UBC professor reconstructs ice-age language for Hollywood

With the cast and set in place for the new ice age movie Alpha, set 20,000 years ago, creators sought a script that would sound authentic to the period and reached out to UBC Okanagan associate professor Christine Schreyer.

Local linguist recreates speech patterns from 20,000 years ago for new movie

A scene from the movie Alpha released in 2018. (Sony Pictures)

Sometimes in Hollywood a new world begets a new language.

With the cast and setting in place for the new ice age movie Alpha, set 20,000 years ago, creators sought a script that would sound authentic to the period and reached out to UBC Okanagan associate professor Christine Schreyer.

A local linguist with a penchant for invented languages, Schreyer was tasked with finding the words to fit the world created by movie producers and historical researchers.

She set to work creating an entire language for the 90-minute movie.

Scene from the film Alpha, released August 2018. (Sony Pictures)

'We don't have fossils of language'

According to Schreyer, one challenge was tracing existing languages back far enough to make an educated guess as to what an ice age language could have sounded like.

"Nobody really knows what was spoken 20,000 years ago because we don't have fossils of language."

Schreyer began with available research on proto-languages, which are estimated languages, for historical periods in and around the ice age.

These languages include Proto-Eurasiatic, and Proto-Dené-Caucasian.

Moviegoers might find a few familiar sounds in the the language of Alpha because it is based more closely on Proto-Nostratic which is connected to modern European languages, Schreyer told Matthew Lazin-Ryder, host of CBC's On The Coast.

By tracing these proto-languages further back in time, and using some creative licence, she was able to create a system of grammatical patterns that were both grounded in existing research and fulfilled her mandate "not to sound like gibberish."

They're called 'conlangs'

Schreyer is an expert in invented languages which are called conlangs

She teaches a class on conlangs, including Avatar's Na'vi, and was an executive producer of the documentary film Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues.

​Schreyer, who calls herself a "language fan girl" can't take credit for perhaps the most famous of all on-screen dialects, Star Trek's Klingon, but she was the creator of the Kryptonian language spoken in the 2013 movie Man of Steel, as well as the language Eltarian, spoken in the recent 2017 film, Power Rangers.

Christine Schreyer said one challenge was tracing existing languages back far enough to make an educated guess as to what an ice age language could have sounded like.

Part of creating a new language, she said, is imagining the priorities of the world in which the speakers live.

In Alpha, naming the bison "the great beast" was a way to reflect the reverence ice age society had for the animal.

So is Schreyer fluent in all the conlangs she studies and creates?

She isn't. It's easy to get rusty when you have so many languages going in and out of your brain she said.

With the cast and set in place for the new ice age movie Alpha, set 20,000 years ago, creators sought a script that would sound authentic to the period and reached out to UBC Okanagan associate professor Christine Schreyer. 8:20

With files from On The Coast

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