tlhIngan maH! What seems like a typo to many is actually the work of a UC Santa Cruz alumnus and the preferred language of many “Trekkies” around the world.
As part of the 9th Amah Mutsun Speaker Series hosted by UCSC’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC), UCSC alumnus and creator of “Star Trek’s” Klingon and Vulcan languages Marc Okrand spoke at a public campus event on Nov. 9.
During his presentation titled “From Mutsun to Klingon: How Bringing Back One Language Gave Rise to Another,” Okrand discussed how his UCSC linguistic roots led to a prosperous career studying Mutsun, a language derived from Northern California’s Ohlone Native Americans, and ultimately creating several of his own languages.
Despite his hope that Klingon would be entirely unique, Okrand said his previous work with languages, including Mutsun, still found its way into Klingon.
“I went out of my way to not make it like anything anyone could figure out,” Okrand said. “Languages from China and Southeast Asia and some other North American Indian languages all crept their way into Klingon.”
Okrand saw his passion for the Mutsun language mirrored in many “Star Trek” followers’ dedication to the Klingon language. He didn’t expect “Trekkies” and scholars to analyze and dissect his “Klingon Dictionary” so thoroughly.
“For some people, Klingon took the same role in their lives that Mutsun took in mine,” Okrand said.
One of Stevenson College’s first students in 1966, Okrand immediately found interest in Professor William Shipley’s linguistically-focused core course. Shipley established an independent study course for Okrand because of his especially strong interest in the subject matter. Okrand graduated from UCSC in 1972 and went on to study at UC Berkeley, earning his Ph.D. and studying the Mutsun language extensively.
Using approximately 2,500 pages of original notes and translations by linguist John Harrington, who worked closely with Mutsun speaker Ascencion Solorsano in the early 1900s, Okrand wrote his 1977 dissertation on what he ascertained from these papers. From there, he traveled to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. to start on the 67,000 remaining pages of Harrington’s notes.
When Okrand started contacting many of the Ohlone’s descendants, the language and his task took on a new significance for him.
“I’m talking to people who didn’t know the language, but it’s their language,” Okrand said.
When Okrand returned to California after working at the Smithsonian, he came across a friend working on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Following difficulties during a scene between Spock and a Vulcan character, Okrand was asked to use his linguistics knowledge to construct a realistic Vulcan language. From there, Okrand created the Klingon language for “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”
While working on the “Klingon Dictionary,” Okrand noticed he was using the same process he originally pursued while studying Mutsun. In both cases, Okrand had no one to turn to for answers and discovered large gaps of information were missing about the language.
“The approach I took to the ‘Klingon Dictionary’ was the exact same as the approach I took to Mutsun,” Okrand said.
Considering Okrand’s extensive studies of the Mutsun text and his 1977 dissertation on the subject, Amah Mutsun tribal chairman and elder Valentin Lopez expressed the tribe’s desire to have Okrand be a part of the speaker series since its beginning. When this desire came to the attention of humanities dean Bill Ladusaw, Lopez’s hopes came to fruition.
In particular, Lopez said this event exhibited how the Amah Mutsun tribe, a non-federally recognized and landless tribe, has grown into an active part of the community in recent years.
“[The Amah Mutsun tribe has] good representation here,” Lopez said. “What’s especially heartwarming is we see our youth, we see our young adults, we see our middle-aged, we see our elders. That gives a lot of hope for restoring a lot of our traditions and culture and representing our ancestors.”
Part of what makes the Amah Mutsun tribe so active in the community is its relationship with several universities, including UCSC and UC Davis.
UCSC is one of the strongest UC campuses in regards to working with local tribes, American Indian Resource Center director Carolyn Dunn said.
“UCSC has an excellent relationship with the local tribe,” Dunn said. “We are one of, if not the only, University of California campus that has such a great relationship with the local tribe. That’s because of the efforts of our faculty, staff, community members and student board.”
To those unfamiliar with the Mutsun or Klingon languages, the connection between the two may appear insignificant. However, these languages parallel one another through the continued interest people have for these dialects, Okrand said.
“Both groups have taken these languages and made them live,” Okrand said.