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TV Legends Revealed: Which ‘Star Trek’ Actor Invented Klingon Language?

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment

TV/MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: One of the original cast members of “Star Trek” invented the first Klingon language.

It’s common for actors to influence the television series on which as they appear, particularly when it comes to the backgrounds of their characters. For example, it’s no coincidence that Fox Mulder on “The X-Files,” just like actor David Duchovny, is a fan of the New York Knicks. And many of the most heartwarming early episodes of “Glee” involving Kurt were based on the experiences of actor Chris Colfer.

Far less common is an actor devising a language, as is the case with a “Star Trek” actor who created the original Klingon.

It’s important to understand just how much of an influence budgets have on the plots of television series. Look at a show like “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” which employs complicated (and expensive) special effects every time it uses Firestorm. Therefore, the writers naturally have to avoid utilizing the character too much. That, though, has a great influence on the plot, as Firestorm is powerful enough that the natural impulse would be to have him clean up messes.

That was certainly the case on the original “Star Trek” series, only because it was the 1960s, the budget issues were slightly more mundane, like costly and time-consuming makeup. We’ve discussed how the depiction of Spock on “Star Trek” changed dramatically based on the makeup used on the character, as there obviously were no Vulcans with which to compare Spock, so he underwent a series of makeup changes until they came to the look that Leonard Nimoy made famous.


Similarly, when the Klingons debuted in the late Season 1 episode “Errand of Mercy,” they had cast an actor to play the Klingon Kor without actually knowing what he was going to look like! When John Colicos showed up for his first day of makeup, he figured they’d be ready for him, but he discovered they were curious as to what he thought the character would look like. Colicos later recalled, “I said, ‘You don’t know either?'” So Colicos and the makeup artist, the great Fred Phillips, brainstormed for a while. They knew that the Klingons were meant to roughly correspond to the Soviets (with the Federation and the Klingon Empire locked in their own Cold War), but Colicos instead suggested a look inspired at first by Genghis Khan. He then said, “Spray my hair black, give me a kind of swamp creature green olivey mud reptilian makeup, and we’ll borrow some stuff from Fu Manchu, and put a long moustache and eyebrows on me.” Phillips came up with that brown-green makeup, and the original Klingon look was born.

The Klingons weren’t originally intended to be major villains. However, an issue arose because the alien race that was supposed to fill that role, the Romulans, was too impractical to be shown regularly, as their Vulcan-like ears required a number of actor-specific latex prosthetics that would be too costly and too time-consuming. So the much simpler “throw some green-brown makeup and mustaches on them” approach of the Klingons became a time- and cost-saving technique. As time went by, however, the Klingons became more interesting characters for the show’s writers.

Along the way, the writers discussed giving the Klingons their own language, even making reference to it in the classic episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” However, the language didn’t show up until “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” in which actor Mark Lenard plays an unlucky Klingon captain (Lenard famously played the first Romulan on the series, and then later portrayed Spock’s father Sarek). You’ll notice this was also the time the franchise developed the now-famous ridged-brow look for the Klingons, as the increased budget allowed much better makeup.

Amazingly enough, the original language was devised by James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott!

As Lenard recalled, Doohan recorded Lenard’s lines on a tape, which he then gave to the actor. Lenard transcribed the tape phonetically and then used that to deliver his dialogue later. We don’t know how much Lenard improvised, nor do we know whether Doohan had anything in mind for the language beyond the dozen or so essentially nonsense words.

For “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” director Leonard Nimoy had linguist Marc Okrand, who had created some Vulcan lines for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” build upon Doohan’s words and devise a full working language. Okrand’s work is the Klingon language we know today.

But it all began with Scotty!


The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Michael Adams’ “From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages” for the language information and thanks to Memory Alpha, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Official Poster Magazine” and “Star Trek: Aliens & Artifacts” for the Klingon/Romulan information.

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television. And click here for more legends just about Star Trek!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.