Interview: Christine Schreyer and the Linguistics of Kryptonian

Christine Schreyer is assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where she teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. Recently, Schreyer was given the unusual opportunity to contribute to the creation of the Kryptonian language for Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated Superman film, Man of Steel (2013). With such a fascinating story to tell, we interviewed Schreyer to learn more about how she approached creating an alien tongue for the iconic character and her experience working as an anthropologist in the world of big-budget entertainment.

Could we begin by learning a little about your scholarly background and interests, in particular your interest in constructed languages?

My doctoral research examined the relationship between land, language and identity amongst two Canadian indigenous communities, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, located in northern British Columbia, and the Loon River Cree First Nation, located in northern Alberta (Schreyer 2011a). I continue to work with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and we are currently working developing an interactive and participatory mapping tool that can also assist community members in re-learning their Tlingit language, particularly place names and names of resources from the land. I have also worked with Kala speakers in Papua New Guinea, where I assisted the Kala Language Committee to develop an alphabet for their language in order that it could be taught in schools, and generally strengthened within their communities.

My interest in constructed languages, however, developed out of my teaching experiences rather than my past research experiences. The textbook I use in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, The Anthropology of Language (Ottenheimer 2013), has as one of its assignment suggestions a language creation assignment. I have used a modified version of this assignment with my first year students since the fall of 2008 to great success (see Schreyer et al 2013 for a discussion of my students’ and my own reflections on this assignment). It was during the end of the fall of 2009 semester that I noticed news stories about the numerous individuals learning Na’vi, from the movie Avatar. As I like to incorporate news items that relate to my courses into class discussions, I showed this to my students and wondered at that time how so many people were learning Na’vi and why.

The following summer, I went to Papua New Guinea to conduct my research with Kala speakers for the first time and learned Tok Pisin, the national lingua franca. Learning a pidgin language was fascinating and in the fall of 2010, I taught a course that focused on “new” languages for the first time – Pidgins, Creoles and Created Languages. It was during this class that my students and I further explored who Na’vi speakers were, which led to my article “Media, Information, Technology, and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities?” (2011b). In this article, I examined how created language communities, such as Klingon and Na’vi, had used media and IT to help develop their communities and raise the prestige of their languages. I discuss how minority language communities could also use some of the same techniques to raise their number of speakers, but also discuss why media and IT are not always relevant or useful to minority communities.

After this article, I developed a survey of Na’vi speakers, which I ran online during the summer of 2011. The survey was designed to determine who the Na’vi speakers were (age, gender, nationality, education levels etc.), but also how they were learning Na’vi, why they were learning Na’vi, and how they thought Na’vi would develop over time. The Na’vi community was truly wonderful and welcoming and I was overwhelmed with the number of responses I received (297 in total), as well as the support I had from Na’vi speakers who helped translate my survey into 7 other languages (Russian, Ukrainian, German, Italian, French, Hungarian, Na’vi) in order to reach the maximum number of people. The results of this survey have further confirmed for me that it might be possible for speakers of endangered languages to model some of the learning strategies of speakers of created languages in order to develop more speakers (see my website for details on the results of this survey).

There have been many famous constructed languages in the history of fantasy and science fiction, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elven to Star Trek’s Klingon and, more recently, Na’vi. As far as you know, how has language theory, anthropology, work by anthropologists, etc., influenced the creation of these past languages?

I should add a comment here on terminology; I switch between using constructed languages and created languages, as a stylistic choice. However, conlang, a new addition to the Oxford English dictionary, is generally the most popular term, especially amongst those who develop languages (the conlangers, themselves).

To my knowledge, I am one of the only conlangers, who is also a professional anthropologist, and I am unsure the extent to which anthropology as a discipline has impacted the work of other conlangers. For instance, Marc Okrand, the inventor of Klingon, and Paul Frommer, the inventor of Na’vi, are both retired linguistics professors. While David Peterson, who has invented numerous popular languages for television and movies, including Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, has a Master’s degree in Linguistics. While these individuals have worked on more recent media-driven languages, Tolkien was also trained in linguistics rather than anthropology.

However, Peterson, in a recent blog post to celebrate the inclusion of the word conlang into the Oxford dictionary, has written about the “historical method” of language creation that, he states, “Tolkien pioneered” (2014), and which he uses himself. Peterson continues that, “With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution”. Discussions of proto-languages, as well as linguistic evolution, are concepts found within the domain of linguistic anthropology. For instance, these are both topics in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, and the language creation assignment I give my students, includes a section on language change. After first beginning their languages, including the Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax, as well as Non-Verbal communication, the students are then asked to create slang and also borrow a word from another newly created language (i.e. language evolution). In sum, it’s my belief that anthropology does have theories and ideas to offer language construction, such as the way that cultural concepts (such as gender, race, age, kinship etc.) are socially constructed and aided by language choices. I would also love to know if there are other anthropologists out there who have developed languages and what their experiences have been as opposed to those who have backgrounds in linguistics.

 

What was your familiarity with the Superman character before MAN OF STEEL reached out to you?

I would say that my knowledge of the Superman character prior to my work on Man of Steel was on par with many others who grew up with the Christopher Reeves movies. I knew the basics of the stories, but was by no means a super-fan of Superman.

 

What were the “aesthetic considerations” you wanted to bring to bear on constructing the Kryptonian language?

To be clear, I worked in association with a graphic designer named Kristen Franson while developing the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel, so the written aesthetics were developed for the most part by her to match the other aspects of design (see Wallace 2013 for more details on Kryptonian design).

My contribution to the writing was to suggest that a syllabic writing system could be used, similar to Cree syllabics, where one symbol represents a consonant/vowel pairing and the rotation of the symbol indicates what the vowel is. As well, since the reboot of the story already had the iconic “S” on Superman’s costume meaning “hope”, a second version of a writing system was also already in place when I was asked to participate. My suggestion was that these symbols for houses could be an older logographic form of writing, where one symbol represents an entire idea or word, while the syllabic system could be a newly evolved form of Kryptonian writing.

In terms of phonological “aesthetics”, I was somewhat limited to the material that was already available in the Superman canon. My initial task was to look at the names of people and places from Krypton that were found in the comics and movies and determine what all of the previously sounds used were since these sounds would need to be found within this new Kryptonian language as well. I also knew that some of the actors might potentially end up speaking the language and, as a result, I added only one sound (the voiced glottal fricative) that does not exist in the English language in order to slightly increase the “alien-like” feel of the language.

 

What was the input and feedback like from the non-anthropologists in the production?

I was given much leeway to decide how I wanted the language to be developed and the person who gave me the most feedback was Kristen, the graphic designer, as we were the ones who ended up knowing the most about how the language worked since we were using it frequently. However, Alex McDowell, Production Designer, and Helen Jarvis, Art Director, were also extremely supportive of the work that Kristen and I were doing, which was nice since it led to more opportunities for the language to be used throughout the film’s production.

 

As an anthropologist, what struck you about working in “the field” of a big-budget and highly anticipated film such as this?

I think my experience traveling to new places and meeting new people as a part of my anthropological fieldwork helped immensely in acclimatizing to the set and the “world” of Krypton, which was being designed around me. In particular, when I was on set, as a newbie to the film industry, I had to be guided through the studios. To some extent, this reminded me of my beginning trips to new field sites where individuals take it upon themselves to show you the ropes and how life proceeds. People don’t tell you the explicit rules, but you follow along, participate and observe, and learn for yourself.

As well, my work on Man of Steel, was embedded in secrecy. Early on I signed nondisclosure agreements, which stated that I could not reveal what I saw and heard during my work. I learned about the plot of the movie on my first day on set, but could not tell anyone about it. I also heard a lot of information about how production was unfolding while walking through the sets and around the studios with my guides. But again, it was a case of listening to learn but not to use. I have often had similar experiences in the field, where people talk about things in front of you, which help situate you in the field, but which are so deeply personal that they are not ever written down or shared. The secrets we as anthropologists keep are an interesting part of our discipline, although not something we are explicitly taught in fieldwork courses.

 

How was your work, and your profession as a linguistic anthropologist, understood by those you worked with? Were there any misconceptions?

Interestingly, I was very rarely labeled as an “anthropologist” when I was on the set or when I was being introduced to someone, but was instead “the linguist” who was developing Kryptonian. However, as many anthropologists who work on issues of language and culture will tell you, I’m often labeled as a “linguist” rather than as an anthropologist. Duranti’s (2009) introduction to his reader on Linguistic Anthropology does an excellent job describing the challenges with labeling the field of linguistic anthropology. Labeling the people who work in this field is equally as challenging! Again, one person, who fully understood my background as an anthropologist, was Alex McDowell. As a uniquely talented world-builder, Alex has explored anthropology himself through his work and I appreciated the conversations we had on anthropological topics.

 

What did you take from the experience? Did this project influence the way you think about your scholarly work, or your work with “real” languages?

Since my work on this project, I’ve been fascinated with the ideas of world building and the on-line worlds that people build and participate in. This has led me to re-look at my research with Na’vi speakers through the lens of digital ethnography. I’ve also had fans of Superman contact me requesting more information about how to learn the language I developed. As of now, Warner Bros., the official owners of this work, have not yet developed a learning guide for Kryptonian. Despite this, people are interested in learning the language, making me wonder, what can we do to make those interested in learning minority languages “fans” of their languages again? What can “fandoms” teach us about the enthusiasm required to help reverse language shift?

Last, through developing a language myself, I came to re-appreciate the lessons I try to teach my students in their language creation assignment. In that assignment, I want them to realize without my explicitly saying it that they need to think about who the speakers of their languages are, where they live, what they do (or in other words, to think about their culture) before they can get very far in the language creation process. In my work, I wasn’t developing a new world but attempting to make sure a world that exists so vividly in the minds of its fans, as well as in the minds of the movie production team, was fairly and accurately represented. I took their ideas of what Krypton was like, such as the history and values of Kryptonian people, and incorporated these into the language in various ways. As the Man of Steel universe expands, with new movies, I wonder how the world of Krypton might be further developed as well.

 

References:

Duranti, Alessandro (2009). Linguistic Anthropology: History, Ideas, and Issues. In Linguistic

Anthropology: A Reader, 2nd edition. A. Duranti, ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ottenheimer, Harriet J. (2013). The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Toronto: Thomson-Wadsworth. 3rd Edition.

Peterson, David. (2014). How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Oxford University Press Blog. http://blog.oup.com/2014/07/dothraki-valyrianlanguage-game-of-thrones/

Schreyer, Christine (2011a). Re-Building Language Habitats: Connecting Language Planning and Land Planning for Sustainable Futures. Language Documentation and Description, Volume 9: 35-57

Schreyer, Christine (2011b).  Media, Information Technology and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities? Current Issues in Language Planning 12(3): 403-425.

Schreyer, Christine, Clarke Ballantine, Vanessa Bella, Joanne Gabias, Brittany Ganzini, Robyn Giffen, Pamela Higgins, Justin Kroeker, David Lacho, Stacy Madill, Louisa McGlinchey, Sasha McLachlan, Shelley Nguy, Tara Wolkolsky, and Vanessa Zubot (2013). The Culture of Con-langing: What Can We Learn About Culture from Created Languages? Fiat Lingua. FL-000017-00, Fiat Lingua, <http://fiatlingua.org>. Web. 01 August 2013.

Wallace, Daniel (2013). Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman. Insight Editions: San Rafael, California.

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