Life

Creating Superman’s language

September 27th, 2013

cavill speech bubble

Linguistic Anthropology professor Christine Schreyer isn’t Superman (spoiler alert), but she knows what it’s like to lead a secret life where you speak Kryptonian, visit the Fortress of Solitude, and even see General Zod firsthand. During the production of Man of Steel, Schreyer was tasked with fleshing out Kryptonian from a handful of words and names into a functional language – and with keeping it all a secret.

The Steel team found Schreyer through her research on Avatar’s Na’vi language and invited her in August 2011 to visit the set and enter the locked room full of the film’s secrets.

“They called it The Fortress actually, because in Superman there’s the ice fortress, the Fortress of Solitude,” she explained, “So everything related to plot – all the art, pictures, everything – was in this locked room. And so before I could even enter into there I had to sign a confidentiality agreement.”

Schreyer was initially a consultant brought in to help the art direction team with the Kryptonian symbols on set pieces. But her role expanded when spoken Kryptonian became a possibility for the film and the producers asked her to create a functional language.

“I told a few people that I was working on the movie but I could never tell anyone exactly what I was doing. So a lot of people guessed, because obviously they know that I do created language stuff. But I couldn’t talk about any of the sounds or who would be speaking or even if anyone would be speaking or where it would appear.”

Schreyer scheduled her classes on one day of the week to give herself room for the Superman-related trips to Vancouver during the semester. But the other challenge was to keep her research on the down low even when it matched up almost exactly with what her students were doing.

“It was during times when [my] students were making languages,” she said, “and so it was really hard because I’d be working on one part of my language and my intro students always make languages so they’d be doing the same things.”

Now that she can finally talk about it with her students, Schreyer plans to use her work with Man of Steel and the Superman canon as an example of how important it is to consider the fictional society and culture when creating a language.

“Oftentimes when they’re picking the sounds they don’t really think about who the people are,” she said, “And I had to do that right away because I had to think about character names and whether or not actors would be able to say these.”

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We talked to Schreyer about Kryptonian, working on Man of Steel, and creating languages.

How much did you have to learn about Superman to produce a language based on its society?
A lot of that was done by art department to begin with, so they were the ones that gave me the [info]. And the writer of the screenplay, David Goyer, he would give me sentences, and so oftentimes those would come from previous comic books.

How much Kryptonian was already in place for you to work with?
The language itself, they had done previous writings for the various comics. Smallville, the tv series, had something that had Kryptonian writing on it. But because Man of Steel was a reboot it was a re-telling of the story and so we didn’t really look at the languages, the alphabets, or anything [previous] at all.

So did you think back in Kryptonian history to determine how the language might have developed?
We did think about that a lot and it was more in discussions I was having with how they were envisioning the world, because they have outposts and there’s various cities so we knew that there were other versions of Kryptonian.
But [if] we look at Earth, English is only one language. There’s 7000 languages on Earth, so even if we have a different version of Kryptonian [it makes sense].

Were the language’s rules (like subject-object-verb structure) coming from the art department and screenwriters, or previous Superman works, or were you making them yourself?

There’s a guy named Darren Doyle who was creating his unofficial Kryptonian project based on the Smallville symbols. He had developed his own set of rules and I didn’t want to be copying him. So once I knew that I was doing something and they wanted it to be different I didn’t look at his stuff at all – because I didn’t want it to influence me.

Why subject-object-verb?
We didn’t want it to be too confusing for people; we wanted something fans would be able to pick up on.
And so subjects because in the movie the people on Krypton have become very selfish – they’re using up their resources. So we wanted subject to remain prominent as the beginning part. And the objects had such a long history. All objects had been written on, they’d been passed down, and so objects were also very important.

The writing system is flowing and curving and elegant. Did you do same with sounds?
Not really because with that we went with what was in the canon already. There’s lots of stops in Kryption; it’s not smooth at all.

Was that difficult to reconcile?
Sometimes but because it wasn’t spoken [in the movie] it wasn’t such a big deal because the focus was more on the writing.
I know that with [Na’vi language creator] Paul Firmer from Avatar, James Cameron said it was light and airy. People fly a lot, so we want things that are light and airy. He thought about that in terms of his sounds, but that was an entirely new culture.

Were there certain sounds you associated with certain things? (E.g. when you were assigning what house glyphs would correspond to fans’ names on the glyph creator website)

Because we had “Zod” and we had “Doomsday” and we had “Black Zero”, a lot of the negative things had “z”. So that was something else that came up. If I was going to have a negative word like “attack”, I would have a lot of voiced fricative sounds in it. So I did think about that when I was doing things.

Like “Doomsday” is the name of one of the ships, but that’s an English word – it’s just so English – so I changed it to “Zumdag.” I kind of made it sound like “Doomsday” but a little reversed.

Does this give you some insight into how English speakers view certain sounds? Because words like Zod had been created, without an actual language to exist in, with the intention of making the comic reader perceive the character in a certain way because of the name.

To me there is that whole association with Z, like Zorro, there are so many things that have that. So yeah, it did give me that idea.

And I did try to do that for happy things too. Like the words for beauty have a lot of voiced sounds in them, and for art. I often made notes to explain things like “the word for beauty is related to the word for art, and that’s related to this, [and so on].”

Are you still involved with working on Kryptonian or the Superman movies?
There is Man of Steel 2 coming out, but it’s Batman and Superman so that might not have a Kryptonian element.
We’re still hoping to get the guide [to Kryptonian] out there for fans and it looks like that will go ahead. I’m still waiting to see what form that will go ahead in.

So fans have been emailing me – I just got an email today from a stroke survivor who wants to know how to say “Superman stroke survivor” and write it in Kryptonian to get a tattoo and have that put on. And I don’t have those words – I might have survivor, but I don’t have stroke. So I need to think with Warner Bros. about how I can deal with that.

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Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 7.57.59 PM

There are two versions of written Kryptonian in Man of Steel:

1. Iconographic symbols that mean entire words (like Japanese kanji) and are used for family house symbols
Superman’s “S” is one of these, and you can make your own at glyphcreator.manofsteel.com

glyphs2.
2. A phonetic syllabic written language in which the symbols represent consonant-vowel pairs (see below)

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 7.52.34 PM

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 7.52.59 PM

 

The lower half of Kryptonian symbols rotate based on which vowel sound is being used (see below).

This rotation was inspired by written Cree, a language Schreyer studies.

A large hook above the line indicates that the consonant is by itself.

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The Man of Steel images are photoillustrations using images from the Man of Steel promotional material. The first image’s speech bubble contains the word “Krypton.” In the second image, the speech bubble says “Creating Superman’s Language.”

The Kryptonian sentences are courtesy of Christine Schreyer, the gylphs are from the Man of Steel glyph creation site, and the Kryptonian chart is from Darren Doyle’s kryptonian.info website. The site has subsections for the Man of Steel language created by Schreyer as well as the Kryptonian alphabet used in Smallville and other previous incarnations of the language.

The symbols for Kryptonian were created by graphic designer Kristen Franson.

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