Interview with Man of Steel Linguist Christine Schreyer
After flurries of press following the blockbuster release of Man of Steel, many exchanged emails, and both of us juggling our "day jobs", I am pleased to finally be able to post this interview (conducted via email) with Dr. Christine Schreyer, the linguistic anthropologist responsible for the language seen (but not heard) in the recent cinematographic depiction of Krypton.
This interview is for all the linguists and conlangers out there. I would like to thank Dr. Schreyer one more time for taking the time to answer all of these questions.
Do you have any interesting stories about working on Man of Steel? Did you get to meet any of the cast, producers, directors? Do you have any interesting stories from your time working on the project?
Schreyer: My original contact and entry point into working on Man of Steel was Alex McDowell, production designer, who I met on my first day as well as many of the Art Department. I worked most closely with Helen Jarvis (Art Director) and Kirsten Franson (graphic designer) as well as Alex and other members of the Art Department. I also met Wes Coller, Zack Snyder and Deborah Snyder (although I spent more time talking with Wes than the other two). I didn’t have the opportunity to meet any of the cast since my original work was mostly art directed (for the writing), although I was on set when different scenes were being filmed and got to see all of the Kryptonian sets (walking through them) as well as some of the non-Kryptonian sets—the helicopter pad from the scene where Clark rescues the people from the off-shore oil rig, as well as the ice-tunnel.
How familiar were you with the Superman canon before starting this project?
Schreyer: Not very, I must admit, but since all of the Art department had done extensive research (as well as David Goyer, the writer) I was provided with any background material I needed and I did do a bit of my own research once I was committed to the project.
Did you do any research on the Superman canon regarding Krypton for this project? How much, if at all, did canon inform your decisions about the language from an imagined cultural perspective compared to the Man of Steel script? For that matter, were you able to read the script ahead of time to draw inspiration from the film's depiction of Krypton?
Schreyer: As I was coming in to work on the project that was already in progress, many of the decisions about what the world of Krypton would look like and be like were already developed and so I was joining my ideas to fit what was already developed. The first day on set, I was able to meet with Alex and hear the plot of the movie and more about the background of Krypton, which helped me decided on the use of the abugida (syllabic) writing system and SOV word structure. I did not read the script at any time although as I said I did know the plot of the movie via my meeting with Alex and the art department in August 2011.
Did you draw any inspiration from any of the previously seen depictions of the Kryptonian language and/or writing system (E. Nelson Bridwell's version prior to the Byrne's reboot, DC's substitution font in current use in the comics, Smallville's use of complex ideographic symbols, my own work, or the Esperanto-based dialog in Superman/Batman Apokalypse)?
Schreyer: When I received the original email asking me to come to the set and consult on how a created language might be used in Man of Steel, I did do a bit of background research on what previous versions of Kryptonian (or Kryptonese) were available. However, as the motto of the reboot was to respect the canon, but to remember that this was a new telling of Superman’s history Alex and his team (as well as the producers) wanted something that would fit the world they were creating. Therefore, after I was committed to developing the new Kryptonian for Man of Steel I didn't look too much at the previous versions as I didn't want them to affect me subconsciously so that I might "copy" aspects of them. I know Paul Frommer has a similar way of working on his languages (Na'vi and Barsoomian). He doesn't want other languages or other conlrangers's work to affect his construction process.
Elsewhere you have mentioned the Cree writing system as an influence for the writing system seen in the film. You also teach classes and perform research involving Na'vi, Klingon, Esperanto, and other created languages. Was there any other particular language, natural or created, from which you drew inspiration for Kryptonian?
Schreyer: I didn't particular focus on any one language with the exception of Cree as an influence for the writing system. I also know a bit of Japanese so I suppose you could say my previous knowledge of Hiragana and Katakana from Japanese also influenced the writing system, but Cree is the one I know the best and was what I mentioned when showing syllabic writing to Alex and the team the first time.
While Japanese also has a SOV sentence structure, Japanese language really wasn't an influence as I tried to keep myself in the world of Krypton when working on construction since I didn't necessarily want those other influences to become too strong.
That being said there is another Cree "Easter Egg" that Hello in Kryptonian is "[si.tæn]" which is "tansi" (The Cree word for "how are you" or "hello") backwards.
How did your familiarity with constructed languages in general help in the creation of Kryptonian? Did you ever find your familiarity with another language to be a hindrance, for example, finding yourself inadvertently thinking with too much of an English or Na'vi "mindset"? If so, what kinds of things did you do to help you "think outside the box" so to speak?
Schreyer: My familiarity with constructed languages helped in the pace I was able to set in developing words and phrases I think since I was often able to have a very fast turn-around time on the items I was asked to translate. I'm sure other experienced conlangers can do this too, but someone coming in who had never made a language before and who was new to the whole process would perhaps have needed more time. As I said above, I tried not to let other languages influence me and tried to stay in the "world of Krypton" as much as possible. This is why I valued every chance I got to visit the set since it made things much more real for me when I got to see how the sets were developing in person.
Have you created or worked on any other constructed languages before this one?
Schreyer: While I have researched speakers of other conlangs and the general process, and I assign my introductory students the task of creating a language over the course of a term, this was the first constructed language of my own that I have developed.
Did this project give you a different perspective on the constructed languages that you teach about in class or constructed languages in general?
Schreyer: I'm not sure it did, although now I'll be able to use my own experiences or examples from Kryptonian in my classes where in the past I've referred to Klingon or Na'vi or Esperanto etc.
How do you think this experience will affect your teaching or research going forward?
Schreyer: It will be interesting to see in the fall since students will once again be developing their own languages in my class and when I encourage then and tell them it's not that hard if you learn the basics maybe they'll believe me more. I'll let you know what happens!
How have your students responded to the news that you are the creator of Kryptonian for Man of Steel?
Schreyer: They have been really excited! Especially the ones who were in my class on Pidgins, Creoles and Created Languages class last fall. They are amazed I was able to keep my work on Man of Steel a secret for that long when we were constantly talking about other people's constructed languages!
How has the general public responded?
Schreyer: In general, there has been much favourable response from the public. The media has been very interested in the story (Canadian media so far, although I've had a few interviews for both European and American publications as well). I think the biggest test of public response can be seen in the comments section on the media release though and that has been split. Some people think creating languages are a waste of time and money and energy since there are so many languages that are endanger of disappearing. They wonder why I don't spend more time researching that. In fact, I do research indigenous language revitalization and part of why I was fascinated by created language speakers in the first place was to see what they might be able to teach us about building new speech communities that might then be used by endangered language communities. You can read an article I wrote about this topic, if you like. The citation is: Schreyer, Christine (2011). Media, Information, Technology, and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities? Current Issues in Language Planning 12(3): 403-425.
Were the phonetics of your language influenced by the possibility of it being spoken by actors at some point?
Schreyer: The phonetics of this version of Kryptonian were based mainly on what names and words were previously available to us from the Superman canon, but yes, I did consider whether or not actors might be able to say the words in the future. Since I wasn't sure how far they wanted to take the use of the language.
Is there anything you would have liked to have done differently had you not had that limitation? Do you feel that such phonetic limitations also limit creativity in constructed languages? Do you feel that there is a proper balance between actors stretching themselves linguistically for a role, and a linguist adjusting their phonologies to accommodate an actor's existing capabilities?
Schreyer: It wasn't a very large limitation and it was one I imposed on myself, so I don't think I would have done anything differently. I think there is a potential that this might limit creativity, but the way that familiar sounds can be put together (for instance putting a [ŋ] at the beginning of a word (which Kryptonian does)) can also be challenging for actors although they do know the sound.
Elsewhere you have also mentioned the word order you chose as something indicative of Kryptonian culture and mindset. Would you say that the application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is especially important in creating a language for a fictional culture? What types of philosophies, cultural ideals, and other non-linguistic cues did you use to inform your creation of the Kryptonian language in particular?
Schreyer: First, we should clarify what you mean by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In anthropology, if we follow the historical influences on both Sapir and Whorf we see that their ideas of linguistic relativity are connected to anthropological ideas of cultural relativity (being able to look at different cultures without letting your own culture bias you). Linguistic relativity then is looking at a language and not letting your own linguistic biases influence how you see that language. Since, I tried to be in Krypton's world I did in fact apply principles of cultural and linguistic relativity.
I think it is important to try to consider as much about the new world as possible so that the complexity that mirrors natural languages can be developed. That was hard to do on this project for me since I became involved in the middle of production. For example, one thing that I get my students to do with their newly created languages is to develop proxemic systems (how their speakers will you space and non-verbal gestures etc). Unfortunately, while I would have liked to develop something for Kryptonian along these lines, it wouldn't have worked for this project since the actors had already developed their characters before I came along and it would have been a last minute addition, as was the potential addition of spoken Kryptonian.
I was thinking broadly about the idea that the structure of language can influence a speaker's perception of the world. Applying that, then, sort of in reverse, would mean that a constructed language should reflect the cultural/psychological perspectives of the fictional characters that speak it.
Schreyer: Thanks for clarifying. That makes sense, although it leans more to the linguistic determinism side of things rather than the linguistic relativity side. In that case, yes I would agree that constructed languages should then reflect the cultural/psychological perspectives of the fictional characters that speak it.
As someone who finds word creation to be a somewhat tedious process, I know that coming up with several hundred words can be extremely time consuming. What methods did you employ in word creation? Did you feel you had ample time to get the project to the point it needed to be or was it a scramble for time?
Schreyer: I actually really enjoyed the creation of words and didn't find it tedious at all. Part of this might have been the fact that the words I was expected to create were provided to me within an English sentence. Often the sentences were very poetic or complex with embedded clauses and so those were a challenge that kept word creation interesting. My work came to me piece meal at different times so although items were needed quickly when I got them it wasn't a constant workload.
In creating Kryptonian, what aspects did you find to be the most enjoyable, and which the least enjoyable, e.g., word creation, grammar construction, etc.
Schreyer: I would say that I found the word creation the most enjoyable.
Do you plan to continue developing the language now that the movie has been released?
Schreyer: As the language is the creative property of Warner Brothers I don't see myself continuing to develop the language unless approval comes from them or more requests of course.
What would you like to see happen with Man of Steel Kryptonian going forward?
Schreyer: I don't really have any plans, although I would like a guide to learning the language be made available to the fans so they can learn it if they have an inclination. From the beginning of my involvement, many of the conversations mentioned that part of even wanting to have a created language behind the writing (rather than just have the writing being pictures without meaning) was so that fans could see a deeper level of detail.
Are there any plans in the works for releasing or publishing more detailed information about your Kryptonian, like, for example, a Kryptonian dictionary or language primer?
Schreyer: I am currently in talks with Warner Brothers about this and hope to know more soon. Stay Tuned!
After your experience with Man of Steel, are you open to the idea of working on languages for other television programs and films in the future?
Schreyer: I would be open to it but it would have to be something that would fit into my already busy research and teaching schedule. I love being a professor of linguistic anthropology and wouldn't want to give up my day job.
If you could give advice to anyone building a constructed language, what would it be? If you could say anything to the conlang community, what would it be?
Schreyer: Advice to new conlangers would be make sure to think about the world, the people, the culture, and the great details involved there before jumping in. It will serve you well in the long run.
I actually know quite a few people in the conlang community already (Na'vi speakers, members of the Language Creation Society, and other movie and TV show creators, Paul Frommer and David Peterson), but many I've only met via email or Twitter etc so I guess I would say "hello!" Hope to meet more of you in person soon!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Schreyer: Thank you for your interest in the Kryptonian from Man of Steel! It's been so nice to see an interest from fans and other conlangers since I'm the new kid on the movie conlang block.
Dr. Schreyer teaches at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus as an associate professor of anthropology where she teaches classes on linguistics, sociolinguistics, and endangered languages. One of her classes includes material on constructed languages such as Na'vi from the film Avatar, Klingon, and Esperanto. She has done research on the growth of Na'vi speaking communities in the hopes to glean information that can aid endangered language revitalization projects.