Trying to pin Mare Okrand down for an interview is almost as difficult as
going after Maltz himself. The following exchange began as a discussion
between Lawrence Schoen and Will Martin back in April, and resulted in a
compelling list of thirteen questions. This list was presented to Okrand
during a convention in May. Months passed before Okrand's and Martin's
respective schedules coincided. Finally, over a dinner in mid-November, they
were able to meet and converse. Maltz was nowhere in sight.
WM: The one area that Klingonists have the most arguments about that
we can't resolve is transitivity of verbs. Are there any guidelines?
MO: I would not say there are any guidelines. Some verbs can take one
noun. Some take two. And it does not necessarily fall the way that
English falls. The way the dictionary is put together is not really
helpful the way the definitions are written.
MO: Right, although now we know from usage. The best way to know
this is from usage because when I made the dictionary, frankly, it
never occurred to me to put transitive or intransitive or whether
that was a relevant term in the first place. Usage is the way to go.
There are some verbs that I've used that by the one or two word
definition in the dictionary are intransitive and I've used them
transitively. It makes it more interesting, making Klingon more
different from English. For example, I've used the word yIn
transitively. "You live a Klingon life." That's perfectly acceptable in
Klingon. It's perfectly acceptable in English, too, but it is not
obvious from the short definition in the dictionary that that would
be an okay thing to do.
So you are right. You can't tell just by looking at the definition,
unless we went through and said, "Okay, this one you do this way
and that one you do that way..."
The other tricky thing is some people say you can put any prefix on
any verb. I suppose that you can, but just because you can doesn't
mean that you should. It doesn't mean that if you did that it would
be understood by everybody the way that you intended. But I think
it's fair to say that however it works, it is not necessarily the way
English works. Just because the English definition is X doesn't mean
that the Klingon word has to work the same way. The best way to
deal with all this is to examine usage...
WM: ...some of which we have to wait for.
MO: Yes. That's partly because Maltz doesn't want to paint me into a
WM: I see that you need to strike a balance between restricting yourself
by making unnecessary claims about the language that do not
ultimately prove to be accurate and giving people enough
information, especially about particular verbs that are problematic
so that people can feel more confident about what they are doing
with the language. I think about verbs like vIH - "move, be in
motion," which, depending on which way you see it, you could
believe that the word "move" is there just to help you look it up.
MO: A lot of the definitions are there just to help you look them up.
We're not just talking about transitivity. In general a lot of things
are there because if I'm looking for a word in Klingon, I've got to
have an English tag so I can find it. The best definition might not be
a good tag. Once you find the tag, then you can hopefully find the
WM: That makes sense with vIH in particular because "be in motion" is
not necessarily something that you could look up. But "move"
WM: People have interpreted that to mean both "move" and "be in
MO: I'll tell you what the intent was. The intent was "be in motion."
MO: Right. Though, again, down the road... What I've learned is to never
WM: One might eventually find oneself having used it without -moH.
MO: Right. But you can say, "Usually..."
WM: Okay, then in terms of "usually" could you address the best use of tlhob?
MO: What I intended to do with tlhob, though not necessarily what I
intended to do with tlhob when I first wrote the dictionary... The
language has evolved from what I set out to do for the movie to
what I set out to do for the dictionary to what I set out to do for... It
But what I wanted to do with tlhob and ghel is to distinguish
between two different meanings for the English verb "ask." There
are two "ask's." There's the "ask" where you ask a question and
there's "ask" where you make a request. I wanted it to be two
different verbs, though apparently there are times when the
"request" verb is used to ask a question as well. So maybe the way it works is
that ghel can ask a question and only ask a question and the other
one can mean that and is also use to request or plead or something
WM: And particularly, since the word tlhob was there longer, perhaps the
need for ghel was there before the word ghel was there.
I see something interesting in terms of the use of tlhob as the
second verb in a Sentence As Object construction and also the verb SIv, which was really interesting.
MO: That one, yes. I've wondered about that a lot. I spent a good chunk
of one summer, one or two summers ago, -- I'm not trying to make
a pun here, but - wondering about how that works. How do you say,
"I wonder." I was going around asking people, "How do you say, 'I
wonder who's kissing her now?'" after that song. I was getting
utterly confused about how to do it. I was trying to figure out what's
the best way to do it in Klingon and I don't have an answer. But
that's a really good question. I'm not sure what to do with that. The
other ones I'm more comfortable with, but I'm having trouble
figuring out the semantics of it in English, much less in Klingon.
The other verbs of speech, I feel better about.
WM: Do you see a division about which ones would be appropriate used
as verbs of speech?
MO: Very few. Verbs of speech are "say" verbs, like jatlh and ja'.
WM: In English, we use many of them.
MO: Yes. In English, we say, "Give me some water," he said. "Give me
some water," he pleaded. "Give me some water," he yelled.
WM: He added. He begged. He opined.
MO: Exactly. I think that's an English thing to do. That's not a Klingon
thing to do. In Klingon, you jatlh and you ja'. That's about it. The
guard asked the prisoner a question. He replied. He said, ""
WM: So, basically, in Klingon, you would just use jatlh a lot. If someone
is asking a question, would you state the question and say jatlh?
MO: If it's a direct quotation, I would. Yes. If it's an indirect question...
How would you do indirect quotation?
WM: Is there such a beast as indirect quotation in Klingon?
MO: That's a good question.
WM: Would that be something handled with the pronoun 'e'?
MO: It could.
WM: In the example where you used that with the verb tlhob it was such
an example that because of the person and number of the subject
and object, you couldn't tell if it was a direct or indirect quotation.
Since it had the 'e' it wasn't technically a quotation at all. That was
the reason I was drawn toward the concept that it would be an
indirect quotation. It was the "I asked you command this ship..."
MO: That's not a quotation at all. That's just an "I ask you to do
WM: That's kind of what I think of as an indirect quotation, "I ask you to
MO: If that's how you are defining it, that's fine. I have no problem with
that. An indirect quotation the way I'm thinking of it, I'm not sure
it is a technical term. "The person had said he would show up this
afternoon," The direct quotation would be, "The person said, "I will
show up this afternoon."
WM: You can tell the difference in that because of the difference in
MO: Right. But if I'm referring to me, and I say, "The person said I will
show up this afternoon," then, which is that?
WM: Well, you have to know which you are saying. But in an example
like, "I ask you to command the ship and..."
MO: It doesn't matter again. I wouldn't call that an indirect quotation in
the way that I'm using it now. Maybe this is a clearer example of an
indirect quotation: "The warrior said the bloodwine was cold"
(which, in English, could also be "The warrior said that the
bloodwine was cold").
MO: The way I see I see the verbs of speech, there may be more than just ja' and jatlh, but there is only a small number of words, unlike
English. You have to use a separate sentence for the replying,
pleading, screaming. "He screamed. He said, 'Come help me.'"
WM: Since a direct quotation grammatically looks like two separate
sentences, you are saying that it would now look like three separate
sentences at that point. You'd have one describing what style of
verbalization he was having, one saying "he said" and one giving
WM: Very interesting.
While I feel that any examples that exist deserve respect and are
certainly what we have to go by, I don't feel like you should
perpetually be bound to every utterance because you wind up with
one of two things happening. Either you become overly restricted in
your ability to use the language, or the language becomes very
confusing because there is so much splintering because everything is
MO: Well you have to remember that it is a spoken, living language.
What we say in English and what we write in English is not
necessarily the same thing. Klingon is the same way. What people
say and what people say they say is not necessarily the same thing.
There's kind of an ideal way of doing it and people have different
ideas about what is permissible and what is not permissible. Maybe
there's some old stick-in-the-mud who says "No" and someone else
says, "No, that's alright. There's nothing wrong with that."
And the course to follow for a student probably falls somewhere
between. You don't want to go too fast and loose or too far afield
because then nobody will understand what you are doing. You
won't have any rules at all. You don't want to be too rigorous,
either. It's not math.
One of the things that I think about when I read what people have
to say about Klingon sometimes is when someone argues that things
have to be one way, I think, "No, it shouldn't always be like that."
It should be like that in maybe 75% or 80% of the cases, but not
100%. Languages don't work that way. Maybe Vulcan does, I don't
WM: It would be a good candidate for it.
I know that I've been, myself, more of a formalist in that my own
interest has been less in encoding English sentences into Klingon
and say, "There! It's done!" than it is to create something that, once
it is in Klingon, anyone who knows the language would then be
able to understand it well. I feel like the burden is on the person
moving the thought into the language instead on the person who is
supposed to be able to figure out whatever it is I just said.
WM: Just to mention particular verbs in terms of whether they can be
used for speech or not, you are saying that ghel is a word that
would probably not be used typically as a verb of speech. That even
if you are asking a question you would still tend to use ja' or jatlh.
MO: Yes. "He asked me. He said, 'blah, blah, blah.'" Or "He said, 'blah,
blah, blah.' He asked me." It doesn't matter.
WM: Oh boy. Is it. My personal sense of ghoS, just trying to figure out
what in the world all those different definition segments are
pointing towards, is that ghoS would be to follow a path associated
with the direct object.
MO: Yes. That's good. I've never heard it phrased that way, but that's
WM: So, typically, the most common thing you'd associate with a path is
its destination, but it doesn't have to be. It could be its source.
Now, the usage that I've seen most commonly is that we'll use just
the noun if it is the destination, but we'll use -vo' on the noun
when we are moving away from it. Would that be typical Klingon
MO: Yes. The short answer is yes.
WM: You said that you can't always judge by the definitions as given,
that you can't always tell as to whether something can be transitive
or not. There are certain things that are very similar to ghoS that
some of us are very tempted to use in a similar way. Things like bav
MO: Yes. I would do that.
WM: Then there are some that some people are tempted to, and others
really don't like, like jaH - "go."
MO: Here's the way jaH works. jaH can be used, using your terminology
both transitively and intransitively. So, bIQtIqDaq jIjaH is "I go in
I'm moving along in the river, traveling in the river. You can also
say bIQtIqDaq vIjaH...
MO: Yes. But you don't have to. That would be the way. -Daq or no -Daq. The prefix makes the difference in meaning. jI- means I'm
moving along in someplace. vI- means I'm moving along to
someplace. You cannot say bIQtIq jIjaH.
WM: At that point, bIQtIq has no function in the sentence.
MO: Again, just like jaH, it depends. Duj vIpaw means "I arrive at the
ship;" DujDaq jIpaw means "I arrive on the ship," that is, I arrive
via the ship or something like that. And it would probably be okay
to say DujDaq vIpaw for "I arrive at the ship." But Duj jIpaw
strikes me as odd.
WM: If you think of any other ghoS like verbs... Those were the only
ones I could come up with.
MO: Okay. This opens up a whole new issue. You see, there's this thing
called "deixis." This is the idea that an utterance is made at a
specific time and place, and certain words or grammatical elements
are interpreted correctly only by reference to that time and place.
So the same word may refer to a different real-world thing
depending on who's speaking, where, when, and so on. Like in the
statement "I am here," where is "here?" It has to do with where you
are when you make the statement. And who is "I?" "I" is Marc if I
say it; it's Will if you do.
WM: And when somebody writes that on a blackboard and then walks
away. It was true when it was written, but later...
MO: Yes. It's like the sign in a store window that says "Back in one
hour." If there's no indication of when the sign was put up, how do
you know how long to wait? It's the same in regular conversation.
You don't speak in a vacuum. There are elements in the speech
situation to let us interpret utterances correctly. Usually, anyway.
MO: Using the verbs Sum and Hop involves this concept.
WM: So I could not say raSvam vISum to say, "I am near the table."
MO: No. You'd just say Sum raS. The verb Sum implies that the speaker
is the one the subject is near at the time of speaking.
WM: Well, that resolves the conflict otherwise created if they could take
objects. It keeps them stative, so you can say, HIvje' Sum yItlhap.
WM: Otherwise, they'd be the only verbs we'd sometimes use as
adjectives and other times use transitively.
MO: Take an object. Yes.
WM: So, could that deictic anchor be shifted by using an indirect object?
Like if I wanted to say, "You are near the table," could I say SoHvaD
MO: No. You'd use -Daq: SoHDaq Sum raS. This throws the orientation
away from the speaker (unmarked, unstated) and to the listener
(marked, stated: "at you, where you are"). But you don't always
need to state this overtly. Context is critical. For example:
The only interpretation of this (absent other information) is that the
warrior knows the gagh is near the warrior, not the warrior knows
the gagh is near the speaker of the sentences. If context isn't clear,
you can clarify:
Question: Sum'a' raS?
Is the table near (me)? (Am I near the table?)
MO: No. You'd just say bISum or SuSum. If you haven't, in the course of
the conversation, set things up otherwise, it's assumed that the
event being talked about is taking place where the speaker is. In fact, jISum alone probably would make no everyday sense to a Klingon.
"I am near me." But it does have an idiomatic philosophical sense,
something like "I'm in touch with my inner self" (but in a Klingon
sort of way, of course).
WM: Okay. Let's move on to verbs that seem to require a plural subject,
like nIb - "be identical."
MO: Yes. ghom can be used either with or without an object, but qIH
would always have an object. Well, I guess I should never say
"always." The intent with qIH is that it should have a direct object
or -chuq in normal usage.