The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He invented the Klingon language for ‘Star Trek.’ But how?

Marc Okrand is the creator of the Klingon language.
Marc Okrand is the creator of the Klingon language. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)
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Marc Okrand, 69, is often asked how to say “I love you” in Klingon, but the closest phrase is actually “I dis-hate you.” He lives in Adams Morgan.

Klingon is this big deal now. It’s had a quarterly journal, a fiction and poetry magazine, there’s a Klingon opera, there are Klingon translations of Shakespeare. What was the state of Klingon when you entered the picture?

In the original series there was no Klingon spoken — the 1960s Captain Kirk series. The only thing we knew about the language was character names. In the first movie, the Klingon captain speaks maybe two or three lines. That was made up, before I got involved. I was hired to do the Klingon for “Star Trek III.”

And how did that happen?

Because I did Vulcan for “Star Trek II.”

And how did that happen?

My real job, the one that really paid the bills, was closed captioning. The first program we did live was the Oscars, 1982. They flew me out to L.A., and I was having lunch with a friend who worked at Paramount. She and I go out to lunch, and the fact that I was a linguist came up — I have a PhD in linguistics. She said: “That’s really interesting. We’ve been talking to linguists. There’s this scene in the movie where Mr. Spock and this female Vulcan character have a conversation. When they filmed it, the actors were speaking English. But in postproduction, everyone thinks it would be better if they were speaking Vulcan.” They wanted a linguist to come and make up gobbledygook that matches the lip movements. And I said, “I can do that!”

Yay! Do you remember what they paid you?

It was a few hundred dollars. Friday of that week I coached Leonard Nimoy on his lines. And I remember driving to downtown L.A. and thinking — and I’ve said this to other people: I just taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan. And I thought that was the end of it. A year and a half later, they’re making “Star Trek III,” the producer calls me up and asks if I want to do Klingon.

How do you make a language from scratch?

You listen to the lines in the first movie. That’ll tell you what the sounds are. I added to it. These are not human; their language should not be recognizably human. But the people who are going to speak it, the actors, are human. So I added no sounds that you can’t find in some human language or other, but you shouldn’t find these sounds in the same language. It’s unnatural.

At the time I didn’t know it was going to, you know, live long and prosper.

Ha, ha!

I’ve never said that before — yuck!

Is it cultural appropriation for you, a human, to presume to speak for the Klingons?

I’m happy to speak for the Klingons, although if I’m in the room with a Klingon I’ll defer to him or her.