The Mala’kak language is already a living creature of its own: after Prof. Biltoo, David and the Engineer spoke it in Prometheus, we can analyze and study it, no matter who created it and why. However, it is interesting to find out who its creators were, and what they had in mind when they conceived the language system.
Professor Anil K. Biltoo and others from the SOAS Language Centre in London – including Wambui Kunya, Sonam Dugdak, Shin Okajima, Kay Rienjang, Zed Sevcikova and Reynir Eggertssohave (as stated by the IMDB trivia on Prometheus) – have worked in developing the Mala’kak language.
What is interesting about the language developed by the SOAS – compared to other conlangs – is that it is mainly Proto-Indo-European in its grammar and vocabulary, although not in its pronunciation. As Prof. Biltoo said about the engineer’s language as Proto-Indo-European (in a thread on this matter at Language Log):
The language of the engineers in Prometheus is not ‘pure PIE’ (whatever that’s supposed to be, given that all reconstructions are hypothetical). (…) Any dialogue intended to be learned by actors has to be capable of being pronounced, which does not appear to be a quality discernible in reconstructions proposed thus far. (…) The emphasis was less on authenticity with respect to what is generally agreed upon vis-a-vis PIE phonology and roots, and more on ease of articulation, sonorousness and the suggestion of a possible connection of ‘Engineer’ with terrestrial speech.
On the dialogue between the engineer and David:
A knowledge of PIE will help but, as was the intention, the dialogue is not in a single known (or reconstructed) language. One can only suppose that ‘Engineer’ and PIE are in some way related but separated by many millennia and exhibiting marked differences
About his Prometheus’ version of the Schleicher’s Fable:
This isn’t a million miles away from Kortlandt or Lühr (or, for that matter, Schleicher’s original)
On this matter, his take on the Schleicher’s Fable reveals that the concept of PIE in the Prometheus universe is also ‘constructed’, as we will show in future posts, making it nearer to the Mala’kak version of the SOAS – and both to Proto-Indo-Iranian, see below. It seems that, carefully avoiding the term ‘Proto-Indo-European’, they show a “Comparative Reconstruction of Ancestral Language“. The relationship between that Prometheus’ “Ancestral Language” and Indo-European languages is made clear by Prof. Biltoo in his cameo in Prometheus, before ‘teaching’ the Schleicher’s Fable to David:
(…) whereas this manner of articulation is attested in the Indo-European descendants as a purely paralinguistic form, it is phonemic in the ancestral form dating back five millenia or more.
Prof. Biltoo’s intention with his constructed ‘Ancestral Language’ was possibly to distance himself from the polemics that a SOAS-supported phonetic reconstruction could cause, and from the eternal discussion of whether PIE is ‘real’ or not. Again, his approach is probably the best, because:
- it allows us to regard the “Prometheus Ancestral language”, like the Mala’kak language, as conlangs, while knowing that PIE is the main foundation behind both of them…
- it hinders the easy criticism that Indo-European linguistics (and comparative grammar as a whole) would unfairly receive from the use of a serious (or ‘pure’ in Biltoo’s own words) PIE in the Alien universe, while at the same time it might attract a lot of eager fans of Prometheus to the field.
Prof. Biltoo’s concept on simplification of pronunciation and morphology turned out to be a great improvement over a ‘pure PIE’ too, as the language has been (and will be) modified by scriptwriters, film developers, actors and future writers, whether mistakenly or intentionally, because of their pronunciation and own concepts on the language and their sounds. For example, on Fassbender’s pronunciation in his dialogue with the engineer (and without taking into account his German accent):
David speaks rapidly, to the point where some sounds are swallowed.
About the possibility of the engineer’s language being a descendant of the common PIE language, and not the PIE language itself or a parent language (since the engineer is said to have been in stasis for 2000 years), Prof. Biltoo doesn’t give a clear answer:
(,..) what is the suggested timeline for PIE? By the year zero, PIE had long since developed into the various proto-languages (at the branch level) and indeed well beyond, into individual languages.
In any case, all this information that we have about the language concept and inception means a lot for the fans of the Alien universe, and especially of this new expanded Alien universe of Prometheus: unlike other popular conlangs, fully invented for different worlds (like Klingon, Na’vi or Sindarin), the Mala’kak language is intended to be like a cousin of Old Latin or Ancient Greek. Or more precisely, given the background of the SOAS and of Prof. Biltoo in particular, it will be like learning a language cousin to Vedic Sanskrit, or to the language of the Avesta. As Prof. Biltoo himself acknowledged:
[Avestan] was certainly at the back of my mind when devising the phonemic inventory
By learning Mala’kak, we will be exploring a PIE dialect of an alternate reality, mostly a Late Indo-European dialect close to Proto-Indo-Iranian or Proto-Greek – as known by experts in oriental linguistics -, but with a simplified phonetic. To explore the meaning and phonetics of each word, and the structure of each sentence, will be like exploring ancient texts and their connection with the Late Indo-European language. Isn’t it exciting?!
On the Mala’kak writing system, though, the quest to decipher and learn it will be slightly more tedious, since the symbols probably (still) don’t have any real connection with the language; at least not that Prof. Biltoo knows of:
The use of what resembles a mixed cuneiform/hieroglyphic system, with elements of Eteocypriot and Linear Elamite chucked in for good measure, would not have occurred to me – I’m glad to say. The script comes courtesy of Fox’s art department.