In Star Trek 3, the Enterprise is set to self-destruct and abandoned before the Klingons board her. They get to the bridge and hear the self-destruct countdown. None of them think this is a problem, until their commander hears it and puts together what's happening. Too late.

Why don't the Klingons recognize a countdown on an abandoned ship being a Bad Thing? Do they have no concept of self-destruct, or of countdowns? Maybe Kruge is the only one who spoke English, and they didn't have universal translators? (In which case, their conversations were just being translated to English for our benefit?) Or is his crew just dumb?

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    It was a good day to die.
    – Andy
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 22:49
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    Interesting follow-up question: is it mandatory to have self-destruct countdowns being spoken out loud? If they just failed to mute the computer’s voice, it’s a lucky coincidence that the Klingon’s didn’t understand it…
    – Holger
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 8:37
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    @Holger, I think there's a TNG episode with a silent self.destruct countdown.
    – Ghanima
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 9:57
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    @Ghanima there was. Picard told the computer to mute the audio, and it then announced "SELF DESTRUCT IMMINENT. THERE WILL BE NO FURTHER AUDIO WARNINGS." Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 12:23
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    Perhaps the idea that crew would abandon their ship and set it to self-destruct was so foreign to most honorable Klingons (they'd probably go down with the ship) that it just didn't occur to them that that's what was going on. Kruge may have just been more familiar with human behaviors than his crew was.
    – Jason C
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 15:41

2 Answers 2


I am quite sure the Klingons didn't know English.

Firstly, it is logical to suppose that the proportion of Klingons who knew English was about the same as the proportion of Humans who knew Klingon. And as seen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, nobody on the Enterprise spoke Klingon well.

Secondly, the intonation and word choice of the Klingon communicating with the captain hints at the fact that he was very confused and understood nothing. For reference, here is that part of the movie:

Thirdly, if the aforementioned Klingon warrior knew English, why would he bring his communicator for his captain to hear the computer when could have just said, "There's some sort of a countdown"?

And finally, Klingons of course did not use Arabic numerals, so he was unable to make sense of the screen. Here's a link to Klingon numerals: http://languagesandnumbers.com/how-to-count-in-klingon/en/tlh/

  • Well then it's sure a good thing Kruge knew English, or Kirk wouldn't have been able to threaten him into beaming down to Genesis! It's a little odd for semi-critical plot points of a Star Trek movie to depend on who can understand what language at which juncture... Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 12:24
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    The Klingon in question was speaking English to the Captain, so I don't see how this makes much sense. You could, I guess, posit that they were actually speaking Klingon and not English in universe, but then why did they speak Klingon just as they came off the transporter?
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 13:08
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    I agree with most of this, except for the presumption that since humans don't know Klingon, then Klingons don't know English. Keep in mind that Starfleet is actively trying to meet new civilizations, so it would be logical to assume that there are "How to Learn English" guides all over the galaxy. Contrast that to Klingons who only care about meeting other species to conquer them. This logic could go either way, but I don't think it's as simple as Klingons not understanding English because we don't understand Klingon. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 16:19
  • I just recalled a scene in The Final Frontier. (Condolences accepted.) The Klingon ship intercepts Kirk's distress call and responds in English, less than six months after the Enterprise no-bloody-A-B-C-or-D is destroyed. So at least some Klingons speak flawless English. Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 20:35
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    @dlyongemallo that would work for me if we always heard them speaking English. However, the show's creators chose to have them speak both Klingon and English, breaking the convention. I just don't think the language was the issue at all.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 8:43

The original film script doesn't go into explicit detail, but it would appear that the Klingon warriors simply don't speak English and that they're not using universal translators.

TORG: Yes, sir. But the bridge appears to be run by computer. It is the only thing speaking.

KRUGE'S VOICE: Speaking? Let me hear...

Torg, puts his communicator close to the computer's panel speaker and the voice is quite loud now.

COMPUTER (V.O.): Six... five... four... three...

KRUGE'S VOICE: Get out! Get out of there! Get out!

Torg and his men are baffled by Kruge's distress when a sudden SERIES OF EXPLOSIONS engulf the bridge, and --

Interestingly, the film's official novelisation has a slightly different explanation. The Klingons recognised the voice as reciting time, but just failed to realise what it signified. Given their low opinion of humans as warriors, and thinking that the crew was still aboard, this is perhaps why they wouldn't have anticipated that a self-destruct would be used.

No one waited at all. Over the speakers, a soft and rhythmic voice kept the ship's time. An alien custom, no doubt, as inexplicable and distracting as most alien customs.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - Official Novelisation)

  • I'm pretty sure Klingon ships had a self-destruct mechanism, but did they have a countdown? Seems like they wouldn't want anyone aboard to hear a countdown. Hence, the Klingons would never have thought that the time being announced was anything but the ship's time. What idiot species would tell their enemies exactly when the bomb is going off?
    – Stephen S
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 13:53
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    @StephenSchrauger - I'm pretty sure that if the Klingons were to use a self-destruct, they'd set if off themselves without the use of a timer, while still on board, in order to avoid facing the dishonour of having lost their ship. Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 15:09

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