The prefix trick

The so called prefix trick is an informal term for the phenomenon where a verb's prefix disagrees with the stated object, agreeing instead with what would be an indirect object in English. Marc Okrand described the prefix trick in a post on the MSN Expert Forum in 1997 while explaining the word qajatlh. (1)


Okrand wrote in the MSN forum:
When the indirect object (in this case, the hearer) is first or second person, the pronominal prefix which normally indicates first or second person object may be used. There are other examples of this sort of thing with other verbs. For example, someone undergoing the Rite of Ascension [...]

It is noteworthy that some Earth languages, specifically some indigenous to North America (which Okrand has studied), use a similar cascading pronominal concordance system in their verbs.

For instance, take the sentence ghIchwIj DabochmoHchugh ghIchlIj qanob. By the grammar described in TKD, you'd expect to see SoHvaD ghIchlIj vInob.

Combining with -lu'

A discussion on the mailing list of 02 october 2016 showed that this rule might be extended to prefixes which only indicate the above mentioned objects in combination with the indefinite suffix -lu', which reverses object and subject of any prefix. That means that the following should be correct, even though the suffix itself indicates a third person object:

Standard phrase Prefix trick Prefix trick + -lu'
jIHvaD taj nob vay'. taj munob vay'. taj vInoblu'.
Someone gives a knife to me. Someone gives me a knife. One indefinite person gives me a knife.

A less awkward translation for the final phrase would be using passive voice in English: I am given a knife.


These are some canon examples:

ghIchwIj DabochmoHchugh ghIchlIj qanob. (PK)
If you shine my nose, I will give you your nose

cha'puj vIngevmeH chaw' HInobneS. (PK)
Your honor, give me the permission to sell dilithium crystals.

tIqwIj Sa'angnIS. (TKW (2))
I must show you my heart (a nentay phrase)


David Trimboli was the first person to use the term "prefix trick" on the KLI's mailing list (3). He saw it as a backfit by Okrand to explain away some sloppy sentences he had previously come up with, in which it seemed that his translation from English to Klingon was too literal.

He repeated this in a message of 31 December 2015 on the mailing list:
"By the way, I'm the one who coined the phrase "prefix trick" as a disparagement of the rule, as I felt it was just a way to "English" some Klingon grammar, and to backfit some mistakes caused by an overreliance on English grammar. It probably was. But I understand better now that a Klingon object doesn't necessarily equate to an English direct object. Fortunately, the term isn't TOO disparaging to continue to use."


Some contend that Okrand used ghIchlIj qanob instead of SoHvaD ghIchlIj vInob because the English sentence he started with was "I will give you your nose" instead of "I will give your nose to you." He saw "I will give you..." and used qanob, regardless of the fact that in the sentence "you" is the indirect object, not the direct object.

Others disagree. They believe that Okrand, having seriously studied some Native American languages that use a similar pronomial system, decided to include this feature into the language intentionally, perhaps after the publication of TKD, and that most or all instances of the "prefix trick" were constructed with this feature in mind.

In any case, this feature is now a documented and canonized part of Klingon, and its validity need not be questioned.

Because of the existence of the prefix trick, it is occasionally difficult to assess what the object of a verb really is. Consider:

qaja'pu' HIqaghQo' I told you not to interrupt me. (4)

Without conclusive evidence about ja', it is indeed unclear whether its "true" object is the addressee, the speech, or something else.


1 : Re: Some quick questions... Usenet message of 29 June 1997

2 : The Klingon Way, p. 203

3 : Message to the list of 06 Jan 1998

4 : The Klingon Dictionary, p. 67

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