The Birth of Wenja – How Far Cry Primal created an entirely new language of its own

If you’ve been following Far Cry Primal closely or have been able to jump into its prehistoric world since it released earlier this week, you’d have noticed that the inhabitants of Oros valley, a fictional world set in Central Europe, don’t speak English. Instead, they speak their own langauge, Wenja.

To make Far Cry Primal’s world feel real and true to its setting, Ubisoft figured that having the characters speak in English wouldn’t be authentic enough so set about the task of creating a language which not only sounded believable but was reflective of that era of human history. 10,000 BC is a time we still know relatively little about. People didn’t record events the way they did thousands of years later. That itself poses a hurdle when trying to recreate accurately what life would have been like in a time where it was considered a victory to wake up the next morning as danger lurked around every corner. Therefore can you imagine the problem Ubisoft faced when trying to re-create a language from 10,000 BC?

Few people in the world have enough knowledge about pre-historic language, let alone the expertise to create a realistic sounding language which doesn’t consist of just grunts and moans. We know that our ancestors evolved their communication skills to ensure their survival and longevity which therefore led to the creation of many different languages, most of which likely originated from the Russian Steppes 6 to 8,000 years ago. The obvious problem is that these languages haven’t been spoken or heard for thousands of years.

Ubisoft were unable to create anything close to being convincing enough to add to Far Cry Primal, with everything the designers were trying sounding trite or just plain wrong, either too much like modern man or too much like science fiction. After a desperate search for someone with enough knowledge of ancient languages to help them, they came across UK linguist Andrew Byrd who was an expert in the Proto-Indo-European language which dates back more than 5,000 years. Now that they had someone who was capable of helping create an ancient-sounding langauge, they also needed someone who would be able to teach this new language to the actors so that the language could be added to the game. As fate would have it, Andrew Byrd’s wife was also a linguist and specialised in teaching foreign languages. It was a match made in pre-historic heaven.

Now that Ubisoft had two people capable of bringing Wenja to life, work started on making the new fictional language more than just grunts and snarls and into something much more developed. While Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was used to help create Wenja, Andrew and Brenna Bryd realised that to make Wenja as close to 10,000 BC as possible, they needed to make it even older than PIE and other similar languages Wenja was loosely based around.

“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.

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After plenty of hard-work and commitment, Andrew and Brenna along with input from the actors had managed to create a believable language reflecting 10,000 BC which consisted of more than 40,000 words with established grammar, syntax and structure. Now that the language was created, it needed to be taught to the actors so that they could finally bring the language to life.

“The hardest, but probably most fun, part,” Andrew 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!’). 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.’”

Now that the language was created, it needed to be taught to the actors so that they could finally bring the language to life. It was Brenna’s job to teach the actors the new language, encouraging them to live the language with them often speaking to each other off set in Wenja.

“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.”

Far Cry Primal isn’t just important to the gaming world though, it’s had a huge impact on the academic world and has been very important in helping understand the pre-historic languages of thousands of years gone by. For example, it was the first time that PIE had been used since it was first spoken thousands of years ago. It’s also the first video game which has ever been created in a constructed, prehistoric language. Even films which have been made around the time Far Cry Primal is set have never re-created a language in the way that Andrew and Brenna did for the game.

It’s a further example of how video games can have a positive influence when it comes to education and history. Video games come under a lot of criticism for their depictions of violence and while Far Cry Primal is most certainly a brutal game, it’s important that the medium is also covered for it’s positive influence. By creating Wenja, Far Cry Primal has helped write and understand a new chapter in human history. For what other purpose would a 40,000 word ancient language be created from scratch for other than a video game?

Wenja is not stopping at just Far Cry Primal however, with Andrew and Brenna planning on teaching the language to students at the University of Kentucky campus next week. While very few can speak Wenja, there could be a lot more Wenja speakers after next week.

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