Ky. linguists develop language for new video game


By Cheryl Truman - The Lexington Herald-Leader



LEXINGTON (AP) — Brenna and Andrew Byrd are married University of Kentucky linguists with a 3-year-old son, Alex.

They also led a team who created, and taught actors to speak, the innovative language Wenja with its roots long ago and far away, specifically Proto-Indo-European used between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.

Wenja is the language spoken in the new best-selling video game from Ubisoft, Far Cry Primal (suggested retail: $59.99).

It’s not a purely fictional language like Klingon from Star Trek, Elvish in the Lord of the Rings or Dothraki from Game of Thrones. Wenja is constructed on the building blocks of Proto-Indo-European once removed. It has a vocabulary and grammar. Consider: “Cha Winja warhamas,” translated to “We speak Wenja here.”

Because it’s an action game in which survival is predicated on fighting or of being allies with the right people and escaping or killing the right predators, it also has a bit of a Terminator-style flare: “U mi-gwaru hada’ means “Eat my spear.”

Andrew Byrd, 36, said that Wenja, “is a way to bring Indo-European to people who don’t know anything about it.”

Putting a language with its roots in Proto-Indo-European into a mass-market video game reminds people of the roots of their own language, be it English, Swedish and Farsi, and is a boon for the field of linguistics, he said.

How does it sound? It’s not the refined and clipped syllables of, say, Downtown Abbey. It’s not especially nuanced, because the cultural life reflected in the game has to do with dominance and survival. It is emphatically spoken, and, to modern ears, guttural and with a rhythm like a drumbeat, as the game’s protagonist, Takkar, takes on various challenges.

One of the Wenja speakers, a character called Urki, speaks Wenja with a Southern American accent, sort of like an ancient language channeled through Jeff Foxworthy.

For the Byrds, who met as young academics at UCLA, the job creating and tutoring the video game actors in Wenja used skills they’ve been honing most of their lives — deciphering, dissecting and teaching language.

The two are grateful to have found jobs in similar fields at UK. Brenna Byrd, 37, teaches all levels of German and even a language practicum on Old Norse. Her research has included how Turkish-German youth vernaculars became associated with hip hop music.

Andrew Byrd teaches courses including linguistics, history of English and writing and writing systems.

“My job felt like was completely made for me,” Brenna Byrd said. “His felt like it was made for him.”

In a recent open seminar at UK, the two taught a group a few elements of Wenja and used two actors to stage a scene using the language. The presentation concluded with “Gwarshtan,” translated from Wenja as “Thank you all.”

Ubisoft found Andrew Byrd by a unique Internet phenomenon — a viral link of Byrd speaking in his best guess of the accent of Proto-Indo-European for Archaeology magazine online.

The Byrds faced a daunting task: three tribes, 2,400 unique words, a 40,000-word-long script and 30 revisions beginning to end.

Forty thousand words “is insanely large,” Andrew Byrd said.

“I always tell my students, it’s like when Neo sees the Matrix,” Brenna Byrd said. “You see this pattern of all the languages, how they come together.”

Brenna Byrd worked with the actors speaking Wenja as the video game production moved forward in Toronto.

“After the first few lessons, they started randomly shouting out things in Wenja,” she said.

Andrew Byrd, himself a video gamer, said that “it’s never been something that’s helped me with my career” — until now.

While as an academic Andrew Byrd may write an article or book that’s seen by 500 people in his field, as a language creator for video gaming he has the potential to have his work seen by millions.

“I love Wenja,” Andrew Byrd said. “I love it so much. . I know I’m biased, but I love the story. I love the characters.”

The Byrds said they work together well as a team, because both are enchanted with language. And while the Byrds are open to future collaborations with video game developers, they say their roots remain in academia.

“Our primary jobs are as professors,” Andrew Byrd said.

By Cheryl Truman

The Lexington Herald-Leader

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