Development and Use of the Klingon Language

The Klingon language was originally created to add realism to a race of fictional aliens who inhabit the world of Star Trek, an American television and movie franchise. Although Klingons themselves have never existed, the Klingon language is real. It has developed from gibberish to a usable means of communication, complete with its own vocabulary, grammar, figures of speech, and even slang and regional dialects. Today it is spoken by humans all over the world, in many contexts.

Klingons first glowered from television screens in 1968. These aggressive warriors were scripted speaking only English until the 1979 release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when viewers heard guttural shouts from the crew of a doomed Klingon spaceship. Only the subtitles knew what they were saying: the actors themselves put emotion into what were then meaningless sounds. Then, two Star Trek movies later, the producers called on professional linguist Dr. Marc Okrand to create authentic speech for the Klingons. His task was to make their language as alien as their ridged prosthetic foreheads, while still remaining pronounceable by human actors and consistent with the battle cries from the first movie.

Dr. Okrand did not base Klingon on any particular language, but drew on his knowledge of how language works to construct a wholly new language. During filming, he coached the actors on pronunciation, and then amended Klingon to match not only their mispronunciations, but also changes made to the subtitles after the lines were recorded. Dr. Okrand's description of the language he created was published in 1985 as The Klingon Dictionary. Over 300,000 copies were sold, and while to many fans the book was merely another collectible, some realized that the vocabulary and grammar made up a usable language, and a few took it upon themselves to learn it. Most use the writing system that Dr. Okrand devised, but some use pIqaD, a writing system based on the glyphs used in set decoration.

The alien-seeming sounds all exist in natural human languages, as does almost every aspect of the grammar, but the combination makes an interesting and unique language. Human students of the Klingon tongue found each other and began to communicate using the Internet. In 1992 Dr. Lawrence Schoen founded the Klingon Language Institute, an organization that facilitates communication among Klingonists through publications, language proficiency certification, an annual conference, this website and a sense of community. The KLI has published Klingon language editions of works including Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching, and Gilgamesh.

Dr. Okrand continues to support the language, attending conferences, publishing additional books and providing additional vocabulary and grammatical clarification through consultation with his purported Klingon informant, Maltz. A second edition of The Klingon Dictionary was published in 1992, and the reference book has been translated into German, Czech, Italian, and Portuguese.

The language has entered popular consciousness, being referenced and used in television series and movies that have nothing to do with Star Trek, in advertising, in art, and as a language option in software. An original opera 'u' has been written and performed in Klingon, and a Klingon language stage play adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol entertained audiences in four cities over seven years. The language has even been used as a yardstick for unintelligibility in a publication as stolid as The Economist.

While most Star Trek fans know a few words of Klingon, and many may know a few common phrases, very few have any degree of fluency. Learning Klingon to a conversational level takes more time and intellectual discipline than simply watching the television show. The people who do speak Klingon well are not necessarily hard core Star Trek fans. When they get together they use Klingon to recount adventures, reveal plans, write fiction, play games, and get in and out of arguments. Klingon speakers have spoken the language to meet as strangers, bond as friends and even continue into romance. Even the harshest consonants fall sweetly on the ear when they are in the voice of a friend.