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Speaking of language...

by David Scott


Don’t tell Christine Schreyer that Latin – or any other language, for that matter – is dead. For her, they’re all just resting.

Schreyer, MA’03 (Anthropology), and her life as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan turned to Hollywood in 2011 after she conducted an online survey of people learning Na’vi, a language specially constructed for the science fiction film Avatar (2009).

“UBC did a media release about that because I had such a huge response. It was really interesting,” said the linguistic anthropologist, who heard from almost 300 Na’vi speakers, ranging in age from 10 to 80 years old, in 38 different countries.

Around the same time, a production designer for the 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, Alex McDowell, was on his way to Burnaby, B.C., where the studio had been filming the Smallville sections of the movie. He boarded a plane in Chicago, changed planes in Toronto, where he was handed a copy of The Globe and Mail, and flew on to Vancouver.

“The story on my research was on the cover of The Globe and Mail – on the inside cover page. That’s how it happened,” Schreyer said.

From that one article, Schreyer traveled across the universe and was invited to be co-creator of the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel.

So, how do you create a language for an entire planet, especially one that gave birth to one of Earth’s mightiest – albeit fictional – heroes? There wasn’t much to start with, especially because the movie was a reboot of all previous renditions of the hero’s saga.

“They wanted to redo everything. So, I worked with graphic designer Kirsten Franson. She’s the co-creator of Kryptonian, who developed the symbols. There had been previous symbols in the comics and in Smallville the television series. But they didn’t want to use any of that.”

christine schreyer

Schreyer was given the names of characters and planets but little else upon which to base her Kryptonian creation.

“It was kind of stop and start. I did a bunch at first to see if they liked it; they really did. Then, they’d say ‘OK, translate this.’ It took about a year to get to what we have now.”

In addition to the language, she helped promote the film by co-creating a glyph generator,, which would assign visitors to the film’s marketing website their own Kryptonian name.

“I had to translate a bunch of names. There are two different writing systems. There are symbols for the ancestral houses. Then there is the different writing system that’s more tied to sound. It’s a syllabic writing system.”

Back on Earth, Schreyer uses her powers to help preserve and protect indigenous languages. She has focused her research on First Nations in Canada and indigenous people of Papua New Guinea.

“All across Canada, there are indigenous languages – all of the indigenous languages in Canada are endangered,” she said. “Some people say Cree and Ojibway and Inuktitut are safe. But I disagree with that. They’re still minority languages. They don’t receive the supports that our other languages do.”

When completing her master’s degree at Western, Schreyer worked with Cree speakers in Ontario. She recently started working with Secwepemc or Shuswap speakers near where she lives, in the Okanagan.

Outside of Canada, she helped create a written language for a community in Papua New Guinea, one that previously had no alphabet.

The language of Kala is spoken in six villages located along the shoreline of the Huon Gulf in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. Within these six villages, there are four distinct dialects of Kala. In 2006, due to concern about language shift in their communities, Kala-speaking community members developed the Kala Language Committee to help use the language more in elementary schools, as well as develop an alphabet and dictionary.

Schreyer’s colleague from UBC Okanagan, John Wagner, had done his PhD research in two of the communities that have Kala speakers. They were comfortable enough with him that he was able to bring Schreyer in to help with Kala language preservation.

There are 862 languages in Papua New Guinea. Often, the communities speaking those languages are small. In some cases, some communities only have 500 speaking their language.

Amongst the six villages, there are 2,500 speakers of various dialects of Kala.

The key to language preservation is getting it instituted into the education system. That action offers more prestige for speakers of the language, and allows the language to carry on through books and writing systems that are developed and practised.

“Papua New Guinea has a policy that kids can go to school for the first three years of education in their mother tongue, in their indigenous language,” Schreyer said. “But often there’s not enough of those resources yet. That’s why we were working with those speakers.”

Schreyer isn’t a fan of the term ‘dead’ or ‘extinct’ when it comes to languages. She feels it strongly implies no hope of reviving it and there are examples in the recent past of a language being declared ‘dead’ when it was very much alive.

“I wouldn’t call Latin dead. I know people who speak Latin and are trying to bring it back,” she said. “What that term means (extinct or dead) can get fuzzy. Throughout the history of humans, we’ve lost languages. New languages have come. There definitely are other ones that are not used as much. Sometimes people call them ‘sleeping’ languages, so later on they can awaken them.”

One of Schreyer’s greatest joys is seeing her students appreciate the complexity inherent in any language.

“I love when students realize how much more is going on with their communication than they think there is or how complex language is,” she said. “One of the things I get them to do is make languages in their first year of classes. By the end, I ask them, ‘What have you learned through making this language?’ Invariably, the answer is that ‘Language is so much more complicated than I thought.’”

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Alumni Gazette
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