The Klingon Language

June 17, 2011, by A. U. Crawford

I think everyone knows by now that there is a language called Klingon, that originated from Star Trek. Not many know how it came about though.

Marc Okrand

This is Marc Okrand and he is the creator of the Klingon Language. Okrand, is a former linguistics professor who works on closed captioning at the National Captioning Institute. He helped out with The Wrath of Khan doing the dubbing for the Vulcan language. They liked his work so much that he was asked to do a whole language for the Klingons in The Search for Spock.

Previously there had been some work done with Klingon already. Some Klingon names and a line or two, but nothing that would make a language. It was a place to start though. He took the sounds and built up the phonetics. Human languages evolved so that there are rules that are common in almost all languages on earth. Like the sounds we can make, how sentences are structured and so forth.

Well Klingon is not from earth so it doesn’t have to follow these rules. In fact it might seem strange if it did. So what Okrand did was shy away from human tendencies in language. For instance languages almost always have a ‘V’ and a ‘F’, sounds that are very similar but different. In Klingon though there is no ‘F’.

He took this approach in all part of the language including Gramar:

The basic order of the words, I had to figure out. The three basic elements of a sentence are the subject, the verb, and the object. The subject is who’s doing the action, the verb is what is the action, and the object is who’s receiving the action assuming that’s appropriate to the sentence. Part of the grammar of English is knowing where in the sentence does the subject and the object fall because otherwise you don’t know who is doing what to whom. If you look around at all the different languages, there’s all kinds of different orders these things can fall in – it doesn’t have to be the way English is. In fact, in some languages it can be any old thing because you mark who’s doing it with little suffixes or something like that. But ignoring that for the time being…

Mathematically, there’s six possible combinations: subject-verb-object, subject-object-verb, verb-object-subject, verb-subject-object, object-subject-verb, object-subject-verb, and object-verb-subject. And all of these things are represented in languages in the world somewhere or other, although some are much more common than others. So if you take this weird notion that the most common is the most human and the least common is the least human, then for Klingon I should pick the least common. Not because for any other reason than it’s found in the fewest human languages. And the least common are the ones with the object first, and [object-verb-subject] is the one I chose for Klingon. I chose it – It’s found in a few languages in the world, not very many, as the basic word order.

Klingon was created under a tight deadline for a movie. What Okrand had done was create a base set of rules to use, and over time the fans used these rules to expand the language. By 1985 there was enough material and intrest that Okrand published The Klingon Dictionary which It was later updated in 1992. It’s an international bestseller, selling more than a half-million copies. There’s also a Klingon Language Institute and now an iPhone app.

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