Language Creation in Hollywood with Dr. Christine Schreyer

February 3, 2023

Within the book titled, 'Communicating Linguistics, Language, Community and Public Engagement,' Dr. Christine Schreyer, Associate Professor of Athropology at UBC's Okanagan campus, describes her role as a language creator for two Hollywood films – Man of Steel (2013) and Alpha (2018) in the chapter, 'Language Creation and Engagement, A How-To Guide.'

While Dr. Christine Schreyer's academic research focuses primarily on language revitalization and documentation, she explained that when the film Avatar came out in 2009, the outpouring interest from fans with the language, Na'vi, intrigued her.  Image removed.

"When I arrived at UBC Okanagan in 2008, one of the assignments I set for my students in my introduction to Linguistic Anthropology course was to develop languages as their learned about the parts of languages – sounds, how words are made, how sentences are structured, non-verbal communication,' said Schreyer. "In the fall of 2009, I was teaching this course when Avatar came out, which featured the conlang, Na’vi. There was much media hype about this language and I was most intrigued by was how the fans of the movie were learning the language so fast. My academic research looks at language revitalization, but it can be slow going for communities and I wondered if fan communities of conlangs could be models for endangered language communities."

In the chapter, 'Language Creation and Engagement, A How-To Guide,' Dr. Christine Schreyer discusses the process of language creation for each of the films, as well as challenges and opportunities for public engagement with constructed languages. She also provides some tips on the process of language creation that she has uncovered through her own experiences in this field.

Language Sciences spoke with Dr. Christine Schreyer about her experiences, exploring what variables can impact the approach to constructing a langugage, what goes into developing an underlying linguistic structure, and tips to constructing a language for the first time.

How does the approach to designing a language differ when designing a writing system for a language as compared to a spoken language?

For me, the approach is very similar. I start with the basics of spoken language, sounds, word and sentence structure, and then if a project requires writing, thinking about what kind of writing system best suits the language based on it’s backstory and the world-building involved in the project. I’ve never been the one to actually develop the symbols for a writing system. For Man of Steel, I worked with a graphic designer named Kristen Franson, who developed the symbols based on other design aesthetics.

What is involved when developing an underlying linguistic structure for a language? 

For me, I generally think about the purpose of the language, who the speakers are and how it is meant to be used in the imagined world. I tend to think about sentence structure, whether a language is Subjct-Verb-Object or not (none of my conlangs have been actually) and then how verbs might be conjugated (do they mark gender-tense etc) and how nouns might work. I use what I know of linguistic structures from other languages to help build up the linguistic structures.

What are some challenges that go along with constructing languages that are specifically used in a film format?

One challenge of developing a conlang specifically for film is the timeline – you are often tasked with making things very quickly, which can be a challenge if you see conlanging as an art – it’s hard to rush art. For me as well, conlanging is never my main focus, as an academic – usually I am also working on many different academic projects, teaching and research, and so bits of languages get smushed together in my head. It can be hard to keep them all straight!

How did your approach differ when constructing the Kryptonian language (an alien-world language) in Man of Steel, compared to Beama (a human prehistoric language) in Alpha?   

Overall, I had similar approaches for how I build the linguistic structures of each language, but Kryptonian was based on past items from the Superman canon, such as words that had appeared in the comics, ideas from the design team. This language was what is known as an a priori language, it’s not based on any natural language, but instead made from scratch. In contrast, for the Beama language in Alpha, I used academic research on what the earliest prehistoric languages were like to develop the language. I also turned to information on proto-languages from the time-period and region and so I would classify this language as an a posteriori language, one that draws from natural languages to make a new language.

What tips, or words of encouragement, do you have for someone constructing a language for the first time? 

Think about who the speakers of the language will be as this will impact what they will talk about, as well as how they may pronounce things. For Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I developed the underwater language of Atlantean, which is spoken by Queen Mera and Aquaman’s community. For this, I needed to consider what sounds would be best underwater for example. I also had the added complication that these scenes had already been shot and the actors mouths couldn’t move much, but that’s more a film problem than a tip for the general conlanger. Another thing to consider is how much do you want it to sound like a natural human language; this will impact the choices you make. Finally, have fun! Play with sounds and words and sentence structures. It’s an art form, but also can be a game for those who love to play with language. If you are interested in learning more about how people have developed their own conlangs, check out the documentary film I was an executive producer for: Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues

Written by Kelsea Franzke

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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