Linguistics students create language for ground-breaking Marvel movie

The newest story to come out of the Marvel Universe, “Captain Marvel,” features the work of a team of linguists from Cornell’s PhD program. Doctoral students Ryan Hearn and Joseph Rhyne are credited with the creation of the alien language Torfan, which is used in the film.

Linguistics researchers are used quite regularly in large-scale science fiction works, Hearn said. “Anytime you have to create a new language, you can either just put together a bunch of sounds or go about creating a new language,” he said. “To do the latter, you need to know what things you can change to make it sound like a human or alien language. That comes from a linguistic background.”

Marvel routinely creates new, complex languages for its movies. An online fan page for the enterprise lists over 300 alien races with distinct cultures and histories.

Hearn and Rhyne, who both focus on historical linguistics, are advised by linguistics Professor Michael Weiss, who was contacted by Marvel Studios about the project and passed it on to them.  

When attempting to create a new language, Hearn and Rhyne had to tackle multiple issues –from understanding the director’s vision for the film to making the language sounds consistent to ensuring that the language reflected the culture of the group of characters in the film.

“The most important thing is you want the language to reflect the culture because you can’t divorce the two,” Hearn said. “Once you decide what aspects of the culture you want to represent in the language, then you start working on the phonology, the sound system, and how that language’s form works, the morphology. You also think about how that language puts words together to form sentences, the syntax.”

All of these aspects fit together to create a language that “stays true to the artistic vision,” Hearn said.

Rhyne worked specifically on the creation of individual words, in order to maintain a consistent sound and feel.

The language of Torfan is loosely based on the grammatical system of Japanese, but with a “fairly different” sound system, Rhyne said. Their final product consisted of a manual of grammar rules, a list of sounds within the language, notes about what happens when certain sounds are next to each other, a breakdown of the syntax and word order, a short dictionary of 300 words, and audio recordings of dialogue.

Hearn and Rhyne said the hardest part of the process was communication with the studio and the timeline of production. “The movie was proceeding so fast in regards to filming, so sometimes the turnaround would be on a short time span,” Hearn said. “There were a lot of late nights needed to meet deadlines.”

The two said the late hours and stress were worth it, though, when they saw their names listed on the credit list. Rhyne is also proud of working on a film that fosters diversity and inclusion in the science fiction genre.

“Having it be the first female hero to get their own movie in the Marvel Universe is really cool,” he said. “Being part of a film that expands the realm beyond straight white male heroes is something that I’m really proud to be a part of.”

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 Ryan Hearn and Joseph Rhyne