Inventor of Kryptonian aims to revitalize endangered languages

UBC-O’s Dr. Christine Schreyer — an associate professor teaching anthropology and linguistics — went to Krypton. At least, as close any of us will ever get.

In 2011, Warner Brothers approached Schreyer to develop the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel.

Schreyer began her journey quite young — she has wanted to be an anthropologist since she was twelve. She’s also always been interested in Indigenous peoples, and completed a directed study on the Cree language during her undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg. In graduate school, she compared the oral stories of the Chapleau Cree First Nation to records from the Hudson’s Bay Company and worked with the Loon River Cree and Taku River Tlingit First Nations.

This research focused on how languages are embedded in landscape and how people can learn about language in tandem with reclaiming knowledge of the land. She currently does field work in Papua New Guinea documenting Kala, which is spoken in six villages and one of the country’s 862 languages.

What does this have to do with Krypton?

Schreyer’s background in reviving and protecting endangered languages made her the perfect candidate to create an imaginary language — with one big difference. Her research studied the interaction between language and land, yet the fictional world of Krypton cannot be visited. Right?

Wrong, explained Schreyer. The world of Krypton was so lavishly imagined by the production designer for Man of Steel that she gained important evidence from visiting the movie set and by studying other pre-existing texts.

“The world of Krypton was so well-imagined … there’s so much in there I feel that is not on-screen,” said Schreyer. “Alex McDowell — production designer for Man of Steel — is famous for developing these really intense worlds with so much backstory to them … There was so much culture and land that I got to see. I guess I did get to go to Krypton.”

Being on set while making the language brought Schreyer physically to the land of Krypton as imagined, and helped her make decisions when forming new words and the writing system.

The sights and sounds of Kryptonian

Schreyer created two parts to Kryptonian: the written and oral components.

Kryptonian is a little like Japanese, with both an older system of symbols — or “glyphs” — akin to kanji, as well as a syllabic writing system similar to hiragana and katakana. Linguists would call these glyphs “ideaograms,” because, quite simply, they represent an idea.

Superman’s “S” is an example of an ideogram that means “hope.” It’s also the symbol for his house line, “El.” Schreyer and her team developed a series of glyphs embedded with deeper meaning that fans could generate for themselves online in a glyph creator.

“[The glyph creator] would ask you a series of four questions, like, ‘do you have a good sense of morality, perception or adventure?’ Kind of like a little personality quiz,” said Schreyer.

The result is a house glyph ingrained with meaning.

Similarly, the syllabic writing system produces a script based on the syllables present in the text being translated. The shape of the script itself reflects the connection of land and language so prevalent in Schreyer’s research.

“Everything is round on Krypton. There are no straight lines. The writing system was tied to that,” said Schreyer. “The shape of the writing system, which was tied to the shape of the planet and how the world was imagined, also impacted the [spoken] language.”

Further deepening the land-language connection are elements of Cree syllabics Schreyer brought to this project — remember her undergrad directed study? During those early days in her career, she studied the structure of words. Schreyer was fascinated by the fact that in Cree, some syllables flip based on how they are being used.

For example, an L-shaped symbol denotes the consonant “m” when used with the vowel “a.” This same symbol flips upside down when “m” is used with “i,” upside down and backwards when “m” is used with “e” and backwards when “m” is used with “o.”

“They had already decided that the numbers were going to flip … The Kryptonian counting system flips pieces of the ‘shield’ shape — the glyph that Superman wears on his chest — and then rotates that into different numbers. I already had an idea of rotating numbers, and so when I saw and heard that I thought of the rotating syllabics of Cree.”

The Kyrptonian counting system flips pieces of the ‘shield’ shape that Superman wears on his chest.
The Kyrptonian counting system flips pieces of the ‘shield’ shape that Superman wears on his chest. SITS Girl / Flickr

So what does Kryptonian sound like? Definitely not like English.

For example, Kryptonian includes a “voiced glottal fricative,” or what a voiced “h” would sound like to English speakers, which Dr. Schreyer added to a list of existing phonetic rules to make the language “more alien sounding.” This is a sound English speakers are capable of producing, but is not found in any words in the English language.

Unfortunately, the spoken language didn’t make it into the film, even though the production team was thrilled to have Schreyer’s Kryptonian on-hand.

“They did film some scenes that were including spoken Kryptonian later on because they got really excited about it, but it was kind of a last-minute thing and it didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie,” said Schreyer.

Future tense: updates on Kryptonian and language revitalization

Fans (including Schreyer) were holding out for a fully-developed Kryptonian dictionary that Warner Brothers had hinted at making possible, but the DC Universe has since moved on. She is still hopeful this may be an option in the future as the franchise develops.  

Just because DC has moved on to Aqua Man doesn’t mean that Schreyer is far from films. She was recently the language creator for the Power Rangers movie, and was on-set during the filming of the very first scene where Brian Cranston and Elizabeth Banks speak Eltarian. She’s also become a filmmaker in her own right, appearing as executive producer on a documentary about “con-langing” (constructed languages).

“[The documentary] is about people who make languages, not just for Hollywood, but people who make them as hobbies — and have for 30 or 40 years — and why people make them and people who learn these languages,” said Shreyer.

And indeed, Superman fans are enthusiastic about learning about the constructed language of Kryptonian. Schreyer has happily fielded emails from fans who want to get tattoos in the syllabic writing system, which she responds to when she has time and a word that answers the request. The Canadian Mint even asked her to do some work for commemorative Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman coins they had produced.

“Sometimes I'm like, ‘is this a real e-mail? Does the Mint really want to make coins?’” said Schreyer.

The Canadian Mint asked Schreyer to do some work for the commemorative Superman coins.
The Canadian Mint asked Schreyer to do some work for the commemorative Superman coins. The Canadian Mint

These interactions with fans of the Kryptonian language depict how interested people are in constructed languages, and Schreyer explains in the documentary that this interest can help languages that are endangered in real life.

“I’m looking at how people are learning online, and what are the motivating factors, and how to make it ‘cool’ to learn new things,” said Schreyer. If real endangered languages — like Kala or Southern Haida — became as cool to learn as Kryptonian, teaching them would be a lot easier. And, thousands of years of cultural history would be preserved.

This fall, Schreyer will be teaching the first-ever cross campus social science course between UBC-O and UBC Vancouver. This class on endangered languages and language documentation will include a community project with the Splats’in First Nation, whom Schreyer has been working with since 2008. Students will look at how languages become endangered, what people are doing to document and revitalize them, as well as how technology fits in.

In her office, Schreyer has only one memento — a framed Batman v Superman promotional cereal box that featured Kryptonian syllabic writing — to remind her of her work on Man of Steel. A bit of notoriety is a welcomed perk of Schreyer’s job, but the true goal is research that is applicable to existing communities.

If Schreyer’s career is an example, you never know where your childhood dreams and undergraduate research could take you. So sign up for that directed seminar and pursue what interests you, because you never know — it may even take you to an imaginary world.

A previous version of this article included an incorrect version of the Superman commemorative coins which Schreyer was not involved with. The Ubyssey regrets this error.