Canadian 'go-to' movie linguist creates new language for 'Alpha'
Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with his father Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and his mother Rho (Natassia Malthe) in Columbia Pictures and Studio 8’s ALPHA. (Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)
Angela Mulholland, CTVNews.ca
Published Saturday, August 25, 2018 7:00AM EDT
A University of British Columbia professor had to use both her expertise and a bit of imagination while helping to create an entirely new language for the new movie, “Alpha.”
Alpha, which opened in wide release last week, is the story of a young hunter who learns to tame a wolf to survive, forging the first connection with what will become “man’s best friend.”
The film takes place 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age, long before written records were kept.
The film’s producers knew exactly how they wanted the film to look, but they weren’t sure how it would sound, or what language the characters would speak.
So they called on Christine Schreyer, an associate professor of anthropology at UBC’s Okanagan campus, who specializes in linguistic anthropology and language revitalization.
Schreyer has a bit of experience in movie-making, having worked on the 2013 movie Man of Steel, in which she developed the fictional language used on the planet Krypton. She also helped with the 2017 “Power Rangers” movie, in which several characters speak a language called Eltarian.
So the producers asked Schreyer to imagine a language that would have been spoken in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic Age.
Since no one really knows what was spoken 20,000 years ago, Schreyer could have chosen anything. But she was determined to try to create something authentic and turned to three inter-related “proto-languages,” which are languages linguists theorize are the distant forerunners of later languages.
She picked elements from Proto-Eurasiatic, Proto-Dené-Caucasian, and Proto-Nostratic and created a new language.
She needed something with distinct intonations and recognizable patterns, but one that would not be difficult for the movie’s actors to learn to pronounce.
So what does the language she came up with sound like?
Not unlike the languages heard in Canada’s north, with a bit of the syntax of the Romantic languages of Europe.
For an example, Schreyer offers this translation of “You are my family, now” -- a line the boy says to the wolf after they’ve forge their bond.
“Moa-ta-mi il-ti, nu,” he says.
While Schreyer could have chosen to simply make up nonsense, she knew movie lovers would expect better. Fans had already dissected her Kryptonian language, just as other had taught themselves to speak the Na’vi langauge from the 2009 movie Avatar.
“I knew fans would scrutinize this,” she told CTV News.ca by phone. “So it was important that it sound like a genuine language.”
At one point in the movie, the boy’s tribe runs into a second tribe, and aren’t sure if the newcomers are friendly. Schreyer wrote her script so that the second tribe would speak the same language, but a slightly different dialect of it.
“It would be kind of like how British English is different from Canadian English,” she said.
“It was one of those things that probably no one else will pick up on, except me, but I wanted it there.”
After spending months inventing the language, the next task was trying to teach the film’s actors how to pronounce it. Even those little indecipherable mumblings of background characters had to be scripted and added in during post-production.
To add to the challenge, the movie’s cast included actors from all over the world, including Australia, Iceland, Chile, and Sweden. And each of them brought their own linguistic experiences and accents.
Still, Schreyer says it was actually “really fun” teaching them the language, which she says was a precise, word-for-word translation of the script the screenwriters wrote. (The movie is, of course, subtitled.)
When it comes to inventing languages for the movies, Schreyer says David J. Peterson is the current heavyweight in Hollywood. (He created the languages in Game of Thrones, the elf language in Thor: The Dark World, and more.)
But after now working on three movies filmed here in Canada, Schreyer says it appears she has become “the go-to Canadian person for this,” a role she says she says she’s happy to take on again -- once she’s rested from the work of this one.