The "Narval” Language

Before production, we asked multilingual Puerto Rican anthropologist and fellow University of South Florida graduate, Jose Enrique Moreno-Cortés, JD, PhD, to help us create ANYA’s “Narval” language.

In this guest post, Jose shares how he did it.

Jose Moreno-Cortés, JD, PhD  Narval Language Consultant

Jose Moreno-Cortés, JD, PhD
Narval Language Consultant

“What?!” That was my first reaction when Carylanna Taylor and Jacob Okada, the creators of ANYA, asked me to help them develop the Narval language. They proposed we create a language that uses the complete lexicon and structure of the Spanish language. In other words, this language will sound like Spanish, but it won’t be Spanish!

As a Spanish speaker, I was baffled by the request. How can you create a new language using a language spoken by 470 million of people? How can we fool the public creating a language that will sound like a Spanish?

When I asked the writers/producers these questions, Carylanna answered “that’s the idea: the language must sound like a Spanish, but it won’t be Spanish. It will be a secret dialect within an openly spoken language.” She explained that the language spoken by the Narval, the population on which the movie plot revolves, is a language developed by using the Spanish vocabulary of different cultural/cognitive domains and applying them to different or opposite cultural/cognitive domains in the Narval language.

I was intrigued. The idea was bizarre, but completely possible under the characteristics of language, as studied by linguistics and linguistic anthropologists. First, language is symbolic, it is a system of arbitrary symbols humans use to communicate. It is that arbitrariness of language that support the idea of creating the Narval language. There is no necessary link between the symbols that create words and sounds and their meaning. Each society through their culture assigns meaning to its language. So, I thought, if Sequoya, a Cherokee Native American, used the English alphabetic symbols as the basis to develop the Cherokee language syllabic writing system, why can’t the Narval people use a whole language to develop their own? Besides, in fiction, languages like Klingon and Dothraki have been created before for use in films and series. So, I was sold on the idea and agreed to help.

In ANYA, the Narval people speak their own language. In scene, LIBBY (Ali Ahn), a Spanish-speaker, gets a cultural and linguistic lesson when her new mother-in-law (SARA, Ana María Jomolca) teaches her that “narval” means seawater.

In ANYA, the Narval people speak their own language. In scene, LIBBY (Ali Ahn), a Spanish-speaker, gets a cultural and linguistic lesson when her new mother-in-law (SARA, Ana María Jomolca) teaches her that “narval” means seawater.

History of the Language

The first task to develop the language was to discover a little more about the origins of the Narval people. According to the lore invented by the writers/producers, the Narval are descendants of a lost Viking ship that arrived on an island near the Colombian coast. There, the Vikings mixed with the Amerindian population of the area, probably combining the Old Norse language spoken by the Vikings with the local language. The local language could have been one from the family of the Arawak languages spoken in the area at that time. This interaction would have occurred a long time before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Americas.

Doing a bit of hypothetical linguistic archeology, I thought about how this language might have come to be. Based on how the language developed and the survival of the Narval population, it seems that the Spaniards never get to visit the island. However, inhabitants of the island were aware of the Spaniards and the fate of the Native American population from the Mainland. Wary of the Spaniards, and taking advantage of their visible European traits, they learned Spanish language in their visits to the Mainland. Scared of a potential Spanish invasion to the island, the leaders decided to “camouflage” their culture under the guise of just another Spanish colonial enclave.*

During centuries of Spanish domination and fear of settlers moving to the island, the leaders of the Narval community designed a code language based on Spanish to use in particular situations, especially when doing trade with the mainland. Once settlers from the Mainland began moving into the island, the Narval started to speak the Spanish-based code language in an everyday basis, using them even in private. The Wars of Independence led by Bolivar in the mainland gave this code language the final thrust in becoming the lingua franca of the native population. The language and their culture became a symbol of their identity against the changes in the continent. Through the years, the language became the native language of the population, only speaking Spanish when dealing with foreign residents. This kind of linguistic development parallels the formation of creole languages on other Caribbean islands such as Haitian creole, that emerged from contact between French settlers and West African slaves.

Language Rules

I mostly dealt with the Narval lines spoken on screen. However, in case we needed to create more lines during filming, I created some basic rules for the structure and vocabulary of the Narval language.

For the language to sound like Spanish to the casual Spanish-speaking listener, the Narval used the very most common words and parts of speech as in Spanish. This includes:

• Articles, conjunctions, prepositions.

• Key verbs like To be and To have.

• Days of the week, names of moths, etc.

They changed other parts of speech more radically. A bit like a child might play with pig latin.

Adjectives and adverbs are switched with their opposite word when available.

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Verbs are switched with their opposite word. Verbs that don’t have a specific opposite word are expressed in the negative to form their opposite action.

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Nouns are derived through the original mother tongue (a mix of Norse and Arawak), by swapping one cultural domain for another, or borrowed through interaction with other cultures.

The cultural domain swaps I came up with include:

Body parts—>fruits
(For example, the Narval use “guayaba” for butt.)

Family—>Domesticated animals

Professions—>Wild animals

Public buildings—>House furniture

Food—>Words related to construction

Grains—>Basic tools

Meats—>Construction materials

Plants & flowers —>Minerals

For the Narvals’ numbering system, I used Papiamento, a Spanish/Dutch/Portuguese creole. I reasoned that the Narval would do as much trade as possible with the Dutch colonies to reduce their chances of being discovered by the Spanish.

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Could this kind of linguistic development happen in real life?

The short answer is yes.

Linguists who investigated the historical evolution of languages and its origin identify two types of communication that can developed in context similar to the reality of the Narval society, these are pidgin and creole languages. Pidgin languages are developed in situations when there are unequal relationships of power between populations. Pidgins originates when there is a need of communication in certain contexts like trade and work. For example, pidgins developed where European colonial powers established commerce and slave trade. The slaves, coming from different societies and with different language, talked with their masters and with each other using pidgins. A particular pidgin developed from the vocabulary of the masters and with the integration of some linguistic features from the slaves’ languages.

A pidgin is a simple dialect, with no native speakers, and used for particular contexts. If the use of a pidgin expanded into more aspects of the sociocultural life of a society and eventually acquired native speakers, people which first language is the pidgin, the language becomes a creole language. Creole languages are more complex, used in every sociocultural context, and have native speakers.

So, applying these concepts from linguistic to the Narval language, the language develops as a pidgin to be used in the context of trade with Spanish speakers from the mainland, eventually becoming a creole by the adoption of the language as a lingua franca in the island, and eventually becomes the native language of the Narval.

By Jose Enrique Moreno-Cortes, JD, PhD

*A Note from Carylanna: Jose’s and my versions of the Narval/Spanish interaction differ slightly but are complementary. Mine has more to do with Spanish discovering the Narval’s inability to reproduce with outsiders and treating them as outcasts—for me, their bastardization of Spanish is a kind of weapon of the weak. Jose’s version is more closely based on historical understanding of colonization. Both versions fit with how the onscreen portrayal of the Narval language; both could have happened in the course of the language’s development. To know for sure how the Narval and their language came to be, SEYMOUR, LIBBY, MARCO and their friends in Little Narval and on Narval Island would need to conduct further research.

jacob okada