The origins of the Klingon language, the ‘Axanar’ lawsuit and linguist Marc Okrand

(Pocket Books)

There’s no question that fictional languages like Klingon are extremely fun and cool. As a fan boy, I love throwing my knowledge of Tolkien’s Elvish around. I also love calling my gaming buddies p’Taqs in Klingon as expressions of derision. Heck, every week I listen to various fictitious languages being spoken on HBO’s Game of Thrones episodes and I’m sure George R.R. Martin gets a kick out of hearing them brought to life. However, I know these languages are not real and were created by authors and scholars for the point of adding an extra dimension of entertainment for the fans of these franchises.

PopMythology had an opportunity to sit down and chat with the author of The Klingon Dictionary, Marc Okrand. Though not the creator of the Klingon language, Okrand is widely respected and regarded as the established authority on the subject. If there’s anyone who gets the final word on the subject, it’s this guy.

The Klingon language has been in the news lately due to being involved in a legal battle. Sadly, lawsuits over Paramount/CBS intellectual property seem to be the fashion these days. After all, when the crowd-funded production Axanar attracted the attention of the Star Trek copyright owner’s attention by raising over a million dollars and claiming that they wanted to be “a professional quality film”, lines have been drawn between fans and the IP owner. One of the defences the fan film brought up was to demand a list of the alleged infringed properties. CBS/Paramount listed the Klingon language as one.

(Axanar Productions)

The question of who can do what they want with fandom-oriented properties like Star Trek has never really been brought to forefront of media attention as much as it has lately. The extreme passion that fans have summoned in taking sides in this issue sometimes manifests itself as just plain silly.

You see, an organization called the Language Creation Society recently made a claim that copyrighting the Klingon language – a language spoken by a fictitious race of aliens in the Star Trek universe – isn’t right. As a result, Paramount/CBS has had to defend this claim in court by decrying the Klingon language as fake and essentially made-up. You think?

However, there is this group of people, who clearly have too much time on their hands, believe that “this language has clearly taken on a life of its own”, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The claim is that it is a living and functional language and is therefore real.

I’m not a lawyer, so let me express this in more unlearned sarcasm: Really?

Can you say, “Yab Bang Chut”?

Linguist Marc Okrand, author of 'The Klingon Dictionary' (photo: Kalle Kallio / via
Linguist Marc Okrand, author of ‘The Klingon Dictionary’ (photo: Kalle Kallio / via

In a formal brief known as an amicus curiae, filed by noted First Amendment lawyer, Marc Randazza, representing the Language Creation Society, the Klingon is actually employed in describing intellectual property legislation as “mind property law”, or as the Klingons say “yab bang chut”. Of course, that just sounds like Ferengi merchant-talk to me.

To explore the intellectual property issue further, I asked Marc Okrand about the origins of the Klingon language. Very humbly, Okrand regards himself as the developer of it, not as the creator. The honour for being the creator actually goes to canonical Star Trek actor, James Doohan. Marc related his discovery of this to us.

“I’m the developer – Jimmy was the creator. I was standing on the set of the Genesis Planet [Star Trek III: The Search for Spock] and so was Mark Lenard, for some reason. We introduced ourselves to each other and he asked me what my connection to the film was. When I told him, he replied ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I spoke Klingon in the first film.’ Then I remembered that he was the Klingon commander in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Then he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, with the lines of first eight lines of the Klingon language that had ever been heard. Those were the lines and a lot more than was realized that Jimmy Doohan had written for Mark to use in the film.”

Created for the film. In my mind, that solidifies the idea that the Klingon language is a created concept, made by people who were working for Paramount. Now, if you’ve ever worked for a company that deals in media, you know that the work that you create during work hours legitimately becomes the company’s property (well, at least in Canada. I don’t know how it works in other countries). But I’m guessing there’s a similar arrangement in the U.S. (though I fully invite people who are more knowledgeable in this area to enlighten us with their superior knowledge).

However, just to get a clearer perspective on this issue, Marc and I talked further about the idea of Doohan’s perspective in creating the language.

“That was something Jimmy volunteered to do. He didn’t get paid for it – it was something that he wanted to do. He was into dialects and languages. He even made a recording of himself for Mark Lenard to use to hear the pronunciation. I don’t know how close what Mark did was to what Jimmy made, but that’s the origin of the thing.”

So that seems pretty straightforward to me. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this should ever be brought before the attention of the courts. However, as the Klingon language is one of the contested issues of infringement, then this is forcing CBS/Paramount to fight another battle.

Though the Language Creation Society has stated that it is in no way affiliated with Axanar, the filing of the amicus brief is coincidental.

For those who don’t know what an Amicus Brief is, essentially it is a motion filed by a party who have no vested interests in the outcome of a disputed case but to have an interest in a subject within the argument. Literally translated, the term amicus curiae means “A friend of the court.”

Of course, if I had a nosy friend like that, I’d probably appreciate him not getting involved.

But think about the scenario. Marc Randazza, a high profile First Amendment lawyer who has demonstrated successful defences in high profile pornography cases is filing this to secure the free speech rights of an obscure organization that, in turn, seeks to maintain the language integrity of an imaginary alien race that believes in hand-to-hand combat over conversation… well, the silliness abounds.

The Language Society isn’t seeking damages – they just object to the fact that CBS can the Klingon language one of its copyrighted artifacts on the basis that a constructed language can’t be subject to copyright law. Clearly, this really bothers somebody to the point that it borders on obsessive fan behaviour and it’s just slowing down legal proceedings.

I hope to think that it’s the former. Let’s face it: it’s popular among a sub-culture of Star Trek fans to speak in Klingon. There are Klingon fan clubs, Klingon opera societies and people identify with this imaginary culture and its fake language because it’s fun. Now fans have a secret language of their own that they can use. Some fans have even exchanged wedding vows in Klingon.

The success of the Klingon language and dictionary

The influence of the dictionary and Marc’s work can be seen in popular geek-culture comedy show like The Big Bang Theory. Marc even had an anecdote about that:

“My favourite story about the Big Bang Theory is that when I was working – I’m retired now – there was a TV in my office. It was turned to the channel that show was on. I happened to glance up by chance, and in the opening shot was my dictionary! And the camera backs away and they’re playing… Klingon Boggle. They’re saying real words… not pronounced correctly, but they’re real Klingon words!”

Of course, despite about a third of a million copies of the revised dictionary distributed worldwide and translated into a myriad of different languages, Marc still attributes the popularity of the language to the growing fascination with Klingon culture that began with the popularity of the Klingon character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Worf, played by Michael Dorn. Okrand had this to say about Dorn:

“Dorn was a role model. Of course, I’m prejudiced by my work on the pre-Next Gen film projects, but Michael Dorn was a great Klingon. The second season really saw a lot of Klingon – which, I think was around the same time as Star Trek V – I might be off by a year. I was on the set a lot for that film for the Klingon scenes. Across the lot was Paramount and that was where they were filming Next Gen. Richard Arnold has a whole closet filled with stuff that he took to conventions. We were having lunch and he showed it to me and in there was a whole bunch of my dictionaries. The next day he told me they were gone. We found out later that because of the Klingon stuff they were filming in, the Next Gen writers had taken them all for Worf’s and the Klingon scenes. They said it was hard and they couldn’t figure it out, so Richard told them I was here, and they said to send me over!”


Okrand also attributes the popularity to the Internet:

“The revised dictionary sold better than the first one. And I think the difference was because of a few things, but primarily it was the Internet. Those were the first days of the Internet and people who were interested in, fans could find it and there was a realization, ‘Oh – you can too? So let’s have a conversation,’ and all the interest groups sprung up. If the Internet hadn’t come along at that time, it wouldn’t have been so popular.”

The Klingon language has been a canonical part of Star Trek ever since we heard those first lines uttered in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, it is of interest to note that it was also one of the canonical elements that J.J. Abrams kept in his 2009 reboot and the sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness. It seemed even Abrams wasn’t immune to the allure of the fictional language.

Star Trek: into Darkness used the same Klingon as well. There’s even some in the 2009 film but it was cut out. You can see it in added features on the DVD. It was in reverse when they originally filmed it which I managed to fix… but I did get to work with Zoe Saldana.”

At this point, I had to express some jealousy. It can’t all be about preserving canon.

“The 2009 film was mostly Romulan and Vulcan but I wound up meeting J.J. Abrams. I waited for a break in the action, and I was wondering what he was like. He told me that he was so happy that I was working with them on this project because the fans would have appreciated it.”

In the second film, there still wasn’t a lot of the Klingons. In a scene that lasted about seven or eight minutes, we get about a couple of minutes of dialogue and then a fight scene that ends with Khan’s appearance. You know, the Cumberbatch Khan, not the original one.

Moving into a discussion about the third installment of the rebooted movie, Okrand had a message about presenting the Klingons to director Justin Lin.

“We don’t know much about them from the last film, but don’t change the look from what’s been done so far. Don’t get into any changes like in Enterprise. Work on developing the culture and history and use what was presented in the television series as a starting point.”

tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh’a’

My conversation with Marc Okrand was about a created language. While the Language Creation Society seeks to maintain that a created language is just as valid as an organic one, the fact that it was originally created for the specific purpose of adding to the entertainment value of a TV show and movie franchise cannot be ignored. It also can’t be ignored that it isn’t real. If people are using this for personal matters like wedding vows, or socializing with each other then it falls into the realm of frivolity. It’s fun and it’s designed to add a degree of believable authenticity to the fiction.

In fact, in checking with Marc Okrand on the concept of “yab bang chut”, here’s what he had to say about the Language Creation Society’s use of the language that they are protecting:

“Yab does mean “mind” (in the sense of brain and thinking and all of that). Chut means “law.” Bang, however, means “beloved one, sweetheart,” not “property.”

If the Society that brought the brief to the court’s attention can’t even use the language correctly, then the question has to be asked: How serious are they in pursuing this course of action and why are they wasting the court’s time?

Look, it’s an incredible feat to create a language from scratch. Marc Okrand is a respected scholar and linguist. Tolkien was the same and these two academics have created works that add a glorious dimension to the fandoms they represent. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that they are both fiction – tales for us to enjoy and share with each other. Okrand has done that in an incredibly admirable and scholarly way. His language work has allowed us to enjoy Star Trek in an immersive and realistic manner.

But it’s not real. The Klingon language isn’t real. So when it comes to matters of law and intellectual property ownership, let’s restrict the conversation to the language of the courts?


About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.

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