• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Star Trek: The Klingon Dictionary (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Something absolutely fascinating happened around the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

It seemed like the entire Star Trek universe suddenly got wider and broader. While alien races and cultures had always been a part of the franchise, they seemed to exist as little more than mirrors of human society – a prism through which we might view the modern world. While episodes like Amok Time and The Day of the Dove teased the idea of elaborate and truly alien civilisations, in most cases the show wasn’t committed to building a universe so much as telling an engaging story on its own terms.

This is, of course, a valid approach. Producing a weekly television show, it makes sense to focus on entertaining an audience with each and every episode. A fully-formed universe is a little pointless if nobody is actually watching it. However, around the release of The Search for Spock, something changed. All of a sudden, the cultures occupying the shared Star Trek universe seemed to take on a life of their own – they began to develop into more than just mirrors or reflections.

This is apparent in The Search for Spock itself, albeit obliquely. Kruge is not the most well-defined of adversaries, but he has a point. He is worried about what the Genesis Device means from outside the context of the Federation. He’s reacting to cultural imperialism, rejecting the right of the Federation to remake worlds in their own image. The Klingon Empire suddenly existed as more than just a convenient foe when the episode needed some stock communists, but an adversary with legitimate concerns and perspectives.

This change was mirrored outside The Search for Spock as well. Directly before the publication of Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelisation of The Search for Spock, Pocket Books released John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection. The novel was an in-depth look at Klingon culture, one that went on to influence Ronald D. Moore’s development of Klingon culture on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The novel published following McIntyre’s novelisation of The Search for Spock was Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally, an exploration of the Romulans.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this trend and development can be seen with the publication of the Klingon dictionary, as written by linguist Marc Okrand, based on his work for The Search for Spock. All of a sudden, Klingons were developed enough that they needed their own language.


The Search for Spock isn’t the first time that Star Trek fans got to hear the sound of the Klingon language. Appearing in a brief cameo at the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, audiences were treated to scenes set on the bridge of a Klingon ship, spoken entirely in Klingon with English subtitles. The dialogue had originally been written and spoken by actor James Doohan, who provided a tape recording to help Mark Lenard deliver the lines in question. There had been no sense that this was a proper language.

However, during the production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, linguist Marc Okrand was recruited to provide some suitable Vulcan dialogue for a quick conversation between Spock and Saavik. Foreshadowing the type of work that he would have to do with maintaining a Klingon dictionary, Okrand found himself colouring within a specific set of lines. The scene had originally been recorded in English, so Okrand had to create a suitably alien-sounding conversation that lip-synched to the footage of Leonard Nimoy and Kirsty Alley.

Okrand did a nice job with that scene. Indeed, his work was so good that he was recruited to work on The Search for Spock. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, The Search for Spock would feature several extended scenes on the bridge of a Klingon Bird of Prey commanded by Lord Kruge. There, without any humans around, the characters would converse in their own native tongue. Okrund was assigned to write that dialogue, providing a Klingon language that would sound credible.

Drawing from a wide variety of sources, Okrand created “something that sounds like an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic, Tlingit, and Yiddish and works like a mix of Japanese, Turkish, and Mohawk.” The result is eclectic. As Arika Okrent notes in In the Land of Invented Languages:

Many have speculated that Klingon is based on the Native languages that Okrand studied as a linguist. “I used some features from other West Coast languages, like the ‘tlh’ sound, for example,” said Okrand, “but my basic strategy was to witch sources whenever it started becoming too much like any one language in particular.” This strategy explains my reaction, as a linguist to Klingon: it is completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd.

Okrand’s work was so thorough and comprehensive that he published The Klingon Dictionary in December of 1984, allowing fans to engage with the language on its own terms. The book remains an iconic Star Trek tie-in.

The Klingon Dictionary has even created ripples outside the franchise. Mainstream culture is acutely aware that Klingon is a language that exists as something that can be spoken. On just about any television show, the ability to speak Klingon is treated as geek bona fides. “Is there a word in Klingon for loneliness?” Comic Book Guy laments on The Simpsons. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory has been known to break out the occasional phrase.

Meanwhile, the Klingon language is frequently used as a source of fascination from those outside of fan culture, eager to play up or sensationalise stories. So, naturally, Klingon has become associated with excesses of geek culture – with widespread coverage of stories like d’Armond Speers, who spoke to his son exclusively in Klingon for the first three years of his life, or David Waddell, who famously resigned in Klingon.

Klingon has become pop culture shorthand for the the excesses of nerd culture, even as the mainstream seems to be more and more welcoming of geekdom. Perhaps that is changing. High-profile productions of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol in Klingon have demonstrated the hard work done by fans following the language. Indeed, it seems like the past few years have seen more acceptance of the art of constructed languages, perhaps prompted by the success of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and the work of people like David J. Peterson on Game of Thrones.


Of course, although Klingon remains one of the more iconic constructed languages in the popular imagination, creating an original language for a work of fiction is by no means a novel idea. While Edgar Rice Burroughs included some in his John Carter works, the most obvious example of a fictional language tied into a work of fiction remains J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien began inventing the languages that would populate Middle Earth long before he plotted the events of The Lord of the Rings.

In that respect, Klingon is radically different from any of Tolkien’s languages. As Tolkien confessed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, you could argue that The Lord of the Rings was built simply to showcase his fictional languages:

The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers. (I now find that many would have liked more.) But there is a great deal of linguistic matter (other than actually ‘elvish’ names and words) included or mythologically expressed in the book. It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about?’

So the idea of an alien language comes somewhat baked into The Lord of the Rings. In contrast, the Klingon language exists as something that exists on the periphery of Star Trek. It’s an extension within (and even without) the text, rather than a foundational stone.

This has been a defining factor of the language since its inception. Okrand’s earliest Klingon translations were designed to fit around a few ad hoc phrases provided by James Doohan, working backwards from those and fleshing out the surrounding language. This has remained a feature of the language in the years since, with many words added to the language by the television show or the feature films, and Okrand working quite hard to reconcile them with the language itself.

After all, Star Trek is seldom written by linguists. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Ronald D. Moore – the man most responsible for shaping and developing Klingon culture within the franchise – admits his own struggles with the language:

“Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary sits on my desk,” Moore states emphatically, “right here. But I use it very infrequently. To be honest, Marc baffles me. I’m not a linguist.  I failed languages. Rules of grammar and syntax just put me away. So I just make it up and make it sound as cool as I can.”

While Okrand was minimally involved in the use of the language on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, he was quite involved in the Vulcan and Klingon dialogue in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Given how keenly focused that final season was at delving into Star Trek lore, that makes a great deal of sense.

This presents something of an interesting challenge for a linguist working with a franchise. Not only has Okrand crafted the language, he has also finds himself retroactively trying to make it all fit together. Okrand works from the assumption that most of what is spoken on Star Trek is part of the language, and his management of the Klingon language works around that:

But by the time of Star Trek V, the book had been published, so I could no longer fudge. This made the creation of dialogue for Star Trek V actually harder than it was for Star Trek III. It’s harder to follow rules than to make them up. Actually, one of the actors did misspeak a line in Star Trek V in a scene that was too complex to reshoot. After Star Trek VI came out, the dictionary was reissued with an addendum to incorporate material created after Star Trek III. I figured out a way for the muffed line to make sense and match the subtitle and included that in the revised book. So the line in Star Trek V is correct after all.

It’s a rather fascinating dynamic, one which feels a lot more complex than J.R.R. Tolkien’s approach to any of his languages, or even the use of linguists as members of the production team on shows like Game of Thrones. Okrand is working on both sides of the production to manage a fictional language, which is an absolutely fascinating position.

In many ways, it perhaps reflects the eccentric relationship that often exists between the production team on Star Trek and the more peripheral aspects of the franchise. Okrand’s Klingon language occupies a strange place between what might be termed “canon” and “fanon.” The linguist works hard to reconcile a lot of the Klingon dialogue on-screen, but has also extended the language beyond that. He then has to tie that extended language back into what plays out on screen.

It’s a bizarre relationship, but one that is quite intriguing. It’s something from within the production that has been fleshed out and has to thread the line between being its own unique entity and remaining part of the televised franchise. This dynamic is completely unusual, but incredibly involved. It’s a perfect testament to the scale and the reach of the franchise that something like the Klingon language exists and can be cultivated in the way that it has.

It also cements the idea that Star Trek is a franchise interested in exploring new viewpoints and perspectives. The aliens aren’t speaking generically foreign-sounding gibberish any longer, they have a language that makes sense. Okrand works quite hard to craft a language that reflects Klingon culture, ensuring that it isn’t just a replication of English. Klingon grammar and sentence structure reflects a more aggressive psychology and philosophy, with the language lacking even a word of “hello.”

Just as novels like The Final Reflection and My Enemy, My Ally work hard to give the familiar aliens their own cultural heritage and texture, the language offers its own glimpse into a culture that is no longer merely a two-dimensional stand-in for the communists. Okrand himself has worked on reference material even beyond The Klingon Dictionary, producing a book of Klingon philosophy labelled The Klingon Way.

Okrand’s work establishing Klingon as a real language rather than simply a sequence of guttural sounds is in many ways a formative moment for Star Trek. The publication of The Klingon Dictionary is just one of the ways that 1984 seems like a year where the Star Trek universe got a whole lot larger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: