Cha Winja warhamas!
Translation: “We speak Wenja here!”
It isn’t surprising that only a very few people — so far, at least — recognize “Wenja” as a language. Even fewer can speak Wenja. But after a teaching session next week, the University of Kentucky campus could harbor the single largest concentration of Wenja speakers in the world.
Two UK assistant professors of linguistics — Andrew and Brenna Byrd — are intimately familiar with Wenja. They imagined and brought to life Wenja and other prehistoric-sounding languages for the new video game “everybody” is talking about, “Far Cry Primal©” by Ubisoft, released earlier this week. People are talking because “Far Cry Primal” is a rarity in the gaming world. The 10,000-year-old world focuses on survival violence, without guns, without cars.
Designing a realistic world, not just a game, was the goal of “Far Cry Primal” engineers. They wanted to create a world that could have conceivably existed in our dim past, 10,000 years ago to be exact. They consulted paleontologists, who helped the designers and artists fill their imaginary world with the plants and animals that actually existed in 10,000 BCE. They populated their world with mammoths and saber toothed tigers — and three tribes of interacting prehistoric homo sapiens. To interact, the humans had to communicate.
Unless they wanted to be restricted to grunts, communication obviously required some sort of language, but everything the designers tried sounded trite or just plain wrong, either too much like modern man or too much like science fiction. That’s when they discovered UK linguist Andrew Byrd and his research into ancient languages, including his online reading of fables in Proto-Indo-European, a language that hasn’t been heard in 5,000 years or more. Then, they discovered Byrd’s wife Brenna was also a linguist, but one who focused more on teaching foreign languages. Ubisoft designers rejoiced. They had found what they needed, an expert to create an ancient-sounding language and a second expert to teach the Stone Age languages to the actors who would bring their Primal world to life.
Andrew and Brenna Byrd did not create Wenja as an imaginary alien language of grunts and snarls, as heard in countless television shows and movies. They created Wenja based on two lifetimes of researching ancient languages, including Proto-Indo-European (PIE).
“Scholars have known for some time that a number of languages spoken in Europe and Asia derive from a common source, which was likely spoken in the Russian Steppes 6 to 8,000 years ago,” said Andrew Byrd, an assistant professor in English and linguistics.
But Andrew and Brenna Byrd needed something even older, a language spoken with a mammoth trumpeting in the background.
“We had to ‘translate’ backwards in time. We needed to create a proto-PIE language, a language that may have been spoken about 7,000 years before PIE existed. Brenna and I used what we knew about PIE to imagine what an earlier version of that word may have been,” Andrew Byrd said.
“The hardest, but probably most fun, part,” he said, “was coming up with appropriate war cries, celebratory chants, curse words. More often than not, it was the actors who created these phrases (‘Nuha!) or PIE itself (‘Hasa!’).”
The couple created a true — though imagined — language of more than 40,000 words with established grammar, syntax and structure. Then, it was Brenna’s job to teach that language to a group of actors. She submerged them in the language immediately, encouraging them to live the language to breathe life into it again. And suddenly, it just was.
“They began speaking to each other in Wenja off the set, in their spare time. Or bringing me the script and asking if that was what the character would really say. They weren’t just memorizing the lines. They were speaking the language,” Brenna Byrd said. “That’s when this hypothetical ancient language — just a jumble of sounds, really — began to feel tangible, natural, a living language.”
Andrew pointed out the three things that made this”Far Cry Primal” so important to even the academic world: first time PIE has been used since it was spoken thousands of year ago and the first time a video game has been created in a constructed, prehistoric language.
“Besides,” he said, “it’s just plain fun, more primal to scream as you attack an enemy ‘u mi-gwaru hada’ instead of ‘eat my spear.’”
UK students can enjoy a taste of that same experience. From 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, in White Hall Classroom Building, room 114, Andrew and Brenna Byrd will explain in more detail their incredible journey back in time with “Far Cry Primal.” Along with a few surprises here and there, there will be an abbreviated lesson in Wenja.