Klingons, aliens from the planet of the same name, appeared in the first season of the original Star Trek TV series in 1968. However, Klingon characters spoke only English in the TV series. Klingon, the language spoken by these aliens in the Star Trek universe (first referred to as Klingonese in the TV series), made its debut in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). In the movie, the actors improvised and wrote their own guttural sounds that were later “translated” into subtitles to let the movie audience in on the conversation.
In the third Star Trek movie (Star Trek: The Search for Spock, 1984), Paramount Pictures decided to make the language more formal, to add realism to the dialogue. The producers enlisted the services of Dr. Marc Okrand, a professional linguist, to create speech that sounded more like a real language. Okrand had assisted Paramount in the second Star Trek movie by coming up with a few lines lines of Vulcan dialogue for a scene between Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Saavik (Robin Curtis). The good doctor honed the sounds of Klingon to match mispronunciations by the actors, and in 1985, published The Klingon Dictionary. A second edition of The Klingon Dictionary was published in 1992. Okrand has remained active in updating grammar for fan groups that have adapted the language into Internet conversations. Aficionados of the language have gone so far as to translate classic literature into Klingon, including Hamlet, The Epic of Gilgamesh and a Klingon adaptation of A Christmas Carol. There have even been live performances of Hamlet in Klingon.
Now we see a lawsuit is making its way through the courts that may decide if Klingon can be classified as an official language — and as such cannot be copyrighted — or remains the intellectual property of Paramount Pictures. Paramount sued Axner Productions, Inc. in December of 2015 for “innumerable copyright violations” when the company produced a crowd-funded, unauthorized Star Trek-like movie. The suit was amended in March 2016 to specifically name people, places, planets, props and other copyrighted items, including the Klingon language. Axner’s attorneys have claimed that the language has taken on a life of its own, separate from the movies, and is therefore available for use by anyone.
Sure to appear in the upcoming court battles on the usefulness of the language in the real world is the fact that in May 2003, a hospital providing mental health services in Portland, Oregon, advertised for an interpreter fluent in Klingon. A hospital spokesperson remarked that the county had an obligation to provide services in all the languages spoken by the population they serve.
Also sure to appear is the fact that true users of the Klingon language rely on Marc Okrand to answer all questions of grammar and usage, and will only accept changes to the language by its creator. This is in direct conflict to the formation of real-world languages, which are constantly being shaped by its users over time.
At stake are the potential uses of other fictionally-created languages, including those of the Harry Potter series, Avatar and TV’s Game of Thrones.
Mister Boomer has been a Star Trek fan since the original series aired. He has enjoyed watching the evolution of Klingons from the TV series through the Paramount movies. Though Mister B has never spoken Klingon, he believes this ongoing court struggle is shaping up to be a battle worthy of a Klingon warrior.
How many words of Klingon do you speak, boomers?