The film Alpha may take place 20,000 years ago, but the language that Keda, Tau and all of its other ice-aged characters speak is less than three years old. That’s because Beama (also known as Cro-Magnon) is a “conlang,” or a constructed language that was built specifically for the film by UBC Anthropology professor Dr. Christine Schreyer. But don’t worry — if you don’t speak Beama, you could also speak to Schreyer in Kryptonian, the language of Superman’s home planet Krypton, or Eltarian, the language of an alien race in Power Rangers. She created both of those, too.
“After I got back from [working in] Papa New Guinea, I was interested in new languages. That included pidgins and creoles, as well as constructed languages. It was right around the time that Avatar came out, and ... people were learning Na’vi.”
Schreyer surveyed the group, curious about their motivation behind learning a language only spoken on the fictional planet of Pandora. Her research was featured in The Globe and Mail.
“The production designer for Man of Steel happened to see [the article] … he called me right away and said, ‘Please come work with us.’”
Once her name became well-known in the industry, it opened up opportunities to write the language for the 2017 Power Rangers reboot, as well as the language for Alpha which is in cinemas now.
“[The director] was very interested in melodic word construction.... I also looked at the proto-languages that were around those time periods [as] estimated ancestral languages.”
With this knowledge, Schreyer began pulling from historical linguistic textbooks and designing the grammar that would work best for the film. While the English language includes approximately 44 sounds, Beama has its own sound system that may be tricky for the average English speaker to learn. This includes sounds like:
“The first thing I taught [all the actors] was the International Phonetic Alphabet.… Then I would record the words for them, they would practice with the audio and I would check back in with them on Skype.”
This precision would be especially important since certain actors weren’t even speaking the same version of the conlang. At one point in the film, two different groups meet and they end up speaking different dialects of the same language — another component that Schreyer had to design.
“The word for ‘son’ in the main character’s language was ‘sawa,’ and then in the dialect it was ‘shawa.’ So the ‘s’ turns into [an] ‘sh’ sound … [Sounds moved] from alveolar to palato-alveolar,” she said.
This means that the sound is made with your tongue bunched-up against the hard part (or palate) on the roof of your mouth. This shift, alongside certain vowel changes, made the two dialects easy to distinguish during dialogue.
“I wanted there to be, for the very dedicated fans, some kind of authentic difference in dialect. Because [these characters] weren’t from the same place, there is no reason they would have had the exact same language,” said Schreyer.
While the language learning materials are technically the film studio’s intellectual property, Schreyer has already had a few people reach out to her asking how they could learn it, just as they did with her language for Man of Steel.
“Warner Brothers did a few things with Kryptonian, but never published the full vocabulary that was available, so now there are people scanning the internet trying to find all the tiny pieces of [it].”
Of course, Kyptonian and Beama are two very different languages, not only in terms of where they are spoken (space versus prehistoric Earth), but also in their fanbase. While Alpha is a new film with a new cast of characters, Superman has a canon that spans 80 years, with a lot of pre-existing material.
“... in Superman Man of Steel and Power Rangers, I drew on the canon for those words. So I knew the word Krypton was a word, or Kalel or Candor … and I could use those as a guide for word construction,” she said.
“Superman does have such a huge fanbase, so there are people who are trying to learn as much as possible … I don’t know if there will be dedicated fans to these [characters] from 20,000 years ago. The fandom levels are already different, so that might impact whether people learn it in the future as well.”
If you think this sounds like the coolest job ever, Schreyer teaches a course at the UBC Okanagan campus in which constructing a language is the final project.
“In my introduction to linguistic anthropology course … the students learn about the pieces of linguistics and then they build languages, that’s their final assignment,” she said.
“So as they learn about phonology, they pick the sounds of their language and as they learn about morphology they put the sounds together.... I would often use the example of Na’vi and say ‘Look, this is in the movies, it’s a good thing you’re learning about this!’”
If you’re a conlanger in the making, you’re in luck. Schreyer explained that there is something called the Language Creation Society, which is a group of people online who all share an interest in conlangs. On their online forum, people who need languages constructed for TV, films, books or video games will post job offers.
“That’s how David Peterson got the job with HBO on Game of Thrones,” she explained. Peterson submitted his portfolio and got chosen to create the now widely-known language of Dothraki.
Outside of her film career, Schreyer also works with languages spoken by people on modern day planet Earth. Specifically, she partners with Indigenous communities and teaches courses at the Vancouver campus in the First Nations Endangered Languages program.
But that doesn’t mean that these topics necessarily have to exist in silos. Schreyer said that the knowledge she gained from working with Indigenous languages helped her career in constructed ones, and visa versa.
“One of the ideas I presented [for Kryptonian] was to use a similar writing system to the Cree syllabic system. So the characters in Kryptonian rotate based on vowel sound, similar to Cree syllabics. I actually put easter eggs for Indigenous languages into Kryptonian! So to say hello in Cree you say ‘tansi’ and to say hello in Kryptonian you reverse the syllables and say ‘sitan.’”
On the other hand, Schreyer’s work with the Na’vi speakers helped provide context around speaker communities that develop out of nothing, and fuelled her research into how Indigenous language communities could model those tactics in language revitalization.
These conlang speaking communities are popping up around the world, and Schreyer argued that often they may be bigger fans of the language than they are of the source content itself.
“In my Na’vi research, [I learned that] in Russia they had really terrible subtitles for the Avatar movie so a lot of people ended up learning the language to figure out what the movie was about, and now there is this part of the population [that are] huge fans of the language but who didn’t really like Avatar at all,” she said.
“They might start out as fans of whatever the media is, but they fall in love with the language. The community forums are often so welcoming, so more than being a fan of a show people self-identify as being fans of the language.”