Per the Wikipedia Entry,

Kahless (pronounced: /keɪ̯.lɛs/ [kay-les] or /keɪ̯.lɪs/ [kay-lis]; Klingon pIqaD letters: "qeylIS") is a messianic figure in Klingon history, who unified the Klingon people and became the first Klingon emperor. The Klingons’ most important symbol of leadership, Kahless said that Klingons should fight not just to shed blood, but to enrich the spirit. The story of Kahless is a cornerstone of Klingon mythology and religion.

Why is Kahless pronounced [kay-les]? Or conversely, why is it spelt Kahless?

The "a-h" is not normal to transliterate that sound in English phonology. Is it a normal aspect of how Kligonese is transliterated to English? Or was it intended to be pronounced [kah-less] when originally written and somehow the long-a pronunciation took over? What's going on here?

  • 2
    Because that's his name? Why shouldn't it be pronounced however?
    – Valorum
    Apr 19 '18 at 19:06
  • 1
    Maybe 'cause it's an ooooold name? Apr 19 '18 at 19:19
  • 3
    In Discovery it is pronounced [kay-lesh].
    – Politank-Z
    Apr 19 '18 at 20:10
  • 8
    A possible in-universe explanation is that the way people transliterated Klingon to English has changed over time, or there are multiple systems, just as has happened with transliterating real languages to English or vice versa. One real world example I can think of, is with Japanese, people have multiple transliteration systems: Hepburn, kunrei-shiki, and nihon-shiki. Some words were commonly accepted in one transliteration system and are still standardly spelled that way, even if the more used transliteration system might spell it a different way.
    – Kai
    Apr 19 '18 at 23:11
  • 3
    @Kai which is why English-speaking schoolchildren learn about the mythical exploits of Hercules, not Herakles.
    – hobbs
    Apr 20 '18 at 5:40

I have what amounts to an educated guess about how the spelling and pronunciation diverged in the way that they did, but I cannot really prove any of it.

First, how it came to be pronounced with a sound like "kay" at the beginning. It's not the only time a Klingon word was mangled in this way. In the TNG episode "Birthright", there is a song which has the refrain yIja'Qo'. The Q is a voiceless uvular affricate, which many English-speakers don't know how to pronounce. The pronunciation guide in the script "helpfully" contained the hint "yi-ja-KKHO". If you watch the episode, the way the actors actually pronounce the last syllable of this phrase is "kay-ho". That is, they saw "KKHO" in the script, had no idea how to pronounce "K", and just said "kay". It is not unreasonable to surmise that the shooting script for "The Savage Curtain" had a pronunciation guide which said something like "K'a-less", which got mangled into "Kay-less".

[Edit: Note: The phrase yIja'Qo' comes from Marc Okrand. The name Kahless was invented before Okrand got involved with the Klingon language, and I'm not implying Okrand had anything to do with the way the name is pronounced. I'm just pointing out another instance in the production of Star Trek where (part of) an alien word beginning in "k" was pronounced with a "kay" sound which wasn't originally intended, as an illustration of the process through which this can happen.]

Second, as for why such a name was invented, I'll note that the triconsonantal root kh-l-s appears in a number of foreign names which would've been known to well-read or well-traveled English speakers of a certain generation. It exists in the Arabic boy's name "Khales", for example, which is similar enough to "Kahless". The community of baptised Sikhs is known as the "Khalsa". (Gene Roddenberry appeared to have had a Sikh war buddy who was the inspiration behind the name of Khan Noonien Singh.) The kh-l-s root exists in other "alien" languages invented by English authors, the "Khaleesi" of Game of Thrones being the most obvious one besides Kahless. "Khaless" is also a word in the Drow language of Dungeons & Dragons. In other words, "Khaless" would be a suitably foreign and yet plausible sounding name to an English-speaker.

Third, as to why it's "Kahless" and not "Khaless", English speakers misplace the "h" when it marks a non-English consonant in foreign loanwords all the time. A famous example of this is the name of the Lebanese-American writer, Kahlil Gibran. His name should've been written "Khalil", but it was written as "Kahlil" by mistake, and the mistake stuck and became his name. Mistyping "Kahless" for "Khaless" would be a very common mistake if the name was copied by hand.

There's probably no way to prove any of the above, since no one probably thought it was important to preserve any of the relevant evidence. Someone made up a foreign name for a TV show. Someone else may have made a mistake while copying it. Some actor may then have pronounced it in an unintended way. The result is suitably alien, and the spelling even suggests that the name isn't really pronounced by natives the way it is written down in English.

The only way to prove the above guess would be to find an original shooting script for "The Savage Curtain", track down the people who worked on that episode (if they're even still alive), and ask them about it (if they even remember it at this time, which is doubtful).

  • I think you're mistaking/conflating the Klingon language invented by Mark Okrand and the Klingon actually used in the show by actual Klingons
    – Valorum
    Apr 21 '19 at 15:34
  • There's no pronunciation guide for the name Kahless in the original script; i.stack.imgur.com/5H1iC.png
    – Valorum
    Apr 21 '19 at 15:39
  • 2
    I'm aware that the pronunciation of "Kahless" predates Okrand (see my answer to this other question). Maybe I should've been clearer, but my mention of the mangling in "Rightful Heir" is only to illustrate that a process exists to generate a "kay" sound when an actor reads an alien name beginning in "k", not to imply that the name of Kahless had anything to do with Okrand. Apr 22 '19 at 1:17
  • At least in TNG scripts, the pronunciation guide for alien names is at the beginning. That photo only shows the (first?) appearance of the name in the script. Do you have a photo of the beginning? Apr 22 '19 at 1:20
  • Original scripts didn't usually have those. It was down to the actors (and/or continuity guy) to decide.
    – Valorum
    Apr 22 '19 at 7:09

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