Cornell Students Create Alien Torfan Language for Marvel


Cornell Students Create Alien Torfan Language for Marvel

languages? That’s right. When Hollywood sought fresh talent to create Torfan, a new extraterrestrial language, for Captain Marvel, Cornell linguistics students Ryan Hearn and Joseph Ryne won.

How do two comic book-loving linguists create an alien language, and what can they teach ardent language-learners about our mother tongues?

Initial definition.

Conlangers are what?

Language creation is conlanger’s fun.

“Constructed” languages like Esperanto, Klingon, and Dothraki are formed by conlanging. Conlangers create new languages.
When Marvel approached Cornell students to invent the Torfan alien language, they were aware of “conlanging” but had never done it.

Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones use Conlang, which dominates sci-fi/fantasy.

Hollywood ConLanguages

However, most conlanguages only appear briefly in Hollywood, with alien beings speaking English (mainly British). Emotional situations affect viewers stronger in their native language, which is why linguistic diversity is low. Directors do not want viewers to get lost in a fake language during heartbreaking scenes.

How do directors create conlanguage masterpieces?

Read on.

How Hollywood Can Create Torfan-Like Alien Language

We will explain how conlangers develop languages from scratch, like Captain Marvel’s Torfan.

Step 1: Choose Human or Alien Language

Conlanguages now have species.

Language creators must select if the language will be adapted from a human language or if it is wholly alien.


Because on our little Earth, every human child can physically make roughly 7,000 phonemes (the precise term for an individual sound segment), but many of the world’s most widespread languages have around 100 phonemes. English only 44!

An extraterrestrial language requires unique sounds like ejective noises.

Humans rarely utilize forceful consonants called ejectives. Avatars’ Na’vi language used kx, tx, and px popping sounds.

Starting an alien language? Sound extraterrestrial.
Step 2. Create a Culture-Representative Phonology

Hollywood conlangers must collaborate with directors to comprehend their film’s vision.

The sound must match the group’s culture to work.

Are aliens/lifeforms docile, heroic, merciless, primitive? This affects their language’s melody.

Each alien species and language is unique. Recognize their cultures! Over 400 Marvel aliens have fan pages.

Step 3. Make a Grammar Manual

Build words and sentences. Rhyne created words and Hearn grammar for Marvel’s Torfan.

Morphology helps. This field of linguistics analyzes morphemes, one of the main components of grammar. Morphemes—prefixes and suffixes—are the smallest language units.

Some alien conlangers use unusual morpheme infixes.

Only Tagalog, Khmer, and Nicaraguan Spanish employ infixes today. This anomaly benefits conlangers.

“Fan-bloody-tastic” is an English infix. The infix “bloody” changes the meaning of “fantastic” in this situation.

Dr. Paul Frommer added “ol” to Avatar’s Na’vi conlanguage. “Oe ka” becomes “Oe kola,” meaning “I went” or “I have gone.”

Hearn and Rhyne say Torfan’s grammar and syntax were influenced by Japanese, Greek, and Latin, but the morphology has yet to be fully deciphered.

Step 4. Avoid Native Language Semantics.

“I would just translate an English sentence into a new language word for word,” think again.

Most language learners know that words have various meanings between languages. This is why Google Translate often fails to translate complete paragraphs.

In English, “time” has multiple meanings. “What time is it?” “one time,” and “all the time” employ the same term.

In French, “one time” (une fois) is different from “What time is it?” (Quelle heure est-il?). Three French nouns replace one English noun.

Translating into an alien tongue complicates this.

Will the language’s time word imply the same in all three cases? Do their galaxies even have time?

In an interview with Cracked, Dothraki and Valyrian designer David Peterson remarked that novice conlangers will copy these idiosyncrasies of their home languages into their conlanguages.

New conlangers may apply an idiom like “control your emotions” to the idea of control in English without considering that aliens may handle emotions differently (maybe they absorb them, maybe they can not feel them, etc.).

“Big” is another example. “Big” in English can mean height, length, and width. In Portuguese, “grande” can mean “big” or “cabelo grande” (long hair). “Big hair” in English denotes abundant, not necessarily “long.” Semantics are tricky here.

Conlangers must respect the aliens’ culture and vision.

If not, interplanetary linguistic problems may result.

Key takeaway? Superhero Linguists

Oh, sure.

Hollywood blockbuster linguists give extraterrestrial communication meaning.

Do not miss Torfan’s subtleties while rushing to Captain Marvel this week.

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