Jan 12

Around the Verse Special Edition: Alien Languages

On this special edition of Around the Verse: Alient Languages, published on January 12, 2017, CIG lead writer Dave Haddock interviews Hollywood xenolinguist, Britton Watkins about his work creating distinct written and spoken languages for the Vanduul and Xi’An, both alien races in the Star Citizen universe.

This post is a transcript of Around the Verse Special Edition: Alien Languages, material that is the intellectual property of Cloud Imperium Games (CIG) and it’s subsidiaries. INN is a Star Citizen fansite and is not officially affiliated with CIG but we reprint their materials with permission as a service to the community. Enjoy!

Around the Verse Special Edition: Alien Languages – Full Transcript

Patrice Maiambana: [Speaking Vanduul]

Andy Serkis: [Speaking Vanduul]

CHRIS ROBERTS (CR): Both Andy and Patrice weren’t speaking English obviously, they were speaking Vanduul which is a made-up language, but a proper language, that was created by Britton Watkins who’s a sort of specialist in creating languages and does it for films.

Patrice Maiambana: [Speaks Vanduul] [Laughs] conlang, apparently, that’s what it’s called. Constructed language.

[Speaks Vanduul]

Andy Serkis: Yeah, the language is very guttural. It’s kind of “och” lots of “hich” sounds and you know “hich”, there’s a lot of that going on.

Patrice Maiambana: [Speaks Vanduul]

Andy Serkis: Yeah it’s quite rich and it’s very fun to do.

DAVE HADDOCK: Hello I am Dave Haddock, Lead Writer over here at Cloud Imperium Games. I’m joined today by…

BRITTON WATKINS: …Britton Watkins, nice to meet you all. I’m here working on the languages, the non-human languages for the Vanduul and for the Xi’An.

DAVE HADDOCK: What is your history with language?

BRITTON WATKINS: I’ve had about five to six years of experience with Hollywood related xenolinguistics, including right now doing my own documentary on constructing languages.

I’ve created several languages including the Aklo language from the Lovecraftian Mythos. My own language from my own Indie Sci-fi film called Cen. Worked on Star Trek: Into Darkness teaching Zoey and the Klingons their own Klingon lines so lots of different activities involved with alien languages and xenolinguistics.

DAVE HADDOCK: And you’re also involved with Avatar too right?

BRITTON WATKINS: I do know the Na’vi language from Avatar and that’s really kind of my gateway into this whole world I guess. [Speaks Na’vi] I speak Na’vi fluently and it’s a lot of fun. It’s an interesting global community of people who like alien languages.

DAVE HADDOCK: What has brought you onto Star Citizen and what have you been tasked with doing?

BRITTON WATKINS: Well in this big universe and on this fascinating set of interrelated projects, I’m doing two different languages for the franchise and they are Vanduul and Xi’An, Also known as zaahn.

DAVE HADDOCK: We’ll get to that a little bit later. So, let’s kick off with the Vanduul, I know a lot of the backers were excited to hear just some inkling of the language from the Andy Serkis, Squadron 42 thing. So, when you’re approaching a language like this, specifically with the Vanduul. What was your approach to it? How did you approach tackling that language?

BRITTON WATKINS: Well I looked at… I mean it’s kind of a standard process to see in the writing what names, personally names, place names, sometimes there’s some concepts that already exist that are alien that show up in the backstory. So, I looked at that for the phonology or the sounds that would end up in the language and then they have a very interesting ability to talk verbally and in other ways too and I took that into consideration, and essentially wanted something that sounded as powerful as they are and also not too related to other languages of course. I mean it’s what we would call in linguistics an “Isolate”, it’s not related to anything else we know of yet.


BRITTON WATKINS: So, I took all those factors into play and it’s, you know has a combination of a strength and an elegance to it I hope.

DAVE HADDOCK: And one of these things you’ve mentioned was the nonverbal aspects of it and that was one of the things that I remember when we were first talking about it: So, there’s the spoken language and then there was the bioluminescent of them and the application of that bioluminescent in addition to the language adds another depth of meaning. How do you tackle something like that?

BRITTON WATKINS: Well the bioluminescent is again something that will play out as the final visuals and the final kind of innate sense of the characters is developed. I looked at the ability to express things with bioluminescent as a way to add an extra layer of tone or mode into the language and they’re also some gestures, some body gestures, arm, you know hand gestures that fit well into the fact that it’s also a military culture so there are times when silence is required, but you still need to give orders so the idea that they have a full verbal grammatical language is based on sound, but also visually are able to queue each other with body movements or changes in color or other control over those elements of their unique physiology. It just made up a tapestry where the different elements overlap each other in certain cases.

DAVE HADDOCK: Now, with the written language for them, we just got out of a really exciting meeting where you pitched an approach that you would take to how their actual script developed. Kind of walk us through that process because I think the backers would really get a kick out of it.

BRITTON WATKINS: Well the Vanduul have basically have the equivalent of three fingers or talons…


BRITTON WATKINS: …claws, that relate or equate to our fingers and I imagined that when they conquered whoever it was that they were conquering that they might actually use their talons to tag their prey if you will or their vanquished victims.

DAVE HADDOCK: Right, right.

BRITTON WATKINS: So, in that sense I imagined symbols that they might each have as a unique identifier and then looked at the evolution of that into a formal writing system that maybe later in their culture would apply to their language, so they would take these symbols that were originally for this hero or this commander or this whomever it was in their history and reuse those symbols to become eventually something that is phonetic and useful for representing the written language. Again, evolving over time as any kind of spoken or written language will.

DAVE HADDOCK: So, the individual characters will basically represent a person that did something that was reflective of that character in a sense.

BRITTON WATKINS: Well, originally yes, you can imagine a sort of pantheon of heroes, for example, who through old history come down as being famous and with that also the symbol that got carved into whatever that individual conquered and those symbols eventually taking on a specific meaning or value and again, any kind of culture that uses symbols for communication and by symbols, I mean any kind of abstract symbols, could take those classic images from history and then incorporate them into the way they document their spoken language or whatever their version of writing the language down…


BRITTON WATKINS: …happens to be. Over time that could evolve into something that again is normal, logical orthography, a normal writing system.


BRITTON WATKINS: They are a space faring society so clearly they need to write language tools to engage in the science that they need to be a spare faring society; something that could have been very old and traditional can evolve into something that’s very contemporary.

DAVE HADDOCK: So, you have these heroes that basically had marked enemies that they killed or cities that they burned and stuff like that, so how did you come up with that kind of imagery?

BRITTON WATKINS: To go through the process of what I imagine might happen on the battlefield as somebody’s scratching their tag into something else. I came up with three polymer clay talons, or claws, and put them on my own fingers and disabled my pinky and thumb and figured out what actual designs might look like.

So, it was a process of sticking them on and getting out some tinfoil and making impressions in the foil and cutting out the shapes and seeing what they look like in this raw form they might have thousands of Vanduul years ago and then imagining how that would evolve into a set of unique characters that are visually distinct from each other and then how that might, after a couple thousand years and lots of technical innovation, be something that might show up on a ship monitor for example.

DAVE HADDOCK: So, go from claw mark to ship monitor font.

BRITTON WATKINS: Yes, I mean, why not? The same thing happened in western society with chisels in stone and quills on parchment and the tools change over time, and the language, both spoken and written, will evolve to suit where the culture is at the time.


BRITTON WATKINS: I approach it in the same way it might have happened again with western tools out of the European evolution, even lowercase writing is an innovation that came about much later than original writing.

In Asia, there is a lot of influence of brush and ink and what happened and how the letterforms started looking, so we started everything from claw one, claw two and claw number three.

DAVE HADDOCK: Right, it had this great calligraphic look in the beginning but as you see it get ported over into computer screens it gets a little bit more refined and with some new innovations added onto it and stuff like that, but you could see, pull out the foundational, traditional if you can call it that…

BRITTON WATKINS: Right. Writing is just a tool that humans or non-humans invent to make everything go more smoothly with all the elements of culture that writing used to be a part of.


BRITTON WATKINS: You might need a special notation for music for example or you might need a special notation for a specific branch of mathematics for example and these are all just tools. So, we imagined how it might be used as a tool and might have evolved as tool in Vanduul culture and society.

DAVE HADDOCK: Right, right. I remember you put together, when we were doing the original Vanduul motion capture, you put together a sort of packet and when we were doing auditions and stuff like that for some of the, for the actor who was playing the [Unintelligible], there were certain vocal qualities that you were looking for. From your experience is there a human physiology that lends itself better to being able to pronounce these languages. I mean what were the qualities that you were looking for with that type of stuff?

BRITTON WATKINS: With the actual performers, I was just looking for a broad range of abilities to produce vowels and consonants that not everyone has in every language. So we have, for example, in Vanduul in the phrase [speaks Vanduul] we have [Vanduul sound] is a very unusual vowel that we don’t really have in English.


BRITTON WATKINS: And at the end of [Vanduul sound], at the end of that sentence we have a glottal stop which in English we don’t typically make at the end of words very often. So, the ability of the actors to listen to me having recorded what they are supposed to be saying, and then listen to that and, without too much pain or crying, reproduce it is the kind of quality that I look for in that side of the talent. A kind of innate linguistic ability. Part of it is mimicry, but part of it is also just being able to hear a sound and…

DAVE HADDOCK: And reproduce it.

BRITTON WATKINS: …have your brain know to move the parts of your mouth to get that to come out without too much pain and suffering.

Patrice Maiambana: [Speaking Vanduul]

BRITTON WATKINS: And I will say that the people who have worked so far were extremely talented…

DAVE HADDOCK: Yeah, they’re pretty grand.

BRITTON WATKINS: …And the burden on me was almost zero because they were cast so well.

DAVE HADDOCK: Yeah, they really, and they got really into it too. You could, we’d also talked about earlier, about the non-verbal stuff which is kind of what helps elevate the Vanduul into truly an alien language because it’s something that’s intrinsic to them because only they have that combination of stuff. But yeah, when they were developing some of the hand gestures and, the things on set, it was incredible to watch.

BRITTON WATKINS: Yeah the language has these mood particles that come, that tend to come, at the end of phrases or at the end of sentences. And those often accompany movements and instead of my doing that we thought it would be, you know, as a kind of this is what you must do for the gestures…


BRITTON WATKINS: …we thought it would be better to involve them and let them come up with the gestures as a function of how they felt about…


BRITTON WATKINS …the emotion of what they were saying.

DAVE HADDOCK: Playing the scene.

BRITTON WATKINS: And then I’ll get to put those in a gesture dictionary [Laughter] and publish them for everybody who cares to learn the gestures.

DAVE HADDOCK. Right, right. So, just moving on to the Xi’An for a second. So, you’re also sort of developing this one in tandem with the Vanduul. And we shot some of it; you worked up a very rough sketch of it early on for some performance capture shoot that we were doing. It’s interesting because it was always the thing in the community, which you alluded to earlier, of “how do I pronounce it?” Is it She-An or Zhaan? I think you finally have given us a solid answer.

BRITTON WATKINS: Well it was interesting to me when I joined the project to hear, in the same meeting, clearly different people referring to the same people…

DAVE HADDOCK: Yeah, probably in the same sentence too!

BRITTON WATKINS: …same culture in, using different labels. But I only ever saw it spelled one way so I imagined “Okay, what kind of parallels do we have to this in English or in other languages?” And frequently there are registers or dialects that are not always reflected in spellings. So, there’s one standard spelling that’s usually more proper and formal and would be used in books or paper letters or what not. And then there’s the way people talk…


BRITTON WATKINS: …And in the She-An society, or the Zhaan society, they do about 30 years of compulsive military service. So, it seemed to me that there could easily be a dialect, there could be this register of language that was used primarily in the military but if everybody’s doing military service then they would all have this shared, second dialect.

DAVE HADDOCK: Right, right.

BRITTON WATKINS: In their society now we are going to be sharing the fact that there is this kind of formal polite language of government and art and education. And then there’s the language that everybody spoke for 30 years in the military. And depending on what you are doing you might switch register. You might use the different dialects. So, if you’re out with your buddies getting intoxicated you’re more likely to be referring to yourself as Zhaan. And if you are in front of a delegation from another planet then you are more likely to be the She-An.


BRITTON WATKINS: So, we’ve come up with an interesting way to differentiate that …


BRITTON WATKINS: …in the pronunciation and some of the slang and other things. So it should be a lot of fun.

DAVE HADDOCK: Historically we’ve presented them with this very austere, very stoic, it’s considered immature to show emotion, all that type of stuff, and I think it’s easy for people to forget that they are; there’s more to them than that. Like there is this side of them, and this helps bring that out, that there’s this side to them that, there’s another layer that you can get to if you are familiar with them enough. Like if you are good enough friends with the Xi’An they might feel okay talking in this more military slang with you. Which is a lot of fun.

BRITTON WATKINS: Yeah, if they’re meeting you for the first time and the language that is being spoken is Xi’An then they’re more likely to refer to you as ‘lay’ but if you’re getting intoxicated or you’ve known somebody for several years and you’re hanging out with them then they might do you the honor of casually calling you ‘aye’ instead of ‘lay’ so that kinda, you would know you’re kinda an insider…

DAVE HADDOCK: Right, right.

BRITTON WATKINS: …If you get referred to as ‘aye’ instead of ‘lay’ by a Xi’An.

DAVE HADDOCK: That’s awesome, we have these two dialects basically, are they technically dialects?

BRITTON WATKINS: You could refer to them as dialects or a register, the more linguistic term is one is in a higher register and one is in a lower register…


BRITTON WATKINS: …But let’s call them dialects, we have the standard dialect and we have the military dialect.

DAVE HADDOCK: Could you give an example of what, how they would sound? Because you said written wise they’re the same.

BRITTON WATKINS: Yeah, so if we think about the funny sentence, Thlowan sucks at making jokes, Thlowan being a character name with T, H, L being a unique sound that they have in the Xi’An language. If we said that in the standard dialect, we’d get [Speaks Xi’An] however in the military dialect, we’d get [Speaks Xi’An]. So, it’s different, I mean it’s, the vowels are pretty much the same, but a lot of the other sounds change in the two dialects. So, you wouldn’t necessarily recognize the word ‘hwawa’ as ‘vava’.


BRITTON WATKINS: They sound quite different if you’re filtering them through English.


BRITTON WATKINS: But the Xi’An or the Xi’An would filter ‘hwawa’ and ‘vava’ as exactly the same word, one of them is just slangy and maybe sounds sort of like where I was born in South Carolina.


DAVE HADDOCK: Right, how much do real world languages factor into, sort of, your design into it? I know that you would stress an eagerness to allude to current languages but not make it recognizable to speakers of that language. So how does that work?

BRITTON WATKINS: Well, you’re doing performance capture, you’re doing motion capture with live actors so they need to be able to pronounce everything. So, the phonologies of these languages are pronounceable by human beings, 100%, and they will be pronounceable by talented game players and other people who want to learn to make those sounds. So, we had to start with a normal human palette. We’re not creating sounds in a computer that human beings can’t make and using those as consonants or vowels for example…


BRITTON WATKINS: …So, there’s that baseline of using normal human phonology but beyond that we want to put the pieces of that language together in a way that’s unusual and different and kind of fun and surprising.

So, Vanduul for example, is much more of a synthetic language where pieces tend to clump together to make longer words and Xi’An or Xi’An tends to be more analytic, where words tend to be shorter and more independent of each other.

So, we are taking these ideas of synthetic language or analytic language from human, natural languages and also incorporating that into what we’re doing in the intentional design of these languages for these cultures so that they a richer sense of authenticity.

The tapestry of the way all the pieces and the parts of the language is woven together is not just [Unintelligible], you know, something where people just made up a bunch of sounds, but they are [instead] actually grammatical and they will have vocabularies and hopefully a certain segment of the fan base and the players will take that and run with it and enjoy it and get a whole other level of linguistic exposure and depth out of the project.

DAVE HADDOCK: Well, Britt, thanks for taking the time and sitting down with us. I’m sure like I said, all the backers are thrilled that you are on board and are chomping at the bit I’m sure to see some of the work you’ve come up with. But that’ll do it for this segment, thank you all for joining us, do you have any final words for the backers?

BRITTON WATKINS: Thanks so much Dave and I just want to encourage everybody to get excited about learning Xi’An and Xi’An, the same thing, by the way and I’d also to encourage everyone to be excited about learning Vanduul, because it’s a really cool language.



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