A young girl tips a bucket and out of it flows a flurry of letters, out into the wind

Authenticity in Alien Worlds: The Art of Creating Languages

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Whether you’ve ever consciously thought about it or not, chances are you’re familiar with a constructed language.

From Star Trek’s Klingon, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish, to Avatar’s Na’vi, to Dothraki and Valyrian in Game of Thrones, these fictional languages have lent a degree of authenticity to the worlds they occupy.

According to Christine Schreyer, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UBC Okanagan (and the creator of the Kryptonian language for the film Man of Steel), the act of constructing languages (or ‘conlanging’) is not only a natural human inclination, it’s one way that Hollywood immerses their audiences in new worlds.

Why Alien Dialogue Should Not Be in the Audience’s Native Tongue

When it comes to videos, movies, and games that involve fictional or alien cultures, nothing draws an audience in like a constructed language.

“Sometimes the viewer loses that immersion feeling if their own language is used,” Christine says. “The more you can use a created language the more immersive it is. Even if the dialogue shifts to English later on – at least it’s had that draw at first and an emotional connection has been made.”

Not all Alien Languages are “Guttural”

If you’ve ever thought of creating a language to go along with your project, you may want to avoid your first instinct when it comes to the sound.

“It’s funny because people often refer to alien languages as ‘guttural,’” says Christine. “But it doesn’t match every culture. Different creatures will use different sounds. The Klingon language was made to sound harsh, because that reflected the harshness of the characters. But Paul Frommer, who worked on the Na’Vi language for Avatar purposefully made it light and airy because the characters were often flying in the sky.”

“As language creators, we think about those things, but I think most people’s instincts are to make it a guttural sound no matter what,” Christine says, adding with a laugh, “We’d appreciate it if people realized they could be more creative!”

Body Language is an Often Overlooked Form of Communication

“As a prof, I’ve been assigning my students the task of making languages for many years, and part of that assignment is for students to create new gestures to go along with their new spoken language,” Christine says. “It’s harder to incorporate unique body language in the movies because actors have their own set of ideas on how a character can move, but the more that body language can be embedded the more authentic it’ll be.”

Constructing Languages Requires Thought into Word Order

“Another consideration might be word order or how sentences get put together,” Christine says. “That’s something I’m always thinking about. The Kryptonian language had a set order based on cultural ideas.”

According to Christine, she borrowed slightly from English communication structure, where individuals speak in subject-verb-object (e.g. Tom ran to the fountain), but she made modifications so it fit the Kryptonian culture.

“In Kryptonian, subject came first but the ‘people’ also had a long history of reliance on objects and writing on them. So object came second and then came the verb.”

“The order is what we [linguists] think about, that other people don’t tend to.”

For Those Who Want to Try Creating a Language

Christine offers lessons from her experience in creating Kryptonian, as a starting point for others who are dreaming of giving conlanging a try.

“Creating Kryptonian was really fun – like escaping to another world,” she says. “The timelines were tight, which was a challenge, but working with Alex McDowell (production designer) was wonderful as he was very supportive.”

“For anyone who is interested in World Building, Alex runs a World Build Lab at the University of Southern California, where participants can build a world in a day. You get a topic and then go off in groups to create, before presenting at the end of the day.”

For those hoping to launch into conlanging from a fan fiction point of view, you may be in luck.

“Creating Kryptonian was a bit easier to start with because the culture had been around for almost 75 years (as part of the Superman franchise). So to get inspiration, I looked at names of people and planets and robot characters, to see what sounds were available and to see if I had to add any more. Then I looked at putting words together and how the sentences would be ordered.”

However, starting a new language from scratch may be easier than you think. Christine advises that you don’t have to start with creating the dictionary – all you need to do, is start with a few words at a time.

“If there is a word for a people or a culture – start with that,” she suggests. “Then coming up with names for people, plants, animals, planets, whatever you need, would be a good start, but also think about how sounds are made. You may start with something harsh like Klingon, but if you want something lighter and softer, understand how those sounds are made and how they come together to form words is important. I wouldn’t start with creating a dictionary, I’d look at words that are important for whatever piece you’re working on (e.g. comic book, short film, etc.). Prioritize the words you create, based on what you feel is important.”

Conlanging Happens More Than You Might Think

Along with teaching classes, pursuing her own research, as well as helping others take on conlanging projects – Christine has also been active in creating a documentary called Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues.

Screen capture of the introduction to a created languages documentary

“We have so many great stories in that film. A lot of people who conlang are experimenting with their languages,” she says. “Some people are trying to use all verbs and nouns and to lose any element of ambiguity.”

“And there can also be an element of aesthetics. For instance, in Tolkien’s languages, he specifically wanted to create something pretty. The sound patters were a form of art for him – and for some people it truly is art. For others, it may be that they’re dissatisfied with what’s available to them and they want to find a way to express their identity.”

Language Diversity is a Sign of a Healthy Society

“The more diversity there is in languages, the healthier the ecosystem is,” Christine says. “Languages are tied to the environment and how we see the world, everyone has different points of view, depending on where they are living or where they’ve come from. And when we lose languages – a lot goes away with them, including creativity. The more languages we have in the world, created or natural, the more chances there are for creativity and how we express ourselves.”

However, for those who feel that language diversity may be a double-edged sword in that having a niche dialect may prevent you from being widely understood or heard, Christine offers insights in that area too.

“When there’s only 500 speakers of a language, what you’ll find is that they often learn several languages across their region. This is called ‘Receptive Multilingualism,’ so even though individuals may not be fluent speakers in each other’s languages, at the very least they can understand others – respond in their own language – and know that the listener is still understanding them as well.

“But there are those who have also tried to create universal languages as well. For instance, there’s a created language called Esperanto, which was made by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. His idea was that it could be used as a secondary language for everyone in the world while they still maintained their primary language. It’s been hugely successful and there are millions of people who have learned Esperanto around the world.”

Finding a Conlang Professional or Join a Conlanging Society

According to Christine, even though the conlanging community tends to be tight-knit, it’s a welcoming one, where newcomers and/or people seeking conlanging services are easily assisted.

“There are a few of us who have made names for ourselves,” Christine says. “For instance, David Peterson, who works on Game of Thrones, and so many other movies and shows, is remarkably busy. But he got his first job by contacting the Language Creation Society, which is a group of international people who have a jobs board. You put in criteria you’re looking for in regards to your constructed language job, and then people submit ideas to you. Usually, they are people who have made numerous languages in the past.”

“Whether it’s video games, novels, or other opportunities – there is a lot out there,” she says. “I would encourage more content creators to start using constructed languages, because there are amazing people out there who would be happy to help you, and also for that sense of authenticity – it adds that extra element of realism.”

About Christine Schreyer

Christine SchreyerChristine Schreyer is an associate professor of anthropology at UBC Okanagan, where she teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. Her research focuses on language revitalization in Canada, and, more recently in Papua New Guinea, as well as the relationship between endangered language communities and created language communities. She has done research on the Na’vi speech community (from the movie Avatar) and is the creator of the Kryptonian language from Man of Steel (2013).

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  • Dr Michael Pilon
    June 21, 2017, 12:18 pm

    In dental school I was subsidized by the Royal Canadian Dental Corps. At the end of third year a friend in the Military told me about the $2 standby flights to Europe. Gad….I got on a “flip” at the end of exams and another later in the summer after summer training. I spent 7 weeks hitching around Europe. One thing I found interesting was the accents between counties and even towns in England. Also the sense of rivalry. I was on my way to Cornwall and a fellow in Devonshire told me that it was very unfriendly there, in fact he added that people would switch to the Cornwall dialect in a pub if strangers were near. A few years later I read that the last person to speak the Cornwall dialect had passed away, a woman of 92…So much for that rumor. I learned German at night and used it to great effect in my free trips 🙂 8 in all..An old hippie for sure. Check out http://www.40countries.com . This was a great article and very much of interest to me 🙂 I was often alone “On the road” so communications was often out of the ordinary but fun 🙂

    • Tanya
      June 21, 2017, 1:15 pm

      Hi Dr. Pilon,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience!
      It’s amazing just how much of an impact language has over not just what we communicate, but how we communicate it (or in your example of those switching to the Cornwall dialect,’don’t’ communicate with one another).
      Your travels sound like quite the trip (pun intended!).
      All the best & thanks for reading 🙂

  • Nicole
    June 24, 2017, 3:25 am

    I am glad that you mentioned Esperanto and how successful it is. I agree it is a big success even if not everyone speaks it, it enables to find friends in many different countries. I used it while travelling and was able to stay with Esperanto speaking families. I chatted with ease with a Japanese man who had studied English for many years but he said that when the conversation is in English he prefers to remain silent while in Esperanto he doesn’t hesitate to express himself freely. Esperanto enables people to reach fluency much faster than with national languages. Esperante deserves to be more widely studied.

    • Tanya
      June 26, 2017, 1:17 pm

      That’s really interesting Nicole – thanks for sharing! It’s so cool that you have firsthand experience with Esperanto and that you’re using it, as intended, with success!