Linguistics students spend their time studying phonetics, dissecting sentence structures, and … creating alien languages? That’s right. Two linguistics students from Cornell, Ryan Hearn, and Joseph Ryne hit the jackpot when Hollywood reached out to the university looking for young talent to create Torfan, a never-before-heard alien language, for America’s sweetheart Captain Marvel movie.
So how do a couple of comic book-loving linguistics enthusiasts go about creating an alien language anyway, and what can they teach avid language-learning earthlings about our mother tongues?
First, a quick definition.
What is a Conlanger?
Conlanger is the name, language creation is the game.
Conlanging is the creation of “constructed” or intentionally created (as opposed to naturally developing) languages such as Esperanto, Klingon or Dothraki. A “conlanger” is someone who invents a new language.
The Cornell students who created the Torfan alien language from scratch were new to “conlanging” when they were first approached by Marvel, although they were well aware of its existence.
Conlang dominates the sci-fi/fantasy market and features in epic fan favorites such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.
ConLanguages in Hollywood
However, the reality is that most conlanguages only make small appearances in Hollywood, with English (primarily British) acting as the principal language among alien species. One of the main reasons for the lack of linguistic diversity is that emotional moments hit harder with viewers in their own language. Directors don’t want to risk losing viewers during heart-wrenching moments because they got lost in the translation of a fictitious language.
But when directors DO choose to employ conlanguages, what steps do the creators take to come up with these masterpieces?
How To Create an Alien Language Like Torfan for Hollywood
We’re going to break down some of the main steps conlangers take in order to create languages from scratch, like Torfan from the Captain Marvel movie.
Step 1: Decide Whether it Will Be a Human or an Alien Language
Conlanguages come in all shapes, sizes, and now, species.
Creators of languages have to decide whether the language will be adapted from a human language or if it has a completely unrelated alien origin.
Because on our little Earth, every human child is physically capable of making around 7,000 different phones (the technical term for an individual sound segment), but many of the world’s most common languages have under 100 phonemes. English has only 44!
To create an alien language means creating exotic sounds that are unfamiliar to our common human phonemes, like ejective sounds, for example.
Ejective sounds are consonants that are emphasized emphatically and are hardly ever used by humans. These popping sounds were also used in the Na’vi language of the Avatars, annotated as kx, tx, and px.
The first step to creating an alien language? Add non-earthly sounds.
Step 2. Create a Phonology that Represents the Culture
When creating a fictitious language for Hollywood, conlangers have to work closely with the director to understand their vision for the film.
The sound has to be consistent and reflect the culture of the specific group, otherwise, it simply doesn’t work.
Are said aliens/life forms docile, heroic, merciless, primitive? This will affect how melodic (or not) their language will sound.
No two alien species are created equally, and neither are their respective languages. We must acknowledge their distinct cultures! There are even fan pages dedicated to over 400 different species of Marvel aliens.
Step 3. Create a Manual of Grammar Rules
Now it’s time to build words and sentences. During Torfan’s creation for Marvel, Rhyne focused on the creation of words while Hearn focused on grammar.
This is where morphology comes in. This branch of linguistics, which is one of the major components of grammar, studies the structure of words, particularly morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of language, such as prefixes or suffixes.
In alien languages, however, some conlangers employ the rare morpheme infixes.
Only a handful of human languages actually use infixes today, among which are Tagalog, Khmer, and Nicaraguan Spanish. Conlangers can capitalize on this anomaly.
An example of an infix in English would be akin to the usage of the word “bloody” in “fan-bloody-tastic.” In this case, the word “bloody” has been inserted as an infix to alter the meaning of the word “fantastic.”
Dr. Paul Frommer, the creator of Avatar’s Na’vi, employed the affix “ol” into the conlanguage. For example, “Oe ka” meaning “I go” turns into “Oe kola” meaning “I went” or “I have gone.”
Although the morphology of Torfan has yet to be completely broken apart by linguists, Hearn and Rhyne tell us that the grammar and syntax were loosely based on the Japanese language, while simultaneously deriving some influence from Greek and Latin.
Step 4. Avoid Letting Your Native Language Influence the Semantics
If you are thinking “I would just translate an English sentence into a new language word for word,” think again.
Most language learners are familiar with the fact that words have different semantic meanings across languages. They do not always translate directly (this explains why Google translate is often less effective at translating full paragraphs).
For example, the word “time” in English has more than one meaning. The phrases “What time is it?” “one time,” and “all the time” all use the same noun.
In French, on the other hand, “one time” (une fois) is not the same as “What time is it?” (Quelle heure est-il?) and is not equal to “all the time” (tout le temps). Three different nouns are used in French in the place of one English noun.
This would get complicated when translating into an alien language.
Will the word for time in the language have the same semantic meaning in all three instances? Does the concept of time even exist in their galaxies?
David Peterson, the creator of the Game of Thrones languages Dothraki and Valyrian, said in an interview with Cracked that inexperienced conlangers will replicate these nuances of their native languages into their conlanguages.
New conlangers might take an idiom like “control your emotions” and apply that same word to the idea of control in the English language, without even considering that the aliens might have a completely different method of dealing with emotions (maybe they absorb them, maybe they are incapable of feeling emotions, etc.)
The same goes for common words like “big.” In English, the word “big” can conceptually indicate the height, length, and width of certain objects. In Portuguese, the word for “big,” “grande,” can also be used in those same instances, but it can also refer to the length of hair “cabelo grande.” In English, “big hair” means voluminous hair, but not necessarily “long.” This is where semantics get tricky.
Conlangers have to stay true to the original culture and vision of the alien people at hand.
If not, they might end up with language barriers of intergalactic proportions on their hands.
Key Takeaway? Linguists are Basically Superheroes
The linguists behind giant Hollywood blockbusters bring alien communication to life and give their existence meaning.
While you’re running to see Captain Marvel this week, don’t forget to pay attention to the nuances in Torfan.
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Photo: Cornell Students Source: Cornell Chronicle