Archive for Uncategorized

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.



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.

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, <>. Web. 01 August 2013.

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

Interview: Rosana Pinheiro-Machado of the University of Oxford

Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is lecturer in Anthropology of Development at the University of Oxford. In 2005, while studying at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sui in Porto Alegre, Brazil, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Made in China: Commercial Practices among Chinese Immigrants in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay,’ supervised by Dr. Ruben G. Oliven. We spoke to Rosana to learn more about her work and her journey from Brazil to Oxford.



How did you originally become interested in anthropology and your area of specialization?

I come from a left wing Brazilian family and this directly influenced my academic choices. Social Sciences was the course I chose to enhance my knowledge for a career in politics that I had planned (in Brazil anthropology belongs to social sciences; it does not integrate the 4 fields). In the first year of college, I received a scholarship to be a junior researcher in a project in urban anthropology. This engagement with anthropology changed the course of my life. I then focused on my academic life and distanced myself from political career. I was increasingly incorporating ethnography and anthropological theory as a way of perceiving the world.

Pinheiro-Machado on her way to the field in Shenzhen, China

The choice of my research object was affected by the Marxist education I had received since childhood. In my 20’s I was interested in the study of labor, class inequalities, and the informal economy in Brazil. I then began to do ethnography among a group of street vendors who trade fake goods and/or cheap goods “made in China”. I carried out ethnography in this context for many years; not only in the street markets, but also following the trades on their trips to Paraguay, from where they smuggled their goods. So I began to follow a long thread, which would lead me to follow the commodity chain from Brazil to China, through Paraguay. This task took almost ten years; and it was not therefore only a research project, but equally a life commitment.


What role did Wenner-Gren play in your success as an Anthropologist?

I studied in a public school in Brazil, meaning I received one of the worst education possible, suffering from a shortage of teachers, among other problems. I left the school with learning gaps. After some time, however, I was enrolled in one of the best public universities in Brazil (UFRGS), where I received a top training in social anthropology. At both undergraduate and graduate level I received the grade suma cum laude, which allowed me receiving scholarships from the Brazilian government. This support was fundamental, but only enough for my livelihood. It was not enough to boost my project. I needed to expand my research internationally and track commodities globally: from a street vendor’s stall in Brazil to its factory in China. It required studying languages, importing expensive books on China and, mainly, travelling from west to east in the world. Thus, I had to fulfill not only my personal gaps, but also the lack of a field of Chinese study in Brazil. I started to compile information on China all by myself, from scratch, groping blindly in the dark.

Street market in Brazil

In 2006, when I received the grant, I was in my mid-20s. I still remember the precise moment when the award letter arrived in my place. It was one of the happiest moments in my life because it was not only a matter of money, but freedom. At that time, I could barely speak English, let alone Mandarin. With the grant, I spent a year in Paraguay studying the Chinese migrants who import goods from their hometown, and another year in China. In those places, I studied both Mandarin and English. An international world opened up for me! With my budget, I could equally import dozens of books on China, and then I created my own library (which will be donated to a research center in Brazil). Wenner-Gren played a decisive role in my career. Objectively, the grant provided me resources to put in practice a long, ambitious and expensive project. I think I didn’t receive only funds: I received encouragement and a good dose of self-esteem.

Beyond the grant itself, I counted on the integral support of Professor Ruben Oliven: my supervisor, a prominent Brazilian anthropologist who inspired me and propelled me forward. I would add the role of the British anthropologist, Professor Daniel Miller, who generously received me in his department in 2008 and gave me all encouragement while I was writing up the dissertation. My success as an anthropologist is a result of people and institutions that supported my path.

How has your work been received in Brazil?

The reaction to my research has been extremely positive. However, I think there is a huge difference between a positive reception and an effective policy of retaining promising scientists in the country.

launching "Made in China" in Brazil

My work was honored by many very prestigious Brazilian institutions: The Human Rights Prize (Ford Foundation and Brazilian Anthropological Association), the best PhD dissertation in Social Sciences (Brazilian Association of Social Sciences), the best dissertation in Anthropology/Archeology (Ministry of Education) and finally the Grand Prize, the best PhD dissertation in Brazil (Ministry of Education) in which my work competed with thousands of dissertations produced in Brazil in 2009 in 23 fields of knowledge. This recognition resulted in the book Made in China published in Brazil in 2011. I was also awarded a grant by the Brazilian government to do research abroad, which allowed me to spend a year as a visiting scholar in the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard (2012/13). Such recognition of my work is a result of an important moment of Brazilian anthropology and its internationalization process, as well as the interest there is for China in Brazil today.

On the other hand, even though there is a rising interest in China, this debate on China in the anthropological field is relatively insignificant. Due to the Brazilian nation-building, Africa, for example, is a region that attracts more anthropologists than Asia, whose bilateral ties are just beginning. I intend to remain committed to the field of Chinese studies in Brazil, analyzing the relations between Brazil and China as emerging countries in the international system. However, it will have to be done initially from outside, where I found better work opportunities.


How has it been adjusting to life at Oxford?

a Chinese migrant's store in Paraguay

Outside Brazil, I applied unpretentiously for some jobs at some of the most prestigious universities in the world. I was surprised to have been shortlisted for all posts for which I applied. This was very important to me in order to measure if I had reached a desirable level of international excellence. When I saw the post for lectureship in Anthropology of Development in the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID), I prepared with body and soul. The competition was enormous, but I think that there was a natural encountering of mutual expectation. For the Department’s scope, and its focus on developing countries, one of the critical points of my work is to problematize the human costs of being an emergent nation as well as its intrinsic contradictions. Working with international development, somehow, takes me back to my own roots and political interests. In Academia, I found my way of doing politics. It is researching and teaching that I found means to pursue a more balanced world. After all, this was the means through which I changed my own world.

Now, Oxford is hiring a Brazilian anthropologist who had all her training in Brazil. This is not an isolated case, but a result of a wider process in the international system as whole, whose boundaries between the Global North and South are blurring little by little.


What are you working on right now?

getting a mototaxi to cross the bridge between Paraguay and Brazil

I am concluding the English version of my book in which I describe how the post-BRICS/TRIPS* era is drastically impacting the global commodity chain I had originally studied in my PhD dissertation. The global enforcement policy against piracy and Brazil’s eagerness to be a powerful player in the international system are fragmenting that chain. I am also working on a paper in which I compare the development model of Brazil and China based on the importance assigned to the informal economy and intellectual property in both countries. In addition to my research outcomes, I am involved right now in an online debate on Cultural Anthropology Journal (Hot Spot session) about the Brazilian Protests of June. My main goal in the next five years is to keep publishing in English and then spreading my work for a broader audience, contributing to the understanding of Brazilian and Chinese development models from an anthropological point of view.


*Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa/ The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights