An Interview with Marc Okrand^1^

David Barron

DB: Why was it necessary for the producers to create a language instead of
Just having the actors make up words and put captions beneath it?

MO: I don't know that it was necessary but they wanted to do it. For the
same reason that as best they can they want everything else to be
accurate as well so they talk about space like all this and that... there's
a lot of information obviously we don't have yet because it hasn't
been invented yet, but given the information that we do have they
want to make it fit, want to make it as real as possible... The
attention given to set decoration - on the monitors there's really
things happening, it's not just little pictures that don't move, they
really do move they aren't necessary connected to anything going on
in the show at the time but there's stuff going on. There's little labels
on equipment that really means something, it's not just made up

DB: For continuity then.

MO: Yes, on the Klingon ship all the things are labelled in Klingon and the
labels are consistent from place to place, if there is a sign that says
"this way to the exit" who knows what it means but they are very
consistent about all that stuff. There's a lot of detail on the weapons,
a lot of detail that shows up for two seconds on a quick shot. Their
thinking is if we are going to do it we are going to do it right, because
we don't want it to look phony or cheap. They extended that to the
language as well, as much as possible, There is some stuff where they
didn't do it. For example, in ST3, The Search for Spock, there's some
Vulcan in there, in addition to Klingon; some of the Vulcan I did,
and some of the Vulcan Leonard Nimoy made up. And the stuff he
made up sounds real good but I don't think that it means anything --
in the big language sense -- it means something specific but he hasn't
thought about the structure.

DB: Were you commissioned to do this and when did it start?

MO: Well I did the book because I did the movie. I made up Vulcan for
ST2 & 3, though there's not very much Vulcan spoken. I made up
Klingon for ST3 & 5 and a tiny bit for the new TV show. And the
book came out of the Klingon I make up for ST3. So the movie
language came first.

DB: What did you have to consider in order to make the language
Klingon, that is have a sort of Klingon essence to it besides the
popping P's and spitting of saliva and things like that.

MO: Well the phonetic base of the language I didn't make up. The origins
of the language are the first ST movie. At the very beginning of that
film they talk Klingon, there's a scene that lasts a few minutes and
there's three Klingon ships flying around and one by one they get
zapped and then the Klingons aren't in the picture anymore and the
picture goes downhill from there. But anyway there's one ship that's
clearly the command ship because there's a Klingon commander
there, he's barking out commands. And those are in Klingon and
subtitled -- I didn't make those up but they were there -- so I said, okay
that's Klingon, everything I do has to mesh with that. There were
only half a dozen lines, but I wrote down phonetically as best I could
what they were and subtitles and I said okay this I will decide means
this... this means this... this is a command, therefore this little thing
here is an imperative prefix or what have you and went from there.
Now, having done that I made an inventory of the sounds and
syllables types and said, this is the core but it's not enough -- not
enough variety to make up a lot more words so I made up other
sounds that I thought would sound good that would intentionally
violate certain things that Earth languages do. In terms of patterns,
not so much that the actors wouldn't be able to learn it. Just so it was
a little bit off.

DB: Are you fluent in Klingon?

MO: No, I don't have anyone to talk to.

DB: I wonder if anyone is fluent in Klingon?

MO: Not that I'm aware of, although I've received letters in Klingon.
People have shouted sentences at me in Klingon, but I've never heard
anyone carry on a conversation.

DB: Are you fluent enough to know what they are talking about?

MO: I have to return to the Dictionary. In fact, I was asked to make up
some words for TNG. The writer made up what the English ought to
be and then they went and got the dictionary and tried to use it to
make it be right and they couldn't figure out how to use the
dictionary -- they could find the words hut they weren't sure how the
grammar worked. I happened to be in Hollywood at the time,
working on ST5 and they asked me to come over and tell them how
to say this stuff. So I did. I walked in the office and the first thing I
said was let me see the dictionary. And the guy says "what do you
need the dictionary for I thought you knew this stuff" and I said "no,
what I know is how to use the dictionary." So I had no trouble
making it up but I couldn't remember what the words were.

DB: Are you ever on the set coaching the actors?

MO: I haven't been for the TV show, for the movies I was (3 & 5). For the
TV show, for the lines I made up, they wrote them down and I
coached the secretary who wrote down how to say them. And
whether she coached the actors I don't know.

DB: Did you give them a critique once you saw it on the show?

MO: Not the actors.

DB: Do you think they did okay?

MO: Yes, they didn't say exactly what I said. In fact when I heard it I
thought "What? Let's play that one back," but they were very close
given that these guys didn't have anyone to tell them what the letters
meant and they had to go by either my description in the book or
nothing at all; I don't know whether the actors saw the book or not.
They did really well. Just making it sound like Klingon they did a
great job, whether they were off by a consonant or something but it
was a legitimate consonant they were off by - it sounded okay, could
have been a different dialect.

DB: How did you go about selecting the 1500 words that are in the

MO: Three things I used: One was all the words that I'd made up for the
film were in there; for ST3 there's a number of lines in Klingon that
the original script says so-and-so says in Klingon blah-blah-blah, and
then it give the English, so all of that's in there. I also, in preparation
for the film, made up Klingon versions of all the lines that any
Klingon spoke in English even though the intent was that he speak it
in English, just in case while they were filming they said, "gee maybe
we ought to film this with the guy talking in Klingon rather than
English," so I'd be ready, I was prepared for that. So all those words
are in there even though they're not in the film. So that's one batch
of stuff. And the words from ST1 are in there as well.

Then I went back to the TV series where they don't talk Klingon, not
one Klingon word is ever spoken, the only Klingon on the TV series is
names of people, but they talk about things. So I made sure that I
had all the words for the things they talk about that people would
recognize. I wasn't all that exhaustive, making sure I could translate
every line any Klingon ever said on TV, but things like Tribble -- I
made sure I had that because that's a big deal for the Klingons, and
the other words that would come up in an episode, So that's the
second batch of stuff, Trek related words.

And that still wasn't enough, so the third thing was -- I looked at
Berlitz books and thought what kinds of words do they have and tried
to flesh it out. And just some things that occurred to me in passing.

DB: Have you developed any further beyond that?

MO: Yes for ST5 I had to add a little tiny bit more, not much. Fortunately
for the integrity of the language or for the utility of the dictionary, a
good chunk of the lines in ST5, the vocabulary, not the grammatical
part but the vocabulary, is in the dictionary -- not everything, there's a
number of words in ST5 I had to make up. There's a ST novel that a
woman named Diane Carey wrote. She used Klingon in there and she
contacted me and said, "am I doing this right?" I changed it around a
little, she got the word order backwards in a couple of places but we
got her right, then she wanted to say some things I didn't have the
words for so I made up a few words for her. Just a little bit more than
what's in the dictionary.

DB: Were you involved in developing the culture of the Klingons?

MO: Not really, that was all done by the people who wrote the scripts. The
TV series is where it really started. I added stuff, there's mention of
things in the book but it's mostly in fun.

DB: How long did it take you to develop the book?

MO: Well, the language, that was developed for the films, took several
months not of full time work, plus being in Hollywood for a month
during the shooting. After the principle shooting was done for ST3,
was when I wrote the book. The arrangement I had with Pocket
Books, the publisher, was that the deadline was the first of the year,
but I didn't have a firm committment from them until around
Thanksgiving so I that gave me essentially December to do it. So it
was a very concentrated month of writing the book, writing the
grammar part and compiling the lists of words and thing like that. As
it turns out that January 1st deadline wasn't true, though I didn't
know that, and I'm glad in retrospect that I didn't know that, it made
me work. As a result, after the 1st of the year I went back to
Hollywood for some postproduction on the film because they
changed some lines. So what I had to do was create some more
Klingon, a little bit that wasn't in the original script. Also they
changed some lines that were originally spoken in English, but I
couldn't just translate it into Klingon because now the actors were on
film speaking it, they weren't going to film it over again, they were
just going to dub in the lines, so I had to make up Klingon words that
fit the English lip movements that were already on the film. So in
English if they said a syllable "bah" then I would change it to "mah"
or something that looked right but sounded different -- that was
straightforward enough but I also had to make sure it sounded like
Klingon, that it had the choppy sound, the guttural stuff, the glottal
stops and all that, and somehow make it fit into the grammar I had
devised. That's not an easy thing to do. But for the sake of the book,
fortunately I could add stuff, the book wasn't printed yet, so I could
take all this new stuff and incorporate it into the book so all the
things that were really just lip syncing, I could figure out a way that it
fit it into the grammatical structure or make up a new bit of grammar,
so all that got incorporated into the book. If the January deadline
had held the book be wrong, it wouldn't have matched the film, but
as it turns out it does. They also switched subtitles on me so a line
that originally meant X now suddenly means Y. They cut out a scene
but saved the footage and put it in somewhere else and gave it a new
subtitle. So there's, I didn't, but they introduced homophony into the

DB: Introduced what?

MO: Homophony. Two words that sound exactly alike but have different
meanings. So that's also now incorporated into the dictionary also.
There's now two identical syllables that have utterly different
meanings, where that wasn't my original intent although now that
it's done I don't know why not... Klingons can have that.

DB: Have you developed a written language?

MO: I haven't, but there is a written Klingon Language.

DB: Did you incorporate that?

MO: No, because I didn't have it until recently. It was certainly developed
for the first motion picture; it may have been developed in fact for
the TV show, I'm not sure. Since the first movie anyway every time
there's been Klingons there's been this writing system that's on their
ship and on their graphic displays. I guess the art director for the first
film or the TV show didn't do it with any particular language in mind
so the characters don't correspond to anything in particular but now I
have a copy of the character set. What I'd like to do it sit down and
say "Okay, let's make sense out of this thing so that for now on, at
least for words like 'Klingon' it's the same thing." When they do it,
when they use these characters, they are very careful not to just use a
random jumble, so even though they don't mean anything in
particular, yet, if there's two signs next to each other they use
different characters so they look like different words or if there's the
same kind of thing in two locations they'll use the same characters --
they are very sensitive to all that.

DB: What's the future for Klingon?

MO: I don't know, with this TV show, I think the future is bright. If the
audience likes it I imagine there will be more and more of it. My
feeling about all this stuff, people have said to me things like "when
are you going to write the Vulcan dictionary," and my answer is when
there is enough Vulcan to base a dictionary on. I could, if I wanted
to, just go ahead and make up a Vulcan dictionary, there's a bit of
Vulcan in the films, a little tiny bit in the TV shows, and I could
expand it a lot more, but unlike Klingon, for Vulcan it would be
mostly my expansion as opposed to the stuff on TV and in the
movies, and I don't want to do that. In my mind what the Star Trek
languages are all about are the ones that we have actually heard on
TV or in the films, not something that some guy made up for no
other reason than to make it up. If there was a lot of talking, if Spock
and his family ever got into a long conversation, so that there was
enough to base a grammatical description on and enough vocabulary,
then I would do something like that, but I don't want to do it just out
of my head. I want it to be connected to something that everybody is
familiar with. The same thing with Klingon, I could expand that, but
I don't want to expand it just for the sake of expansion. If there was
more in the films, and more on the TV, and therefore the book is
suddenly out of date then I would expand it. And I would be willing
to expand it beyond what was added for the films or TV, but I don't
want to expand it just because I think there ought to be more words,
that are not based on anything.

^1^ This is a portion of a larger interview conducted in February of 1988.