The Man Who Taught Mr. Spock to Speak Vulcan

Linguist Marc Okrand had to invent whole new languages for Star Trek’s non-Earthlings.

Marc Okrand was hired in 1982 to write dialogue in Vulcan for this already-shot-in-English scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan featuring Kirstie Alley and Leonard Nimoy. (CBS Consumer Products/Star Trek Archive)
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Linguist Marc Okrand invented the Klingon and Vulcan languages as heard in the Star Trek films and TV series, beginning with a Vulcan-dialogue scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982. He published the first edition of The Klingon Dictionary in 1985. For our Star Trek survey—and also in the video below—he responded to questions in Klingon, but provided English translations as well.

Favorite story: Hov leng wej: Spock nejlu’. lutvam bejlu’taHvIS, tlhIngan Hol mu’tlheghmey chu’qu’ vIchenmoHbogh luQoylu’. jIlengchoH.

Favorite character: Qugh la’. tlhIngan Hol vIchenmoHDI’, jatlhwI’ wa’DIch ghaH.

Fondest memory: vulqan Hol jatlhlaHmeH Mr. Spock, vIghojmoHta’. pItlh.

Lesson of Star Trek: pIj tay’taH Doch pIm. vulqangan qech ’oH, tlhIngan qech ’oHbe’.

Trek tech: jol. Hoch Holmey mughwI’ vIwIv ’e’ DapIH’a’?

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Translation:

Favorite storyStar Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). It’s the film for which I devised Klingon, so it marks the start of what turned out to be (for me) a remarkable journey. I was on the set most of the time Klingon was spoken, and often even when it wasn’t, so watching the film brings back memories the way watching old home movies does.

Favorite character: Commander Kruge. [Kruge is a Klingon Bird of Prey commander played by Christopher Lloyd, and the main antagonist of The Search for Spock.] He was the first major speaker of the Klingon I devised.

This is a totally biased response, of course, but he did set the tone for all that followed.  His name in Klingon is homophonous with the word Qugh, meaning “disaster.” His mission in the film may have ended in disaster for him and his crew, but his non-English dialogue led to my continued involvement with Star Trek as well as an increase in the use of constructed languages in films generally.

Linguist Marc Okrand talks to Associate Editor Chris Klimek about creating new languages for Star Trek. (Video: Paul Griffith and Martin Kelsey at the National Air and Space Museum.)

Fondest memory: Teaching Leonard Nimoy to speak Vulcan. This was for a scene in The Wrath of Khan.  I still find my brief participation in it rather mind-boggling.

Lesson or Inspiration: IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This is a basic tenet of Vulcan philosophy, and not Klingon at all.

In fact, translating the idea into Klingon is awkward; literally something like “different things continue to be together always.” But I think this captures the spirit of what Star Trek is all about and something the world—the one we’ve currently got —can use more of.

Trek Tech: Transporter Beam. Did you expect me to choose the Universal Translator?
Though a Universal Translator would be a useful device, and it would be interesting to work on its development, it would have a downside: No one would need to learn another language. This, I think, would lead to a narrowing or rigidity of thinking and a decrease in the appreciation and understanding of other people. Certainly non-IDIC, and I’d say a Qugh.

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