The NML visited the annual MFLA (Maryland Foreign Language Association) conference at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD on October 20th and 21st. Their keynote speaker was one of our own Associate members, Dr. Marc Okrand, the inventor of the Klingon language. After a fantastic keynote speech on his creation of the con-lang (constructed language) for the Star Trek universe, we asked him a few questions about Klingon and linguistics. Here is our interview with Marc.
Please tell me about your educational background.
I’ve got a BA in Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. My focus was on American Indian languages and languages of Southeast Asia.
How were you initially chosen by Star Trek for inventing Klingon?
I was chosen to do Klingon for “Star Trek III” because I’d done a little bit of Vulcan for “Star Trek II.” Harve Bennett, the writer and producer of “Star Trek III,” is the one who thought there should be a language for the Klingons. It wasn’t my idea. I got the job doing the Vulcan by luck, actually. I was in LA and went to have lunch with a friend of mine who happened to work for Harve Bennett. They were making “Star Trek II” at the time, Harve was the executive producer, and the film was in postproduction. I also knew Harve, from another context, so I knew I had two friends working on “Star Trek,” but that was the extent of my connection.
Another producer’s assistant joined us in the cafeteria, and during lunch the fact that I was a linguist came up. I then learned that the “Star Trek” office had been in touch with the linguistics department at UCLA because they wanted to hire a linguist to help with Vulcan dialogue for a short scene. The idea was to replace a few lines of English with Vulcan that matched the already-filmed lip movements and then add subtitles. Unfortunately for them, but it turns out, fortunately for me, there was some sort of problem coordinating with whomever they were talking to at UCLA (schedules not working out easily or some such thing, I honestly don’t remember) and they were concerned about how they were going to take care of this dialogue. They then said the work had to be finished by the end of the week, which was exactly how long I was going to be in town. I said, “I can do that.” At that point, the associate producer of the film happened to walk by with his lunch. His assistant said, “We just solved the Vulcan problem,” and she told him about me. He said, “Come see me after lunch.” And that’s how I got that job. The fact that I knew Harve is not irrelevant to what happened. It was his decision, as executive producer, to hire me, so he was hiring someone he knew, not someone who just happened to show up. But I didn’t go there to get a job; I went there to eat lunch.
What were some of the influences on the development of the language you had from other languages, either real languages or other con-langs such as Sindarin?
There were no intentional influences. I tried to not make Klingon resemble anything. But, having said that, you can’t help being influenced by what you know, and what I studied mostly were American Indian languages and languages of Southeast Asia. So things from those languages undoubtedly crept in, but, as I said, not on purpose. I just used various notions from all over the place and jumbled them together in a way that was systematic.
What were some of the challenges creating a language based on an already established culture?
In this case, the challenges were minimal because I had no say at all in what the Klingons were going to talk about – I didn’t make up any vocabulary that wasn’t needed for the lines in the script. In terms of the phonology, I built on what little was already established in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” that had been made three or four years earlier. There are six or eight lines of Klingon in that film. Those lines were devised by Jon Povill, one of the producers, and James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty. 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. But initially, the script determined everything.
Do you feel like the culture helped create the language? In later Trek series, did your language helped further the understanding of Klingon culture?
Yes. As I said in answer to the previous question, the more we learned about the culture, the more the language grew to mesh with it. In particular, 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.
I think that the existence of the language and the way people were used to hearing it pronounced influenced the writers to a certain degree. The fact that the Klingons spoke Klingon in addition to English made them more distinct and “alien” (and maybe threatening) than they would be if they didn’t speak a different language. And having to speak the language influenced the actors as well, helping them create the way Klingons move, talk, react, and so on.
Please tell me about the process of creating “u”, the Klingon opera (editor’s note: This is an opera fully performed in Klingon. It debuted in the Netherlands in 2010). Does it follow a traditional English rhyming scheme or is it completely set apart from traditional opera conventions?
The libretto for ’u’ doesn’t have much of a rhyme scheme at all! Though the opera was a Dutch production, the libretto was originally written in English (not Dutch), and in a kind of stylized (but non-rhyming) English typical of an epic. This style didn’t always work its way into the Klingon except, for example, in the way certain words or phrases were repeated. The music was written after the libretto, so it matches perfectly.
What are your thoughts on the expansion of the Klingon language among the Star Trek fandom?
I think it’s great! The people studying Klingon keep coming up with good questions, and this helps clarify points of grammar. And they’ve done amazing and creative things with the language, both in terms of translation and original works. They’ve devised language-learning games. I’ve noted in the past, and it continues to be true, that if you happen to walk by a room filled with people learning and speaking Klingon, the main sound you hear is laughter. People are having a good time with the language, and they’re learning about linguistic concepts at the same time.
I didn’t plan any of this, and I would not have predicted it. What I created originally was not much more than Klingon equivalents for several lines of dialogue in a film script, not a “full” language. It grew as there was more need for it in later films and TV shows, of course, but it grew mainly because people were interested in it and started using it. I should have known that the language would catch on to a certain degree just because of its connection to Star Trek. But I never would have imagined that it would grow the way it has, not just in terms of number of speakers, but in terms of how well some people are able to converse and write in it.
The best example of all of this is that three terrific Klingon speakers are working on the new “Star Trek: Discovery” series (two doing the dialogue, one doing Klingon subtitles available on the Netflix versions of the show), and I’m not. This is fine with me, but the way. It’s very satisfying to see something I’ve created be used by other people so productively and capably.
What is your favorite derivative work in Klingon?
I’m not sure this counts as a “derivative work,” but I really like how Klingon pops up in non-Star Trek contexts (TV shows, movies) and audiences generally know what it is. It’s usually there as a joke, and that’s okay. In a more traditional interpretation of “derivative work,” I’d probably say the various literary works (translations of Shakespeare and others, various songs, “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” and more). Sorry, that’s more than one favorite.
Thank you, Dr. Okrand, for a fantastic interview!