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Conlangers Extraordinaire #3: Marc Okrand

Posted on Saturday, September 12, 2009 in Conlangers
Marc Okrand

Marc Okrand

This third in the conlangers extraordinaire series highlights one of the best known “professional” conlangers. As a side note, having an email exchange with Dr. Okrand was one of the coolest things about creating the Esperanto, Elvish, and Beyond exhibit

Marc Okrand is Director of Live Captioning at the National Captioning Institute (NCI) in Vienna, Virginia, near Washington, DC. Celebrating his 25th year at NCI in 2005, Okrand is a pioneer in the use of closed-captioning for live television broadcasts. He has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, where he specialized in Native American languages. His dissertation, a grammar of Mutsun, remains a seminal work in the study of Costanoan languages. He taught linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a post-doctoral fellow in the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian Institute.

Dr. Okrand’s link to conlanging came about through a chance meeting in California while on assignment for NCI’s first major live captioning event, the 1982 Academy Awards. Okrand met a long-time friend for lunch who was working with Harve Bennett, Executive Director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The movie needed a linguist to create some dialogue in Vulcan to be dubbed over Leonard Nimoy and Kirstie Alley speaking English. Okrand was recruited for the job and remembers driving home from the set one day thinking, “Oh, my God, I just taught Mr. Spock how to speak Vulcan!” Those four lines in Vulcan were to be just the beginning.

Two years later, Bennett was working on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and called upon Okrand’s expertise again. The assignment this time was to create a language for the alien warrior race of Klingons. James Doohan, who played Star Trek’s Scotty, had actually coined a few words of Klingon for the first Star Trek movie. Okrand took the sounds of those words as a starting point and created the language known today as Klingon. On set for the filming of Star Trek III, Okrand had veto power over takes (although he learned to use this power sparingly) if the actors mispronounced their Klingon lines. During this process, the language evolved into a “real” language. After the film, Klingon took on a life of its own. Okrand wrote three books about the language (including the essential Klingon Dictionary), recorded language learning audiotapes, and worked on a CD-ROM game related to learning Klingon. He also shows up from time to time at the Klingon Language Institute’s annual qep’a’

In addition to Vulcan and Klingon, Okrand also created the Atlantean language for the 2001 Disney animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Atlantean is based, in part, on Indo-European roots to give it an ancient quality. Okrand also got to work with Leonard Nimoy again on this project. It is rumored that the character of the linguist in the film, Milo Thatch (voiced by Michael J. Fox), is based on Marc Okrand because the filmmakers didn’t really know what a linguist should look like and decided to use Dr. Okrand as a model.