Many of you have may have seen Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel in theaters (and you would not be alone, with over a billion dollars in worldwide grosses), chronicling the adentures of Captain Carol Danvers as she goes from Kree Starforce member to one of Earth’s heroes, but did you notice that the Torfans in one of the early scenes of the movies were speaking in their own con-lang? This language does not come from the comics and is not a use of an obscure language, like was seen in the original Star Wars trilogy. Instead, two PhD students from Cornell University, Joseph Rhyne and Ryan Hearn, were tasked with creating a new language for a short but crucial scene in the movie. I was fortunate enough to get in contact with them, and had some questions about the creation of a con-lang (constructed language) for such a high profile film. Here’s what they had to tell me.
Tell me a bit about your linguistic background.
Joseph: I have always been interested in languages. I started learning Latin and Greek in middle
school. I started creating languages around the same time, inspired by Lord of the Rings and Tolkien. I was initially a Physics and Classics double-major in undergrad, while learning about and creating languages was still a passion of mine. I had no idea linguistics was a field I could go into until I took a historical linguistics class my freshman year. 7 years later, I am now finishing my 2nd year in the Linguistics PhD program at Cornell. I have gotten BAs in both Linguistics and Classics from the University of Kentucky and an MA in Linguistics from the University of Georgia, like Ryan. I mainly focus on historical linguistics and computational linguistics, trying to bring those two together. I try to make computational models of language change, trying to find out why languages change and how. A few projects I am working on right now are the creation of historical corpora, a handwriting parser to aid the creation of such corpora, and acoustic reconstruction, where I try to find out what past stages of languages sounded like based on modern languages. I work a lot with Slavic languages, but also know lots of dead languages, like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.
Ryan: I have a Masters in Linguistics from the University of Georgia, and am in my fifth year here in the Linguistics PhD program at Cornell, hoping to finish up my dissertation in the next few months. My specializations are morphophonology, syntax, and historical linguistics, which basically means that I study 1. how word formation affects the way words sound 2. how words come together to make sentences and 3. how each of these processes change in a given language over very long periods of time. I speak and study Japanese, as well as many classical languages, such as Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Old English, Old Norse, and Gothic. So, I have a lot of experience with the variety of methods human languages have at their disposal for organizing their grammars and sound systems. Also, I’ve been interested in constructed languages for most of my life, originally stemming from my interest in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tell me about your connections with Marvel. Did you read the comics as kids? Have you been watching the movies?
Joseph: I have always been a comic book hero fan in general. I am more of a DC fan, but I grew up reading both DC and Marvel. I would watch all of the cartoons growing up in the 90’s: Spider-Man, the X-men, Batman, Justice League. I loved them all. Being able to work on a movie that brings these childhood heroes to life is a dream come true, even if the part I played was fairly small. I am also quite proud to be a part of a project that does expand the diversity of superhero movies, this being the first female hero-led Marvel movie. The inclusivity of comics is something that I loved at an early age, and that is finally being born out on the big screen, too.
Ryan: I’ve always been a fan of Marvel’s stories and characters, but I wasn’t really a big comics fan specifically growing up. Instead, as a kid I watched a lot of Marvel cartoons and read a ton of superhero novels as well. I’ve been a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since Iron Man came out, seeing most of the movies on opening day.
How did you initially get contacted to create Torfan?
Joseph: One of my advisers, Michael Weiss, was initially contacted by a producer. He was too busy at the time to do it, so he gave Marvel mine and Ryan’s emails, knowing that we would be interested. The next day, we received emails for Marvel, and almost immediately afterwards we started our work.
Ryan: My dissertation chair (editor’s note: also the aforementioned Michael Weiss) was contacted about the job, but had other professional responsibilities at the time and was unable to accept. So, knowing that Joseph and I were both huge fans and experienced with constructed languages, he pointed Marvel in our direction. The next day Marvel emailed us directly, and we got to work immediately afterward.
I know you have said that Japanese is a basis for the language, in what ways? Did you consider Torfan culture when choosing your real world influences?
Joseph: Because of our linguistic training, we were able to quickly identify the parts of the language that we would need to create. Because we had short notice we had to focus on the basics: the sounds, syntax, and morphology of the language. Japanese and other agglutinative languages like Turkish served as an inspiration for the grammar and syntax of the language. These use lots of suffixes to express grammatical meanings, but are fairly regular. This would make it a little easier for actors to learn, or for other people on the movie to create their own sentences. The actual sounds that made up the language were not based any one language. Each was chosen to have a mix of familiar and typologically common sounds while also having some more distinct and unique sounds, like the ejectives, to give it an “alien” feel. So we did not really take anything specifically from a language for Torfan, but our knowledge of natural languages helped us know what kinds of things to include.
Ryan: The grammar of Torfan is what linguistics call “agglutinative”, which means that grammatical roles are indicated through adding lots of different suffixes to words instead of using a different word for each piece of a sentence’s meaning, like we see more often in English. Many languages use this word-formation approach, including Japanese and Turkish. The sound system of Torfan is not based on any particular human language – the sounds we chose were intended to be mostly recognizable to speakers of European languages, while scattering in enough unfamiliar sounds to give it an “alien” flavor.
Language and culture always reflect each other, so the very first information we requested from Marvel was as much cultural background information as we could get on the Torfans. Once we knew more about their peaceful and technologically advanced nature, we created their language to have highly structured, regular grammar, with a poetic lilting quality that we hoped would convey their highly advanced culture. We did the latter through placing stress in the language on the last syllable of each word, which actually ended up killing two birds with one stone: the scene from Captain Marvel that features the Torfans has them angrily shouting at the main characters, who the Torfans think are invading their planet, and their word-final stress makes their protestations sound even more punctuated and aggressive.
What were the challenges of creating a language in such a short timeframe and for such a short scene?
Joseph: The time frame, along with Ryan and I being in different states at the time, was probably the biggest challenge. They were going to be filming the scenes the following week and need the language by the end of the weekend. We pretty much had to work non-stop: at any given time of day (or night), one of us was typing away at a shared Google doc. The short time frame did have a positive effect. Real languages are filled with almost an infinite amount of complexity, from idiosyncrasies in their grammar to social differences in usage. These kinds of things are included in the best and most realistic constructed languages, like Valyrian and Dothraki in Game of Thrones or Tolkien’s Elvish languages. The close deadline kept us from getting bogged down in these minute details. While they can make a language more interesting to linguists, these kinds of complexities make it harder to learn. Actors needed to speak the lines in the language and learn them in a short time. So, leaving these details out would make it easier to use in the movie.
Ryan: The timeframe that we had for the project probably helped us keep the language more efficient and streamlined than it might otherwise have been. Human languages always have a ton of interesting irregularities and inconsistencies that are often the result of historical accident, and while these can add a bit more depth and realism to a language that might be featured over the length of many years (like for example with the Dothraki and Valyrian tongues from Game of Thrones), they can also overcomplicate the grammar for the actors and scriptwriters trying to speak and write dialogue in the language, especially for so brief a scene.
So, ultimately, having a well-defined deadline for the project forced us to focus on the parts of the language that were most important for the characters and scene in question, and prevented us from getting (too) distracted with details that might make the language more fun to play around with, but less straightforward for the team at Marvel to implement.