How do you design a language from scratch? Ask a Klingon
Posted June 22, 2018 7:30 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — "wIy cha'! HaSta! cha yIghuS! 'eH... baH!"
These are the words you hear at the very beginning of the very first "Star Trek" movie -- the one from 1979 with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock that was awkwardly called "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." They are commands ("Tactical! Visual! Stand by on torpedoes! Ready... Fire!") barked out by a member of an aggressive alien species called Klingons.
They were invented on the set with the goal of sounding otherworldly and menacing, just like the warmongering race they belonged to. But since then, from just a few words that were little more than gibberish, the Klingon language has become the most widely spoken fictional language in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
It was developed by Marc Okrand, a linguist hired to invent more Klingon words for "Star Trek 3," which featured the aliens prominently.
"The producers wanted it to sound like a real language, and I thought that to make it sound like a real language, it had to be one," he said in a phone interview.
"But I had never created a language before. So I went back to the 'Motion Picture' and there were maybe eight lines of Klingon in the whole movie. I wrote down the words as best I could to make a list of the different sounds and the different syllable types. That was the start, and I built from that."
A guttural language
Klingons had appeared in the original "Star Trek" TV show that ran from 1966 to 1969, but they only spoke English. For the 1979 movie, they got a makeover, gaining ridged foreheads and a more defined culture based around honor and combat. It was only natural that they also spoke in their own language.
Those first Klingon words were created by James Doohan -- the actor who played chief engineer Scotty. Okrand had nothing to do with them or even the movie itself: his first contact with "Star Trek" was three years later, for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," which came out in 1982. He was hired to write some lines in Vulcan, the native language of Mr. Spock. "I actually taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan," he joked.
"Then I got called back to write some Klingon for "Star Trek 3." The goal was to make an alien language, but the sound had to match the words spoken in the original movie for consistency and it had to be pronounceable, because actors had to be able to say the lines."
To make Klingon sound alien, Okrand grabbed sounds from different languages and then broke a few linguistics rules.
"Human languages tend to be patterned. Certain sounds go together and certain others don't. I violated these rules and put sounds in Klingon that shouldn't be in the same language. There's no sound in Klingon that you can't find in some real language, but the collection of sounds is unique."
The result is something that registers as truly alien, with sounds reminiscent of Arabic, Turkish, Yiddish, Japanese and Native American languages. Its defining characteristic is that it had to be "guttural," Okrand said, to match the harsh sounds devised by Doohan for those first lines.
The sentence structure is equally unusual. Unlike English, which uses the common subject-verb-object pattern, Klingon prefers object-verb-subject, a rare pattern primarily used by small tribes in the Americas.
The Klingon dictionary
To teach the lines to the actors, Okrand recorded them on tapes and invented a special writing system so that they could be included in the scripts. It uses the regular English alphabet and works much like a phonetic transcription, with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters. The uppercase letters indicate sounds that don't exist in the English language, signaling to the actors that some special effort would be required.
When the movie wrapped, Okrand thought his contributions to the Klingon language had wrapped with it.
"At the time I had no idea that it was going to live beyond 'Star Trek 3.' Not a clue. But when I was working on the film, a lot of people would come up to me and say 'Oh, you're the Klingon guy! Say something in Klingon!' That made me think that 'Star Trek' fans might have been interested too. So, later, I started writing a book explaining how the language worked."
The book, titled "The Klingon Dictionary," was first published in 1985. The first part explains the grammar, and the second part is a Klingon-English bilingual dictionary.
"That was actually harder than describing the grammar, because I had to decide what words to actually invent. I decided to not make up any words having anything to do with Klingon geography or Klingon culture. I know it sounds strange to have a dictionary about Klingon that doesn't deal with that aspect, but the reason is because I'm not a writer, I don't write the stories or the movies and I didn't want to make something up that down the road would turn out wrong because of a TV episode or a movie. So I would let writers make up the culture, and come back afterward to say 'This is how you call it.' Not the other way around."
Klingon Language Institute
Although the book has sold over 250,000 copies since publication, it didn't immediately create a following of Klingon language learners. That started brewing, Okrand said, in the mid-1990s.
"That's when the internet was getting going, so people were able to find each other on common interests. At one point I got an email from Laurence Schoen, head of the Klingon Language Institute, which I had never heard of before. He offered to meet and told me they were a group of people who got together for activities centered around learning the language, and they had a yearly convention. I didn't know this was going on," he said.
Today, the Klingon Language Institute has about 5,000 guest (or free) members and about 300 full (or paid) members, and their 25th annual gathering -- or qep'a' cha'maH vaghDIch -- takes place in Indianapolis on July 19 to 21, 2018.
What happens at the gatherings? "We talk, we sing songs, we play games, we have fun," Chris Lipscombe, assistant director at the KLI, said in an email. "It really depends on the group. Some go out places like museums or galleries and speak Klingon, others go restaurants, while others just have gatherings at home. At our main gathering (qep'a') we also hold classes for beginners, and panels for more experienced speakers."
Not everyone who attends the meetings is an expert speaker. Both Okrand and Lispcombe estimate that about 20 or so people in the world have a high enough level of proficiency to hold a conversation purely in Klingon. But many more get by.
"I've studied French, Japanese, and Farsi besides Klingon, and Klingon is probably the easiest to get started on," said Lipscombe.
"The basic grammar is pretty simple, and I've seen people pick it up in a couple of hours. The advanced grammar is more complex, but I still think it's less complex than other languages. Klingon is more tricky than difficult, as it does some things that natural languages don't tend to do."
One problem is that small talk doesn't come easy in Klingon, as many popular English words intentionally don't have a direct translation. There is no "Hello," for example, and the nearest equivalent is "nuqneH," which means "What do you want?"
A new beginning
Klingon's popularity is still rising: It is, after all, "the fastest growing language in the galaxy," according to the KLI's website -- and the latest series, "Star Trek: Discovery," heavily features Klingons, offering long scenes of uninterrupted Klingon dialogue (also available with Klingon subtitles on Netflix outside the US). Last year, Duolingo, a language learning platform, launched a Klingon course that currently attracts around 100,000 learners.
Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Much Ado About Nothing" have been translated into Klingon, and Microsoft's Bing online translator offers it as a language option. In recent years, an alphabet has been created as an alternative writing system to the phonetic one devised by Okrand, allowing people to write in actual Klingon. And if you're wondering how "My Heart Will Go On" sounds in Klingon, a singer known as Klingon Pop Warrior has you covered.
Many other constructed languages have been created after Klingon, such as Dothraki and Valyrian from "Game of Thrones" and Na'vi from "Avatar," but they all have a fundamental difference to Klingon.
"These newer ones were intended to be languages from the beginning, which is great and the best way to do it," said Okrand.
Klingon was constructed instead like a movie set, Okrand said. If a movie set has a door but the door is not used in the story, the set decorators won't bother to make it actually open.
"I only made up what was needed for the film. Klingon has developed a whole lot more since then, but it was not originally designed to be a fully fleshed out spoken language. It has become that."