Brie Larson stars as the titular hero in "Captain Marvel."

Marvel Studios/Disney

Brie Larson stars as the titular hero in "Captain Marvel."

April 10, 2019

Cornell Ph.D. Students Created an Alien Language for ‘Captain Marvel’

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For many fans of Marvel’s superhero movies, it’s in their wildest dream to be able to contribute to these box office-sweeping blockbusters. For Cornell Ph.D. candidates Ryan Hearn grad and Joseph Rhyne grad, this dream has come true.

In Marvel Studios’ recent hit film, Captain Marvel, the titular hero and her teammates encountered a group of aliens who speak a language called Torfan — a language created by Hearn and Rhyne.

After being approached by Marvel Studios, Prof. Michael Weiss, linguistics, passed the project onto two of his students, Hearn and Rhyne, because he knew they “had the linguistic chops to do a great job,” Weiss said in an email to The Sun.

Given both Hearn and Rhyne’s long-time interest in comic books, the duo eagerly accepted the offer and got to work crafting Torfan.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Ryan Hearn grad, pictured left and Joseph Rhyne, pictured right, combined their expertise in linguistics to create Torfan, an alien language, for the recent hit “Captain Marvel.”

The inspiration for the language came from the human languages that Hearn and Rhyne already know — drawing aspects from Japanese, Latin, Greek as well as other lesser-used languages, they were able to form a unique, distinguishable language.

During the construction of Torfan, Hearn focused on grammar and syntax while Rhyne created the sounds and individual words. Since the language is spoken by aliens, the important task was to generate something that sounds exotic enough to differentiate it from any earthly language.

Hearn and Rhyne combined aspects of the languages they knew to form the new alien language. Grammatically and syntactically, the Torfan language resembled Japanese. However, it had a few distinct ejective sounds, where consonants are emphasized aggressively and are rarely found in real human languages.

Hearn credited Cornell’s breadth of courses for equipping him with the skills necessary for building a fantasy language: The phonetics classes taught him how to identify the sounds an alien species might make, while morphology and syntax and semantics courses gave him “good insight into how languages build words … and sentences,” he wrote in an email to The Sun.

The biggest challenge was the time constraint, Rhyne said. When Hearn and Rhyne were first approached with the task in June, it was only a week before Marvel would shoot the scenes involving the alien language. They were given the project on a Friday and had to send in the grammar book and sample recordings on Sunday.

For Hearn and Rhyne, seeing their names roll through on the credits at the end of the film was “surreal.” Although the project was difficult, both Hearn and Rhyne enjoyed it and would be open to working on similar ones in the future.

“Both of us are big comic book fans and just having an opportunity to work on comic movies was pretty incredible,” Rhyne said. “We were shocked that we had the opportunity to do it.”

“I feel that we represented ourselves well in this project, so hopefully if Marvel or any related studios need similar work in the future, they’ll keep us in mind,” Hearn said.