Since their introduction on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Cardassians have gone from a just far-off threat to the focus of an entire seven-year saga. Deep Space Nine gave the Cardassians depth. While they were hinted to be terrible adversaries, in the end, they turned out to be incredibly untrustworthy. Sometimes they sided with Starfleet, while other times, they were attacking DS9 alongside the Dominion.
Even though we got to know the Cardassians pretty well during DS9’s run, there is one thing that still remained a secret — why did fans never hear the Cardassians speaking Cardassian?
This is somewhat unusual. Fans can easily remember an instance or two for all the major Trek races when these non-human races used their own language. The Vulcans (the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Klingons (any Worf-centric TNG episode), the Ferengi (DS9’s “Little Green Men”), and Romulan (throughout Star Trek: Picard) all had their native tongue heard by audiences.
The Bajorans did have their own language, and it was used when Major Kira was practicing her religious ceremonies. But we never heard Cardassian.
Created by Jeri Taylor for the TNG episode “The Wounded,” the Cardassians were supposed to be a handsome race. The very first Cardassian actor was Marc Alaimo, as Gul Macet. The makeup and costume team actually created the Cardassian race’s look based on Alaimo’s facial features and long neck. In that early appearance, Gul Macet and his henchmen wore uniforms that were reddish and blocky. At the same time, Gul Macet sported a strange goatee.
Fans know well that Alaimo would later play Gul Dukat, the primary nemesis to Commander Sisko on DS9.
When they spoke to Picard from their vessel and when beamed aboard the Enterprise-D, they spoke only English. We could chalk that up to the efficiencies of the Universal Translator. Picard did say that he’d had run-ins with the Cardassians when he was aboard the U.S.S. Stargazer. Chief Miles O’Brien served in the war against the Cardassians, so it stands to logic that Starfleet had enough interaction with the Cardassians to program the Universal Translator to relay their language into English.
But even on Cardassia Prime, where it is known that only Cardassian is spoken, fans never actually heard a syllable. During the DS9 episode “The Tribunal,” Chief O’Brien is accused of a crime and taken to Cardassia for trial. Throughout the episode, we did see large outdoor holo-emitters (almost the size of Jumbotrons from football stadiums) on various buildings on Cardassia. On these screens, O’Brien’s trial was being broadcast live… in English.
Contrast this to when Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy were on trial on Kronos during Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country. When the proceedings began, General Chang (Christopher Plummer) started the formalities in Klingon — not English.
This certainly added to the suspense for the viewers of the film and the overall realism. It also allowed writer and director Nicholas Meyer to make his Cold War allegory.
Just to Clarify…
No Translators on DS9
The sad truth is that we may never know why the Cardassians never got their own language. It has been suggested by some fans that DS9 simply did not have the extra budget to pay someone like Marc Okrand to create Cardassian. According to IMDB, these fans would be right, as there are no translators listed on the entire series’s credits.
Aside from the military titles, locations, and other notable words, we’ve never heard Cardassian spoken.
The one person who might know would be the showrunner of DS9, Ira Steven Behr. There might have been a few reasons why Behr chose not to create a Cardassian language. It could be that an additional language would have slowed the show down in a way that did not make sense for his style of storytelling.
It could be the budget question, or perhaps he may have decided that Cardassian would have added nothing to the show and allowed for his main bad guys to speak English instead.
All Is Not Lost
While the official appearances of Gul Dukat, Garak, and others never included their native language, this has not stopped fans from creating their own version of Cardassian (which is also known as Kardasi). These dedicated fans are determined to discover what Cardassian should or could sound like. The video above demonstrates some spoken Kardasi.
So, while there is no “Canon Cardassian,” there are ongoing fan projects which may fill in the gaps. Many of these non-canon solutions have seeped into the official Trek universe, like Uhura’s and Sulu’s first names. Those names originated in novels and are now official, and there are many phrases that have been created for Cardassian in various Trek novels.
Perhaps we may see (or hear) a Cardassian speak “Kardasi” in a future episode of Discovery, Picard, or even Strange New Worlds.