Dr. Christine Schreyer, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, whose main academic research is on language documentation, has created realistic new languages for several Hollywood blockbusters. (Submitted)

Dr. Christine Schreyer, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, whose main academic research is on language documentation, has created realistic new languages for several Hollywood blockbusters. (Submitted)

Film uses Yukon Indigenous language as inspiration for prehistoric dialect

Dr. Christine Schreyer gave a virtual talk on March 4 about inventing a new language for film

When you’re translating a script for a movie set 20,000 years ago, what does language sound like?

That’s the question Dr. Christine Schreyer was challenged to answer for the feature film, Alpha. She invented a language she dubbed Beama, using a combination of intensive research and creativity.

“These languages are considered to be world-building. We’re making an authentic world, but we’re also doing it with pre-history,” Schreyer said.

The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre hosted a virtual talk with Schreyer on March 4, who discussed her process of inventing a language that was historically plausible for the Ice Age.

Alpha centres around a young man in prehistoric times who has been separated from his tribe during a buffalo hunt. He befriends a wolf companion, who becomes history’s fictitious first dog-as-man’s-best-friend. The film was released in 2018.

Schreyer was enlisted for Alpha with an already impressive resumé as an inventor of languages, or “conlangs”. She is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, and her main academic research is on language documentation.

Her first film was Man of Steel, for which she developed a writing system for Kryptonian, Superman’s language. She also previously worked on languages for Power Rangers.

Schreyer explained on March 4 that there are different types of invented languages. She used Klingon – the language in Star Trek – as a famous example. Klingon, unlike what she invented for Alpha, doesn’t borrow any linguistic traits from already existing languages.

“Mark O’Brien … invented Klingon trying to make it utterly alien. It has sound combinations you would never have in a natural language, it has the weirdest grammar in the world,” Schreyer said.

Schreyer adopted a different strategy when developing Beama, which she translates as “all of us talk.” She took bits and pieces from what anthropologists imagine for prehistoric language as a source of inspiration.

“The first thing I did was, I started researching languages set 20,000 years ago using proto-languages,” Schreyer said.

Proto-languages are the imagined ancestors of modern languages, she explained. She researched ancient European and Asiatic languages, as well as Dene-Caucasian languages, which are the early languages of the Yukon and Siberia.

“I picked what was in common between all of these proto-languages to develop (Beama’s) phonetic inventory,” Schreyer said.

A scene from Alpha, a film in which Schreyer created a language called Beama, among others. (Submitted)

Schreyer gave Beama some ejective consonants — short clicking sounds — which can be sourced back to Yukon Indigenous languages.

“We have a lot of those in Dene languages, people use them all the time in Tlingit … and you see them in the writing systems in the Yukon,” Schreyer said.

Schreyer took instruction from the film’s director in combination with her research.

“Albert Hughes told me, ‘Languages I want to hear it sound like are Italian and Spanish, they sound pretty to me, they’re melodic,’ and that’s because of how their syllables are structured,” Schreyer said.

“So I use that a lot, and that’s actually what research says Dene-Caucasian sounds like.”

The original plan for one prehistoric language spiralled into many, as the film progressed.

In one scene of the film, members of two different tribes meet and converse.

“I thought, well, why would everybody speak the same? If we have people who are living apart all winter long, who only come together to hunt, why wouldn’t they sound different? So, I made dialects of the language,” Schreyer said.

“It’s like Coastal Alaskan Tlingit, versus inland Tlingit. There’s little different ways of saying things.”

In another section of the film, Neanderthals interact with the films’ Cro Magnon main characters.

“They originally just had them doing grunts … I was like, no, we’re 100 per cent not doing this,” she laughed. “So, I made a Neanderthal language as well.”

Schreyer also incorporated Yukon First Nation metaphor into the Beama language. When a character references death, they say they are “walking to the other forest,” which is a reference to a similar Tlingit metaphor for death.

Once she had developed a skeleton for the language, she began creating sentence structure and translating the filmmakers’ script.

The entire film is spoken in Beama with subtitles, so Schreyer was then challenged to teach the language to the cast.

“I trained all the actors over Skype,” she said.

Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, who plays Tau in Alpha and is known for his earlier role on Game of Thrones, immersed himself fully into learning Beama.

“(He said), ‘How do I say ‘thank you’, I want to say ‘no, don’t move forward, move on, circle,’ so this was everything I was developing for him,” Schreyer said.

“He wanted to be able to improvise in Beama while he was filming, which was amazing.”

During a media release for the film, Jóhannesson spoke highly of Beama.

“As I was learning, I began to see a pattern and it started to make sense,” Jóhannesson said.

“Then it just jumped out, word by word. Phrase by phrase. You could really feel this was not thrown together in a day. This was built with knowledge and craftsmanship. The grammar was so clear and well thought out, which made it easier to learn. Not to mention the beauty of how it sounds.”

The Beringia Interpretive Centre has been hosting frequent, free virtual Science Talks during the pandemic. All the talks are livestreamed to the Beringia Facebook page. On March 25, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill will present “Exploring the Lost Mammoth Steppe in a Siberian Time Machine.”

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at gabrielle.plonka@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dawson the dog sits next to the Chariot Patrick Jackson has loaded and rigged up to walk the Dempster Highway from where it begins, off the North Klondike Highway, to the Arctic Circle. (Submitted)
Walking the Dempster

Patrick Jackson gets set for 405-kilometre journey

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
BREAKING: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Runners in the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon race down the Yukon River near the Marwell industrial area in Whitehorse on Feb. 3, 2019.
Cold-weather exercise hard on the lungs

Amy Kenny Special to the Yukon News It might make you feel… Continue reading

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The postponed 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been rescheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
New dates set for Arctic Winter Games

Wood Buffalo, Alta. will host event Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023

Victoria Gold Corp. has contributed $1 million to the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun after six months of production at the Eagle Gold Mine. (Submitted/Victoria Gold Corp.)
Victoria Gold contributes $1 million to First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun

Victoria Gold signed a Comprehensive Cooperation and Benefits Agreement in 2011

Most Read