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Speaking to the Professors Who Invented the Prehistoric Languages of ‘Far Cry Primal’

The University of Kentucky's Andrew and Brenna Byrd are responsible for the Wenja and Izila you hear in Ubisoft's new game.

by Mike Diver
21 February 2016, 10:30am

All screens via the official ‘Far Cry Primal’ website

Far Cry Primal is set in 10,000 BCE, a time when English wasn't exactly the common tongue – let alone any other modern language, for that matter. There's no way of really knowing how humans communicated that far back in our history, with the earliest writing so far discovered dating from the seventh millennium BCE. Going back further, from the Neolithic era – the beginning of farming, and complex house building – to the stones and bones of the Mesolithic, puts anyone looking to depict the spoken word entirely in the field of speculation. But that doesn't mean a few educated guesses can't be made.

Modern Indo-European languages, like English, Italian and Russian, are likely descended from a single, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) tongue – so wrote Eric A Powell for Archaeology magazine, in an article titled "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European". He referenced the work of University of Kentucky assistant professor of linguistics Andrew Byrd in his piece – Byrd had used his expertise to record a 19th century PIE parable, Schleicher's fable, with updated pronunciation. Byrd himself had drawn upon the research of linguists Eric Hamp and Subhadra Kumar Sen to reach his end result.

It was these recordings that drew Ubisoft to Byrd. They emailed him, and his wife and fellow University of Kentucky professor (of modern and classical languages) Brenna, when the developer's Montréal studio was looking to create a prehistoric vocabulary for the tribes of Primal. With the cast of the game living in a fictionalised part of what's now Northern Europe at the dawn of the Holocene, it made sense to base their language on what's known, today, of PIE.

"At first, we didn't believe the email was real," I'm told, over email. "But when we discovered it wasn't spam, we were elated. As gamers ourselves, and scholars of ancient languages, this really was a match made in heaven."

The email had come from Yan Charron, a localisation expert in the Ubisoft Montréal team. He'd found Andrew's recordings, part of what he says is his "larger academic mission to view Proto-Indo-European as a real, human language," rather than mostly meaningless grunts, growls and clicks – your standard caveman-in-a-movie "words". Andrew and Brenna set about creating two distinct languages for Primal, Wenja and Izila, both of which were based on years of research into PIE.

"Just as archaeologists can dig up pottery shards and bones, and make inferences about ancient cultures, so linguists can analyse the words of ancient languages and make inferences about even older languages," the pair tells me (the email replies are shared between the two respondents). "One of the ways we figure out proto-languages is through something called the comparative method."

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"If you know both Spanish and French, you might already realise that the languages are related through how similar they sound," the Byrds continue. "For example, the word for 'who' in Spanish is quien and in French qui – and if you then compare those with Italian, chi, and Portuguese, quem, you can imagine that, at some point, all of these languages descended from a language that had a word for 'who' that looked somewhat like qui – or the Latin, quis. The more Indo-European languages you add, the more patterns you see that cannot be explained through borrowings or coincidence. We are also mindful of how human languages generally behave, which guides us in our choices of the types of changes that may occur in the creation of the Wenja and Izila languages."

Makes sense, doesn't it. The professors didn't go without a little artistic license on the project, though. "While we tried to stay as faithful to PIE as much as possible, there were situations where we could stray a bit off the path. Sometimes we would need a word that couldn't be reconstructed for PIE – which doesn't mean a certain word didn't exist, just that we don't have any evidence that conclusively points back to a single term. These included words like 'yes', 'torch' and even 'tasty' – 'shrash', 'purshazda' and 'paliklayjan su' in Wenja, respectively.

'Far Cry Primal', 101 Trailer

"For each of these, we chose an expression or a compound to convey that idea. 'Shrash' derives from the PIE expression 'it is correct', while 'purshazda' literally means 'fire stick'. And 'paliklayjan su' is a nod to our home in Kentucky, with the meaning 'finger-licking good'. There are other in-jokes in the game, but we won't divulge any more, as we want gamers to discover them on their own."

The Byrds created a 1,250-word dictionary for both Wenja and Izila, and when it came to the voice actors to tackle the script, it was written in a recognisable form. "There are no silent consonants, or vowels, or anything wacky like that. The actors very quickly picked up on how to pronounce the words properly, with a bit of training of course." A Wenja phrasebook will be produced for release beside the game, for anyone who likes to splash their money on special editions.

Read more articles about prehistory on Motherboard

With a couple of linguists on the other end of an email, it's only normal to ask about where human communication might head in the future. Ways in which we speak are dying out all the time – the last user of Klallam in the United States passed away in 2014, taking the tongue with her, while the Cromarty dialect of Scots, native to the small Highland parish that gave it its name, came to an end when Bobby Hogg died in 2012. Surely we won't ever see a time when English ceases to be a common language, across the globe?

"It really is all about politics and the dominance of certain cultures. English, Mandarin Chinese, French and Spanish are not widely spoken because they are better than any other language, rather they are the languages spoken by those in power. Of course, these days it is very handy for there to be a universal lingua franca for science, education, business, and entertainment, and it just so happens to be English right now. But who knows? Maybe Basque will be the lingua franca in 200 years. Only time will tell."

Far Cry Primal is released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on February 23rd, and for Windows on March 1st. Find more information about the game at its official website.

@MikeDiver

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