University News

Klingon is out of this world, linguistically

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2011

According to Marc Okrand, there are two reasons to make up a fake language. The first is a belief that natural, existing languages are “inefficient, clumsy and full of exceptions that lead to miscommunication” and that an artificial, planned one could allow for linguistic perfection. The second is the desire to create a language that is no one’s first language — like the politically neutral Esperanto — so that no single person has an advantage in settings where multiple languages are being used, like the United Nations. But Okrand, the creator of Klingon, said he invented the fictional language spoken by the villainous race of warriors in Star Trek almost by accident.

Introduced as “the only linguist who wrote a book that could be sold in airports,” Okrand spoke to a packed Barus and Holley 166 last night about the history of Klingon and his involvement with the Star Trek franchise, along with the difficulties that came with constructing a language from the ground up. Though the audience was enthusiastic throughout, Okrand admitted at the start of his lecture that “generally speaking, when I’m giving a talk like this, it’s at a Star Trek convention.”

Having been commissioned to work on the subtitles for an Oscars ceremony in the 1980s, Okrand was in Los Angeles when he was called to meet with the producer of the Star Trek films to write a few lines of dialogue in the fictional Vulcan language. Since filming for the movie was already complete, the words Okrand made up had to match the lip movements of the actors.

In most science fiction movies, Okrand said the fake speech is “more fiction than science,” meaning it is not part of a fully constructed language and consists merely of isolated words and very short sentences. By the third Star Trek movie though, the production team and director decided there would be no more dubbing, according to Okrand. “For it to feel like a complete language, it had to be a complete language,” he said. And that was when the hard work began.

Okrand, who has a doctorate in linguistics, was able to use his extensive knowledge to make the language as foreign as possible. He looked at the components and rules that human languages have in common — like vowels, consonants, words and syntax — and “violated those tendencies” to make Klingon a non-human language For instance, he avoided the “s” sound because it is incredibly common in English, and omitted the “k” and “z” sounds because they were overused in sci-fi — think Freddie Krueger, kryptonite and King Kong. But Okrand explained the irony in that choice — “After I made this decision, I realized that Klingon started with a ‘k’.”

Since its creation, Klingon has become widely popular among a small but devoted group of followers — an opera performed entirely in the fake language went on tour in the Netherlands, a Klingon language institute was founded and cultural appearances in television series and movies abound. Okrand even mentioned marriage ceremonies conducted in Klingon, and a mental health institution that temporarily added Klingon to the list of languages it needed translators for in the event that a patient could not speak any other language.

The lecture, organized by the linguistics departmental undergraduate group, was followed by a screening of the 1991 film “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”