done for Star Trek II and Star Trek III and Enterprise. I had never done anything with Romulan before, but since Romulans and Vulcans are related, I made the Romulan language one that could be related to Vulcan – not closely, but in certain patterned ways. The two languages are heard mostly in the background as opposed to being spoken by main characters. 

I didn’t work with any of the actors in this film. I was given a script with the lines that needed translation -- I never had a copy of the full script -- and wrote out transcripts and made mp3 recordings for the actors and dialogue coach to use. I was on the set one time – but not to work. I happened to be in LA and went by to meet some of the people I had been dealing with via phone and email. 

Will you be involved in the sequel and, if so, when do you start work?

Okrand: I know very little about the sequel. We’ll see what, if anything, happens.

You've written books about Klingon, even a libretto, and more. How amazed have you been by how this fictional language has, in essence, become real?

Okrand: When Harve Bennett and I first talked about Klingon for Star Trek III, we both agreed that in order to make is sound real, it had to be real. That’s why I worked up a phonological system and grammar and so on rather than just have cool-sounding gobbledygook. I wrote The Klingon Dictionary hoping that people would like it, of course, but I honestly expected that people would look at it, try to say a few words – maybe memorize one or two – and that would be it. I never imagined that people would study it so seriously – analyze everything – and learn to speak it so well they could actually carry on conversations and translate works of literature. But that’s what’s happened. I’ve come to know and have become friends with a lot of the really good speakers over the years, so I’m no longer surprised when they speak, but when I hear people I’ve never met before – especially in places I’ve never been before or on YouTube or something – speaking the language, it’s still an odd sensation. Although people still turn to me for new words and for grammatical refereeing, the language has taken on a life of its own. Even people who don’t know a single word know there’s such a language and make jokes about it – when someone coughs, someone else says, “Are you speaking Klingon?”

In what other ways/venues would you LIKE to see Klingon utilized?

Okrand: That’s hard to answer because Klingon seems to be popping up everywhere already. You can set the default language for Google or Facebook to be Klingon, there’s a cave in Australia that offers recorded tours in Klingon, there’s the opera that was presented in The Netherlands and Germany last year, and it’s been incorporated as a plot device in non-Trek novels and TV shows and movies. All sorts of works of literature, from Shakespeare to Lao Tzu, are available in Klingon. Where to go next? I guess it would be cool if NASA were to adopt it for something as a true symbol of the merger of art and science.

How often do people approach you, wanting to converse in Klingon?

Okrand: Other than at Star Trek conventions or the like, I don’t think this has ever happened. But at a Klingon or Star Trek venue, people have come up and said things to me – not so much to engage in conversation as to just say hello. I generally don’t engage in Klingon conversation – mainly because if I make a mistake -- and I’ve made plenty – there’s even a page on the web with a list of them -- it becomes part of the language just because I said it, and then I’ve loused everything up.

Another be-honest question... How much of a rock star are you among your linguist friends and colleagues?

Okrand: At first, I didn’t know what the reaction of linguists --meaning, mainly, those in academia -- would think. I was at a meeting of linguists shortly after the book came out and a professor from UCLA approached me and asked if I was the person who wrote The Klingon Dictionary. I said yes, and she said she had something important to tell me. I thought I was about to hear how Klingon was somehow sullying the discipline or something like that. She said, “I want you to know how great it is that you can buy a real linguistics book at an airport.”  And that was a precursor of what happened – Klingon has been incorporated into college classes, into textbooks. It’s become a way to get people interested in the field. I don’t know if I’m a rock star, but a number of years ago I met the then-editor of Language, the journal published by the Linguistic Society of America. He was a very well-known and respected scholar. When he was introduced to me, he said, “Oh – the famous linguist.” 

What are you working on these days?

Okrand: Right now, I’m in a bit of a lull, having just finished three major projects: a language-learning CD which has lots of new words, all referring to everyday Earth things, the Klingon version of Monopoly, and a book containing an expanded version of the libretto of the opera. Oh – and I just helped some friends with some appropriate things to say at their wedding.

And before we let you go: what's your favorite Klingon word -- and why? And what actor or actress were you personally most impressed to hear utter Klingon?

Okrand: As I was working on the language, I wondered whether there’d be a word that people would know even if they knew nothing else about Klingon. That word turned out to be Qapla’, which means “success.” So I guess that’s my favorite word. Hearing Christopher Plummer say lines that I made up was pretty impressive. But so was hearing Klingon spoken by Taxi’s Reverend Jim. 


To read part one of StarTrek.com's interview with Marc Okrand, click HERE.

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