What does a language sound like when it only exists in written symbols? The producers of this summer’s blockbuster Superman movie, Man of Steel , ran into this problem when it comes to the native language of Krypton, the fictional and faraway planet where Superman was born. So they turned to the Okanagan Valley, where University of British Columbia professor Christine Schreyer teaches linguistic anthropology and specializes in created languages.
Over the past two years, Dr. Schreyer worked on sussing out the sounds of Kryptonian for the film. She talked with The Globe and Mail about how to speak a language that’s never been spoken.
What exactly was your role for the production of Man of Steel ?
My role was to provide the linguistic meaning behind the writing system. They wanted to have writing as part of the background in the world of Krypton, but they wanted to have a meaning behind that writing system and not just have it be gibberish.
This must have required learning everything there is to know about Superman and his planet.
Yeah, I had to learn a lot about the Superman universe. Luckily everyone working on the film had a lot of time preparing for that, so I was able to ask them questions and they provided a lot of support for that. But to find out what kind of sounds we wanted to put in, for example, we looked at previous words that had been associated with the Superman canon. So the character names, the names of cities, the names of spaceships. And then we took whatever the letters were, the sounds there, to help develop the sound system for this new Kryptonian.
So we thought about what sounds we could use, and once I had sounds picked, then I started making words for that. They would give a sentence, for example, “The light of Rao.” And I would make up which sounds would go together to make the word “light.”
You’ve taught classes at UBC’s Okanagan campus about languages like Klingon and Na’vi. What’s the right terminology for this, do we call them fake languages?
I would never say fake because you can actually have conversations in them. So they are languages. Constructed languages is used a lot, I tend to use creative languages. And the people who make them are often called conlangers.
Why do people get so interested in creative languages? Why invest the time to learn them?
I think what makes them interesting is that anyone can learn them. A lot of people say, for example, “I’m not from the Navajo nation [an aboriginal tribe in the Southwestern U.S.] Why would I go learn Navajo? I feel like it’s not mine.” But because created languages are coming from fictional cultures, anybody can be interested in that culture and have that connection.
Does each creative language invent a whole new grammar system?
Most people invent a new system each time. There’s a Language Creation Society, and they do have a guidebook to making new languages if people are interested in starting this themselves. They give ideas about the different types of word formation processes, or the different types of grammatical structures. So for Kryptonian, the sentence structure is subject-object-verb, which I chose because of a number of factors, but also to be different from English. English is subject-verb-object.
You’re now the world’s foremost expert in Kryptonian. What will you do with this skill?
There’s talk of sequels, so perhaps they’d call me again. It would depend how much takes place on Krypton, because that’s where the language is focused. But if somebody else was interested in having me work on another project, then I would do that again as well. It’s really fun, and I get to be creative in it.