Do You Speak Tho Fan? It's All the Rage in Jade Empire

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 19 14:20:41 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

April 19, 2005

Do You Speak Tho Fan? It's All the Rage in Jade Empire

The language Tho Fan sounds ancient and distinctly Asian. Its "sh" sounds
come from the back of the throat, as they do in Chinese. Its "r" sounds
are made with a tap of the tongue, echoing Mongolian. But Tho Fan comes
from Canada and was invented only last year. Created in four months, for
just over $2,000, it is a real language spoken by unreal people in the
Xbox game Jade Empire, released this week. Perhaps it is a sign that,
these days, languages are not so much discovered as invented.

Early last year, developers at the game maker BioWare were working on a
heroic role-playing game set in a mythical Asia and began thinking about
language. "We were sort of writing a love song to the history of China,"
said Jim Bishop, Jade Empire's producer. Still, they wanted to avoid using
Chinese or any other Asian language that might shackle their invented
universe to actual historical events. At the same time, they did not want
to resort to unintelligible nonsense.

"We wanted to make this world seem as real as possible," Mr. Bishop said.
Ultimately, more than 90 percent of Jade Empire's 15,000 lines of recorded
dialogue were in English, but Mr. Bishop's team, based in Edmonton,
Alberta, also decided to add the exotic aural flair of an Asian-sounding
language, subtitled in English.

The attempt to create a language from scratch is rare in modern fiction.
J. R. R. Tolkien, a linguist as well as a writer, created several for the
"Lord of the Rings" saga. In 1985, another linguist, Mark Okrand, codified
the "Star Trek" language Klingon in a published dictionary, which in turn
led to Klingon editions of "Hamlet" and the ancient Babylonian epic
"Gilgamesh." But these were exceptions. The alien languages in science
fiction and fantasy books and movies largely consist of nonsense: grunts
and chirps arranged to convey the illusion of exotic intelligence.
Occasionally, as in the "Star Wars" films, writers will introduce a few
alien words to which they have given meanings but that don't constitute a
working language. "You could use them to find a bathroom and that's about
it," Mr.  Bishop said.

Games have even fewer functional tongues. The denizens of the hit computer
game The Sims, for example, speak in Simlish, a caffeinated warble that is
more mood-appropriate gibberish than real language. In its quest for a new
language, BioWare contacted the linguistics department at the nearby
University of Alberta and came across Wolf Wikeley, 32, a Ph.D. candidate
with a weakness for Japanese animation and first-person-shooter video
games. He seemed like a find.

"Not many people have funny anecdotes about Klingon," Mr. Bishop said. Mr.
Wikeley had grown up in a language-rich household. His parents taught
German, French and Italian and could speak several other languages.
Japanese lessons had played on the family phonograph. And then there was
the linguistic influence of Mr. Wikeley's favorite fiction.

"A huge event in my life was seeing 'Star Wars' when I was 4," he said.
"Probably a lot of my ear came from that." He said he took to mimicking
the film's alien languages, noting that at least one seemed to consist of
just three overused words. If one set of fictional characters had given
him his ear, he was eager to answer BioWare's call to give others their
voice. He set about asking Mr.  Bishop's team questions. He wanted to know
the speakers' physiology. If they had no teeth, they wouldn't be able to
make a "t" or "th" sound. They had teeth.

He wanted to know the speakers' demeanor. In a willful violation of a
fundamental tenet of linguistics, his invented language would reflect its
speakers' cultural character. "If they're a violent race, I'm going to
give them a lot of really harsh sounds," he said. "If they're an ethereal
race like elves, I'm going to give them a whispering, hushing sound."

According to the initial plan, speakers of Tho Fan (pronounced THOH-fan)
would be a servant class. Mr. Wikeley made their speech soft and
deferential. He invented an alphabet and began making words, 50 a day and
then 200.  "Person" would be "uyu" (pronounced OO-yoo). Blood was
"kawisrihr"  (caw-wee-SHEER). Some words were inside jokes: Rabbit was
"punihrapith"  (POO-knee-raw-peeth). Similarly, the word for "director"
was "wankaawayi,"  sounding somewhat like Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong film

As the words took shape, Mr. Wikeley set about bonding them into
sentences. Here he saw a rare opportunity. He could invent grammar and
rules that had never been used before. That way Tho Fan wouldn't
completely match the rhythm of existing languages, which, he said, is an
easy way to spot a fake language. In a twist, Tho Fan would do without the
verb "to be"; instead, articles - words like "a" and "the" - would be used
to mark tense. After testing his new language's functionality by
translating the first chapter of John's Gospel, he delivered a 2,500-word
language to BioWare.  Then a plot change recast the speakers of Tho Fan as
imperialists. The language's deferential softness would no longer imply
servile humility, but rather the elegance of the elite.

Since then, Mr. Wikeley has created four more languages for another
BioWare game, Dragon Age. In the interest of a verisimilitude that perhaps
only a linguist would notice, he has invented a history that explains how
and when each tongue borrowed or modified a word from another, across
thousands of fictional years. Mr. Bishop reflected on whether the effort
was worth it for Jade Empire.  He said new languages help make the
creative process feel more real; it helps the game's makers feel as if
they had rich, existing culture resources from which to draw.

But would players notice? "I can hear the difference," Mr. Bishop said.
"But I don't know if anyone can tell the difference between this and

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