July 17, 2018

How Do You Design a Language from Scratch? Ask a Klingon

CNN (07/03/18) Prisco, Jacopo

Audiences were introduced to the Klingon language at the beginning of the first Star Trek movie in 1979. Back then, the language consisted of a few sentences. However, according to Guinness World Records, Klingon has evolved into the most widely spoken fictional language in the world.

Klingon was developed by Marc Okrand, a linguist who was hired to invent Klingon words for the movie Star Trek 3. “The producers wanted Klingon to sound like a real language,” Okrand says. “I had never created a language before, so I went back to the 1979 movie, but there were maybe eight lines of Klingon in the whole movie,” Okrand explains. “I wrote down the words as best I could to make a list of the different sounds and syllable types and built from that.”

“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 the actors had to be able to say the lines,” Okrand explains. To make Klingon sound alien, Okrand grabbed sounds from different languages and then broke a few linguistics rules.

“Human languages tend to be patterned,” Okrand says. “Certain sounds go together and others don’t, so I violated some rules and put sounds in Klingon that shouldn’t be in the same language.” Okrand says that there is no sound in Klingon that can’t be found 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. Okrand says that the defining characteristic of Klingon is that it’s “guttural.” 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.

“At the time I had no idea that Klingon was going to live beyond Star Trek 3, 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!'” The wide interest from fans is what led Okrand to start writing a dictionary explaining how the language worked. The Klingon Dictionary was 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,” Okrand says. The dictionary has sold over 250,000 copies. 

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 the best way to do it,” Okrand explains. “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.”