Lin­guist cre­ates lan­guage for film

Times Colonist - - Arts - SPENCER HAR­WOOD

VAN­COU­VER — Typ­i­cally when an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor Chris­tine Schreyer fin­ishes cre­at­ing a new lan­guage for a film, it is even­tu­ally spo­ken by aliens from be­yond the stars bear­ing mes­sages of hope, peace and oc­ca­sion­ally de­struc­tion and doom.

How­ever, her lat­est con­cept lan­guage has a uniquely hu­man ori­gin, con­trary to the work she has done on films such as Man of Steel and Power Rangers.

Her new­est lan­guage, called Beama, was cre­ated for the re­cently re­leased film Al­pha, which is about a young man sep­a­rated from his tribe who be­friends a lone wolf and takes place 20,000 years ago.

Schreyer said the film­mak­ers’ de­sire for au­then­tic­ity forced her to set her sights on an­cient oral tra­di­tions to cre­ate some­thing re­al­is­tic but man­age­able for the cast.

“They re­ally strived for ac­cu­racy in terms of the tool tech­nol­ogy, the hous­ing, the an­i­mals and also the lan­guage,” said Schreyer, who teaches at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia Okana­gan in Kelowna.

Schreyer started by ex­plor­ing the re­search on pho­netic sounds of sev­eral pro­tolan­guages to de­ter­mine how her new lan­guage should sound.

“I did take out some of the more com­plex sounds for English speak­ers be­cause the ac­tors needed to be able to say ev­ery­thing,” she said from Kelowna, adding there were sounds dif­fer­ent from English re­tained in Beama.

Although there are no fos­sil records for lan­guages as there are for an­cient peo­ples and an­i­mals, po­etry and re­search from the study of his­tor­i­cal lin­guis­tics helped guide Schreyer while sound­ing out Beama.

“Po­etry and tra­di­tional sto­ry­telling tends to have more of the older or high ver­sion of the lan­guages — just like how Shake­speare has older forms of English in it,” said Schreyer.

She said the film’s di­rec­tor, Al­bert Hughes, pre­ferred more melodic-sound­ing lan­guages, which prompted her to in­cor­po­rate more vowel sounds and re­move some of the harsher con­so­nant-heavy words from Beama.

And while con­cept lan­guages have been used in var­i­ous films and tele­vi­sion se­ries since the late 1960s, such as Klin­gon in Star Trek or the El­ven tongue in Lord of the Rings, Schreyer said the in­ter­net has given fans far more ac­cess to the lan­guages than they had pre­vi­ously.

“They’re able to ac­cess de­tails on films they were very rarely able to ac­cess be­fore,” she said. “Part of the rea­son I’m here is be­cause I did a study of peo­ple learn­ing Na’vi from Avatar and how they were able to do that.”

Schreyer said the pro­duc­tion de­signer for Man of Steel hired her to cre­ate the Kryp­to­nian lan­guage af­ter read­ing her study, know­ing that diehard fans of Su­per­man would not ac­cept gib­ber­ish.

“Fans are de­mand­ing that de­tail and that au­then­tic­ity.”

That sense of au­then­tic­ity was not al­ways in de­mand, or even de­sired at all. Schreyer said some films, in­clud­ing the Star Wars movie fran­chise, use in­con­sis­tent pat­terns in­ter­spersed with gib­ber­ish for lan­guage-like sounds.

“I think at this point it’s a point of pride for them, that they’re the ones that don’t have it,” said Schreyer.

“I know peo­ple in the con­structed lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties of­ten have an axe to grind with that.”

She said she’s re­ceived many re­quests for Kryp­to­nian trans­la­tions for tat­toos, and one woman on Twit­ter had com­piled ev­ery trace of the lan­guage she could find from Man of Steel.

Schreyer said peo­ple have taken her courses be­cause of their love of her con­cept lan­guages, and even gone into the field them­selves af­ter­wards.

It’s the lovers of Na’vi and Klin­gon who of­ten be­come the pro­fes­sional lin­guists pre­serv­ing and main­tain­ing oral tra­di­tions, said Schreyer, who has also worked in Canada and around the globe with In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in re­vi­tal­iz­ing their lan­guages.

“Ac­tu­ally, you can get peo­ple like me who can do both things.”

UBC an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor Chris­tine Schreyer in­vented a lan­guage for the re­cently re­leased movie Al­pha.

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