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


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.

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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…


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


  • Jerutix

    As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

  • Shortdawg

    Of course, that same belt-tightening meant that pretty much every bloody guest voice in mid-70s animated “Trek” was supplied by Doohan and Majel Barrett, which got incredibly obnoxious incredibly quickly.

  • shaunn

    Yes, fascinating – but why? Why did Doohan, of all people, do this? Was he an amateur linguist? Just something to fill his time? Did someone ask him to come up with some nonsense words? It seems an odd thing to just do out of the blue.

  • demoncat_4

    facinating to borrow from spock. for this is the first i ever heard of the legend of one of the start trek cast members being the one to create the klingon language . and it turned out to be none other then james doohan aka scotty

  • Dswynne

    So, basically, three actors and one linguist developed the Klingon language. Fascinating. BTW, as noted by the TMP clip shown here, JJ Abrams wasn’t the first to use lens flare in a ‘Trek film.

  • Dewayne Cumbie

    Maybe he got really stoned one night and the thought came to him so he remembered like the next day and told the guy about it.

  • Jan Buss

    Seems he was some sort of amateur linguist; he was good at imitating/performing different accents of the English language.


    Before STAR TREK, Doohan had done quite a bit of various voice work in different accents, so he had a good instinct for coming up with an “alien” language. In the animated series, he portrayed the voice of Arex, an alien character, as well as Scotty. [Note: Majel Barett also played M’Ress, the Feloid, in addition to Nurse Chapel, and she was the computer voice in all of STAR TREK’s incarnations.]

  • Katie B

    Paramount paid A TON to have the SFX of Star Trek: The Motionless Picture completed at the last minute, and they wanted to make sure you saw every damned second of that money.

  • Charles Overturf

    And keep in mind that at one time Oregon provided translators for Klingon…

  • Charles Overturf

    He had mastered several languages…

  • MarMac2768

    I’ve always found it “fascinating” and “interesting” as Spock would put it that so many other worlds spoke English. I especially liked where the first Klingons, such as on Errand of Mercy and Trouble With Tribbles had the Klingons speak more “proper” English than the Kirk and, especially, McCoy.

  • qurgh

    That’s a false urban legends. Oregon put Klingon on a list of languages that their mental health facilities might need someone to translate for. It was originally mentioned as a joke, but the person making the list took it seriously. They never actually hired anyone.

  • Charles Overturf

    You are correct only than no one was actually hired to translate. It was officially listed as a language you could claim for need of translation. Not just for mental health facilities.

  • qurgh

    According to a news articles from the time, it was for mental health facilities:,1818532&hl=en

    Quote: “There are some cases where we’ve had mental health patients where this was all they would speak,” said the county’s purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway.

  • Charles Overturf

    “PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Position Available: Interpreter, must be fluent in Klingon.

    The language created for the “Star Trek” TV series and movies is one of
    about 55 needed by the office that treats mental health patients in

    Multnomah County.

    “We have to provide information in all the languages our clients speak,”
    said Jerry Jelusich, a procurement specialist for the county Department
    of Human Services, which serves about 60,000 mental health clients.

    Although created for works of fiction, Klingon was designed to have a consistent grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

    And now Multnomah County research has found that many people — and not just fans — consider it a complete language.

    “There are some cases where we’ve had mental health patients where this
    was all they would speak,” said the county’s purchasing administrator,
    Franna Hathaway.

    County officials said that obligates them to respond with a
    Klingon-English interpreter, putting the language of starship Enterprise
    officer Worf and other Klingon characters on a par with common
    languages such as Russian and Vietnamese, and less common tongues
    including Dari and Tongan.”