UBC professor creates ancient language for Hollywood blockbuster

The film Alpha is set 20,000 years ago

What might language have sounded like 20,000 years ago?

If you see Alpha screening at your local movie theatre, that’s your chance to find out.

Christine Schreyer, an associate professor of anthropology at UBC Okanagan, created a “constructed language” for the historical adventure drama film set during the Upper Paleolithic period.

The movie follows the journey of a young hunter in what is now Europe who befriends an injured wolf during the Ice Age.

Producers reached out to Schreyer, who is an expert on language creation and helping communities revitalize Indigenous languages, to create a couple of test scenes for the movie.

She spent the day on the Vancouver set with lead actor Kodi Smit-McPhee.

The film executives were so on board with her new language that they tasked her with creating dialogue for the whole 90-minute film.

Schreyer admitted it was a challenge.

“Nobody really knows what was spoken 20,000 years ago because we don’t have fossils of language,” she said.

“I did research on proto-languages — those are estimated languages, for the approximate time range of the movie, which included Proto-Nostratic, Proto-Eurasiatic, and Proto-Dené-Caucasian. It’s a case of taking those related languages and estimating them back in time, with a little creative licence as well.”

It’s not the first time Schreyer’s been picked to develop ways of speaking for Hollywood blockbusters.

She helped develop the Kryptonian language for 2013’s Man of Steel, and she made up Eltarian, which is used in the 2017 Power Rangers movie.

She also teaches a class that examines other created languages such as Star Trek’s Klingon and Avatar’s Na’vi.


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