Interview with Marc Okrand

HolQeD article of vol. 7 issue 4, December 1998, page 2-12

Written by Marc Okrand; Originally published in HolQeD, the quarterly journal of the Klingon Language Institute, Flourtown, PA, ISSN 1061-2327.


Okrand taks about some vebs of motion, verbs of speech, and some other verbs.


Trying to pin Marc Okrand down for an interview is almost as difficult as going after Maltz himself. The following exchange began as a discussion between Lawrence Schoen and Will Martin back in April, and resulted in a compelling list of thirteen questions. This list was presented to Okrand during a convention in May. Months passed before Okrand's and Martin's respective schedules coincided. Finally, over a dinner in mid-November, they were able to meet and converse. Maltz was nowhere in sight.


• WM: The one area that Klingonists have the most arguments about that we can't resolve is transitivity of verbs. Are there any guidelines?

➞ MO: I would not say there are any guidelines. Some verbs can take one noun. Some take two. And it does not necessarily fall the way that English falls. The way the dictionary is put together is not really helpful the way the definitions are written.

• WM: Right. Like Dub – "improve."

➞ MO: Right, although now we know from usage. The best way to know this is from usage because when I made the dictionary, frankly, it never occurred to me to put transitive or intransitive or whether that was a relevant term in the first place. Usage is the way to go.

There are some verbs that I've used that by the one or two word definition in the dictionary are intransitive and I've used them transitively. It makes it more interesting, making Klingon more different from English. For example, I've used the word yIn transitively. "You live a Klingon life." That's perfectly acceptable in Klingon. It's perfectly acceptable in English, too, but it is not obvious from the short definition in the dictionary that that would be an okay thing to do.

So you are right. You can't tell just by looking at the definition, unless we went through and said, "Okay, this one you do this way and that one you do that way..."

The other tricky thing is some people say you can put any prefix on any verb. I suppose that you can, but just because you can doesn't mean that you should. It doesn't mean that if you did that it would be understood by everybody the way that you intended. But I think it's fair to say that however it works, it is not necessarily the way English works. Just because the English definition is X doesn't mean that the Klingon word has to work the same way. The best way to deal with all this is to examine usage...

• WM: ...some of which we have to wait for.

➞ MO: Yes. That's partly because Maltz doesn't want to paint me into a corner. [p.3]

• WM: I see that you need to strike a balance between restricting yourself by making unnecessary claims about the language that do not ultimately prove to be accurate and giving people enough information, especially about particular verbs that are problematic so that people can feel more confident about what they are doing with the language. I think about verbs like vIH – "move, be in motion," which, depending on which way you see it, you could believe that the word "move" is there just to help you look it up.

➞ MO: A lot of the definitions are there just to help you look them up. We're not just talking about transitivity. In general a lot of things are there because if I'm looking for a word in Klingon, I've got to have an English tag so I can find it. The best definition might not be a good tag. Once you find the tag, then you can hopefully find the better definition.

• WM: That makes sense with vIH in particular because "be in motion" is not necessarily something that you could look up. But "move" would.

➞ MO: Right.

• WM: People have interpreted that to mean both "move" and "be in motion."

➞ MO: I'll tell you what the intent was. The intent was "be in motion."

• WM: So if I were to say, "I move this glass," it would be HIvje'vam vIvIHmoH.

➞ MO: Right. Though, again, down the road... What I've learned is to never say never.

• WM: One might eventually find oneself having used it without -moH.

➞ MO: Right. But you can say, "Usually..."

Asking and requesting verbs

• WM: Okay, then in terms of "usually" could you address the best use of tlhob?

➞ MO: What I intended to do with tlhob, though not necessarily what I intended to do with tlhob when I first wrote the dictionary... The language has evolved from what I set out to do for the movie to what I set out to do for the dictionary to what I set out to do for... It keeps changing.

But what I wanted to do with tlhob and ghel is to distinguish between two different meanings for the English verb "ask." There are two "ask's." There's the "ask" where you ask a question and there's "ask" where you make a request. I wanted it to be two different verbs, though apparently there are times when the "request" verb is used to ask a question as well. So maybe the way it works is that ghel can ask a question and only ask a question and the other one can mean that and is also use to request or plead or something like that.

• WM: And particularly, since the word tlhob was there longer, perhaps the need for ghel was there before the word ghel was there.

I see something interesting in terms of the use of tlhob as the second verb in a Sentence As Object construction and also the verb SIv, which was really interesting.

➞ MO: That one, yes. I've wondered about that a lot. I spent a good chunk of one summer, one or two summers ago, – I'm not trying to make a pun here, but – wondering about how that works. How do you say, "I wonder." I was going around asking people, "How do you say, 'I wonder who's kissing her now?'" after that song. I was getting utterly confused about how to do it. I was trying to figure out what's the best way to do it in Klingon and I don't have an answer. But that's a really good question. I'm not sure what to do with that. The other ones I'm more comfortable with, but I'm having trouble figuring out the semantics of it in English, much less in Klingon.

The other verbs of speech, I feel better about.

Verbs of speech

• WM: Do you see a division about which ones would be appropriate used as verbs of speech?

➞ MO: Very few. Verbs of speech are "say" verbs, like jatlh and ja'.

• WM: In English, we use many of them.

➞ MO: Yes. In English, we say, "Give me some water," he said. "Give me some water," he pleaded. "Give me some water," he yelled.

• WM: He added. He begged. He opined.

➞ MO: Exactly. I think that's an English thing to do. That's not a Klingon thing to do. In Klingon, you jatlh and you ja'. That's about it. The guard asked the prisoner a question. He replied. He said, "[gestures a quotation he never quite made]"

[After the interview, I made the following three lines of examples to show how this worked:

qama' yu' 'avwI'. jatlh Qu'lIj DarIn'a'?

'avwI' jang qama'. jatlh tugh. vIrInmeH taj vIpoQ.

mon 'avwI'. jatlh chotojmeH bInIDchu'ta'.

Dr. Okrand modified one sentence and said he accepted them as valid, but [p.5] wanted it noted that they were my sentences and not his, in his words, "a suggestion by you, okayed by me." – WM]

• WM: So, basically, in Klingon, you would just use jatlh a lot. If someone is asking a question, would you state the question and say jatlh?

➞ MO: If it's a direct quotation, I would. Yes. If it's an indirect question... How would you do indirect quotation?

• WM: Is there such a beast as indirect quotation in Klingon?

➞ MO: That's a good question.

• WM: Would that be something handled with the pronoun 'e'?

➞ MO: It could.

• WM: In the example where you used that with the verb tlhob it was such an example that because of the person and number of the subject and object, you couldn't tell if it was a direct or indirect quotation. Since it had the 'e' it wasn't technically a quotation at all. That was the reason I was drawn toward the concept that it would be an indirect quotation. It was the "I asked you command this ship..."

➞ MO: That's not a quotation at all. That's just an "I ask you to do something."

• WM: That's kind of what I think of as an indirect quotation, "I ask you to do that."

➞ MO: If that's how you are defining it, that's fine. I have no problem with that. An indirect quotation the way I'm thinking of it, I'm not sure it is a technical term. "The person had said he would show up this afternoon," The direct quotation would be, "The person said, "I will show up this afternoon."

• WM: You can tell the difference in that because of the difference in person.

➞ MO: Right. But if I'm referring to me, and I say, "The person said I will show up this afternoon," then, which is that?

• WM: Well, you have to know which you are saying. But in an example like, "I ask you to command the ship and..."

➞ MO: It doesn't matter again. I wouldn't call that an indirect quotation in the way that I'm using it now. Maybe this is a clearer example of an indirect quotation: "The warrior said the bloodwine was cold" (which, in English, could also be "The warrior said that the bloodwine was cold").

• WM: Okay. [p.6]

➞ MO: The way I see I see the verbs of speech, there may be more than just ja' and jatlh, but there is only a small number of words, unlike English. You have to use a separate sentence for the replying, pleading, screaming. "He screamed. He said, 'Come help me.'"

• WM: Since a direct quotation grammatically looks like two separate sentences, you are saying that it would now look like three separate sentences at that point. You'd have one describing what style of verbalization he was having, one saying "he said" and one giving the quotation.

➞ MO: Yes.

• WM: Very interesting.

While I feel that any examples that exist deserve respect and are certainly what we have to go by, I don't feel like you should perpetually be bound to every utterance because you wind up with one of two things happening. Either you become overly restricted in your ability to use the language, or the language becomes very confusing because there is so much splintering because everything is equally...

➞ MO: Well you have to remember that it is a spoken, living language. What we say in English and what we write in English is not necessarily the same thing. Klingon is the same way. What people say and what people say they say is not necessarily the same thing. There's kind of an ideal way of doing it and people have different ideas about what is permissible and what is not permissible. Maybe there's some old stick-in-the-mud who says "No" and someone else says, "No, that's alright. There's nothing wrong with that."

And the course to follow for a student probably falls somewhere between. You don't want to go too fast and loose or too far afield because then nobody will understand what you are doing. You won't have any rules at all. You don't want to be too rigorous, either. It's not math.

One of the things that I think about when I read what people have to say about Klingon sometimes is when someone argues that things have to be one way, I think, "No, it shouldn't always be like that." It should be like that in maybe 75% or 80% of the cases, but not 100%. Languages don't work that way. Maybe Vulcan does, I don't know.

• WM: It would be a good candidate for it.

I know that I've been, myself, more of a formalist in that my own interest has been less in encoding English sentences into Klingon and say, "There! It's done!" than it is to create something that, once it is in Klingon, anyone who knows the language would then be able to understand it well. I feel like the burden is on the person [p.7] moving the thought into the language instead on the person who is supposed to be able to figure out whatever it is I just said.

➞ MO: Right.

• WM: Just to mention particular verbs in terms of whether they can be used for speech or not, you are saying that ghel is a word that would probably not be used typically as a verb of speech. That even if you are asking a question you would still tend to use ja' or jatlh.

➞ MO: Yes. "He asked me. He said, 'blah, blah, blah.'" Or "He said, 'blah, blah, blah.' He asked me." It doesn't matter.

• WM: jang – "answer" would be similar?

➞ MO: Yes.

• WM: And tlhob would similarly be...

➞ MO: tlhob also has the non-quoting sense.

• WM: Things you would unlikely use for speech are bach, chel...

➞ MO: bach is slang. The rules might be a little bit different. For non-slang...

• WM: chup "suggest." jach "cry out." SIv "wonder."

➞ MO: I've got to figure out what to do about "wonder." That summer, the more I thought about it the more confused I got.

• WM: Are there any other verbs of speech that you would care to comment on?

➞ MO: Are there any other verbs of speech?

• WM: And a typical direct object of ja' would be the person addressed and a typical object of the verb jatlh would be the thing you say.

➞ MO: The speech event.

• WM: I like that term.

➞ MO: Including a direct quote. I'm telling a story. He "blah, blah, blah" jatlh.

Verbs of Motion

• WM: You've already mentioned about some special relationships between verbs and direct objects in Klingon that would not necessarily be typical to English, for example ghoS...

➞ MO: ghoS is a very interesting verb. [p.8]

• WM: Oh boy. Is it. My personal sense of ghoS, just trying to figure out what in the world all those different definition segments are pointing towards, is that ghoS would be to follow a path associated with the direct object.

➞ MO: Yes. That's good. I've never heard it phrased that way, but that's good.

• WM: So, typically, the most common thing you'd associate with a path is its destination, but it doesn't have to be. It could be its source.

Now, the usage that I've seen most commonly is that we'll use just the noun if it is the destination, but we'll use -vo' on the noun when we are moving away from it. Would that be typical Klingon usage?

➞ MO: Yes. The short answer is yes. [Trademark mysterious smile.]

• WM: You said that you can't always judge by the definitions as given, that you can't always tell as to whether something can be transitive or not. There are certain things that are very similar to ghoS that some of us are very tempted to use in a similar way. Things like bav – "orbit."

➞ MO: Yes. I would do that.

• WM: Then there are some that some people are tempted to, and others really don't like, like jaH – "go."

➞ MO: Here's the way jaH works. jaH can be used, using your terminology both transitively and intransitively. So, bIQtIqDaq jIjaH is "I go in the river."

I'm moving along in the river, traveling in the river. You can also say bIQtIqDaq vIjaH...

• WM: You'd still use the -Daq?

➞ MO: Yes. But you don't have to. That would be the way. -Daq or no -Daq. The prefix makes the difference in meaning. jI- means I'm moving along in someplace. vI- means I'm moving along to someplace. You cannot say bIQtIq jIjaH.

• WM: At that point, bIQtIq has no function in the sentence.

➞ MO: Right.

• WM: bav

➞ MO: You don't need a -Daq. Just use whatever it is that you are orbiting.

• WM: Dech – "surround." [p.9]

➞ MO: Same thing.

• WM: ngaS – "contain."

➞ MO: Same thing.

• WM: vegh

➞ MO: [laughs] Yes. "To go through." Same thing.

• WM: 'el – "enter."

➞ MO: Same thing. Now, if you did say pa'Daq vI'el "I entered into the room," you could say, well, that's overkill, but that's okay.

It's not like, "Oh, my God, I don't understand you," but you don't need that.

• WM: In the dictionary, you said that ghoS could be used either with or without -Daq but it would be somewhat marked with the -Daq. Is this true for jaH as well?

➞ MO: Less marked? Yes, the same, with the vI-, not with the jI-.

• WM: leng – "roam, travel."

➞ MO: leng works like jaH. These are all okay:

yuQ vIleng or yuQDaq vIleng I travel to the planet

yuQvo' jIleng I roam away from the planet

yuQDaq jIleng I roam (around/about) on the planet

This is not okay: yuQ jIleng

• WM: paw – "arrive."

➞ MO: Again, just like jaH, it depends. Duj vIpaw means "I arrive at the ship;" DujDaq jIpaw means "I arrive on the ship," that is, I arrive via the ship or something like that. And it would probably be okay to say DujDaq vIpaw for "I arrive at the ship." But Duj jIpaw strikes me as odd.

• WM: If you think of any other ghoS like verbs... Those were the only ones I could come up with.

be close / remote

Two other verbs that are interesting in terms of whether you would use vI- or jI- are Sum and Hop. Like raS vISum or raS vIHop. [p.10]

➞ MO: Okay. This opens up a whole new issue. You see, there's this thing called "deixis." This is the idea that an utterance is made at a specific time and place, and certain words or grammatical elements are interpreted correctly only by reference to that time and place. So the same word may refer to a different real-world thing depending on who's speaking, where, when, and so on. Like in the statement "I am here," where is "here?" It has to do with where you are when you make the statement. And who is "I?" "I" is Marc if I say it; it's Will if you do.

• WM: And when somebody writes that on a blackboard and then walks away. It was true when it was written, but later...

➞ MO: Yes. It's like the sign in a store window that says "Back in one hour." If there's no indication of when the sign was put up, how do you know how long to wait? It's the same in regular conversation. You don't speak in a vacuum. There are elements in the speech situation to let us interpret utterances correctly. Usually, anyway.

➞ MO: Using the verbs Sum and Hop involves this concept.

• WM: So I could not say raSvam vISum to say, "I am near the table."

➞ MO: No. You'd just say Sum raS. The verb Sum implies that the speaker is the one the subject is near at the time of speaking.

Hop jabwI'. The waiter is far right now.

• WM: Well, that resolves the conflict otherwise created if they could take objects. It keeps them stative, so you can say, HIvje' Sum yItlhap.

➞ MO: Yes.

• WM: Otherwise, they'd be the only verbs we'd sometimes use as adjectives and other times use transitively.

➞ MO: Take an object. Yes.

• WM: So, could that deictic anchor be shifted by using an indirect object? Like if I wanted to say, "You are near the table," could I say SoHvaD Sum raS?

➞ MO: No. You'd use -Daq: SoHDaq Sum raS. This throws the orientation away from the speaker (unmarked, unstated) and to the listener (marked, stated: "at you, where you are"). But you don't always need to state this overtly. Context is critical. For example:

qagh largh SuvwI' ghung. Sum qagh 'e' Sov. The hungry warrior smells the gagh. He/she knows the gagh is nearby. [p.11]

The only interpretation of this (absent other information) is that the warrior knows the gagh is near the warrior, not the warrior knows the gagh is near the speaker of the sentences. If context isn't clear, you can clarify:

  • Question: Sum'a' raS? Is the table near (me)? (Am I near the table?)
  • Answer: HIja'. Sum raS. Yes. The table is near (you).
  • Answer: ghobe'. jIHDaq Sum raS. No. The table is near me.

• WM: And could I say maSumchuq?

➞ MO: No. You'd just say bISum or SuSum. If you haven't, in the course of the conversation, set things up otherwise, it's assumed that the event being talked about is taking place where the speaker is. In fact, jISum alone probably would make no everyday sense to a Klingon. "I am near me." But it does have an idiomatic philosophical sense, something like "I'm in touch with my inner self" (but in a Klingon sort of way, of course).

• WM: Okay. Let's move on to verbs that seem to require a plural subject, like nIb – "be identical."

➞ MO: Yes. nIb HIvje'vam HIvje'vetlh je. Both things have to be subject.

• WM: And rap?

➞ MO: It's the same. No pun intended.

• WM: paw'?

➞ MO: Same.

• WM: ngeQ?

➞ MO: No. ngeQ is completely different. ngeQ has one innocent party.

• WM: qIH? You've used ghom both as maghom and as qaghom. We were wondering if qIH worked the same way.

➞ MO: No. It would be maqIHchuq.

• WM: And ghom is different.

➞ MO: Yes. ghom can be used either with or without an object, but qIH would always have an object. Well, I guess I should never say "always." The intent with qIH is that it should have a direct object or -chuq in normal usage. [p.12]

• WM: quq?

➞ MO: "Happen simultaneously." That's an interesting one. Yes, I think that requires a plural subject and no object. Something like "This answer and the end of this interview quq."

• WM: yajchu', qaH!

See also

External links

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