Resurrecting a Dead Language in Far Cry Primal

Far Cry Primal, out now on Xbox One, promises to transport players to the world of the Mesolithic, back to the first sparks of human civilization 12,000 years ago – when man was not yet at the top of the food chain.

Instead of throwing together some primitive grunts for protagonist Takkar and calling it a day, the developers from Ubisoft Montreal sought out linguists Andrew and Brenna Byrd, a husband-and-wife team from the University of Kentucky who, in their words, “bonded over the Rosetta stone” back in college.

We’ve seen languages created in movies and TV shows before: Klingon on “Star Trek,” Elvish in “The Lord of the Rings,” and Dothraki and High Valyrian on “Game of Thrones” – but this was even more challenging. Andrew and Brenna needed to put their knowledge of the Indo-European language family – a vast array of interconnected languages that stretches from Iceland to India – to the test and resurrect the language that might have been spoken in the land of Oros in Central Europe 12,000 years ago.

We had the chance to sit down with Andrew and Brenna and had a fascinating conversation about how they made Far Cry Primal’s three tribes feel distinct, how they named the prehistoric beasts of Oros, and the role of language in general.

Xbox Wire: Why was Proto-Indo-European chosen specifically for Far Cry Primal?

Andrew Byrd: Well, the writers wanted us to do Proto-Indo-European, and that’s our area of expertise. We certainly did makes choices, though, in terms of what kind of Indo-European languages we wanted these to look like. And part of Wenja is what we call “Proto-Proto-Indo-European,” so we’re looking at some really old features in Proto-Indo-European and assuming those to be the normal features for Wenja.

But as I mentioned, we also looked to Hittite in particular. There’s a lot of things within Hittite that we really love and used those as the normal features in Wenja – which makes a lot of sense, because Hittite is the oldest Indo-European language.

Brenna Byrd: That we know about. [Laughs]

Xbox Wire: I believe that you created three different versions of Proto-Indo-European for the game, based on the Wenja, the Udam, and the Izila – the three tribes in Far Cry Primal. Can you tell us about that?

Brenna Byrd: The Wenja and the Udam basically speak two dialects of the same language. It’s similar to American English and British English. They’re very similar. The words are basically going to be the same, but you’ll hear subtle differences, and the pronunciation is going to be a little different. The Udam are very brassy, and the way the language comes out, it sounds very deliberate.

In the game, there’s a scene where Ull, the Udam warchief, says, “You leave, or you die,” which is “Shuta marita” (shoo-tah mah-ree-tah). We told the actor, “Say it like you’re screaming, but without increasing your volume.”

For the Wenja, their language has initial stress. It’s supposed to sound like a beating drum – BUM-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum. That was intentional.

And with the Izila, it’s basically Proto-Indo-European simplified so that actors can say it – and for gameplay purposes. You don’t want to have a really long, poetic sentence when all you want to say is, “Look out, tiger!” [Laughs]

Andrew Byrd: And for Ull’s line, in Izila, it would be “Xuté mryéso” (khoo-téh murr-yéh-soh). So, it’s totally different.

Brenna Byrd: Yeah, for the sing-songy intonational pattern for the Izila, we worked a long time on that. We really wanted the Wenja and the Izila to sound different. Initially, when you hear them, you’re like, “Oh, this is a very different language coming at me.” We played around with a bunch of different intonational patterns, listening to all kinds of languages. I kept watching Finnish soap operas.

Xbox Wire: So you would describe the Izila language as more unintelligible from Takkar’s perspective?

Brenna Byrd: Yeah, when you’re interacting with the Izila, you don’t really understand what most of what they’re saying, unless they use cognates. But the Udam, Takkar can understand completely. They’re just talking with a funny accent to him. Takkar can understand the Izila to an extent because some of the words are related, though.

Andrew Byrd: It would be like if a Spanish speaker moved to France. It’s easier for a Spanish speaker to pick it up, but it’s clearly a different language. We don’t want to spoil anything, but some of the linguistic interactions are pretty cool.

Xbox Wire: What were the hardest words to translate or express? There’s a behind-the-scenes language video Ubisoft released that mentions scholars know of 20 different Proto-Indo-European roots for the verb “shine” but no known word for “yes,” so were the most difficult words ones we might consider pretty simple? And how did you solve the “yes” problem in Far Cry Primal?

Andrew Byrd: It’s quite bizarre, but it’s true. In addition to “yes,” there were other common expressions we had no idea how they said, like “yay!” or “hooray!”

To solve the “yes” problem, we thought of it this way: How could a language express the meaning of “yes” without a word for “yes?”  And we came up with “it is correct,” which would be ghrectóm hesti within Proto-Indo-European. Following our sound laws and lopping off some syllables, as is common in frequent words, this produced shrash in Wenja and tómhe in Izila.

Xbox Wire: Finally, for anyone interested in learning more about Proto-Indo-European after playing Far Cry Primal, do you have any reading suggestions?

Andrew Byrd: For archaeology, the best place to start is David Anthony’s “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.” For language, I would recommend Ben Fortson’s “Indo-European Language and Culture.” It gives an excellent overview of the major language families, the cultural practices we can reconstruct back to Proto-Indo-European, and the methodology of the field in general.

Far Cry Primal is out now on Xbox One. Download your copy today, and marvel at all of the linguistic intricacies as you go prehistoric on Ubisoft’s amazing new open-world adventure!