Fictional languages are fascinating. Unlike real languages that have developed for centuries and are still constantly adapting, fictional ones are meticulously crafted over relatively short spans of time, and are often made by small groups of people to add an extra bit of life into a fictional world. You've likely come across one if you're into your fantasy - Dothraki from Game Of Thrones, Elvish in The Lord Of The Rings or Dragon Age, and Skyrim even has its own dragon language, Dovahzul. It's a part of world building that often goes overlooked too, because these languages are often already translated, so you don't really have to think about them. But for some linguists who choose to leave their creations a mystery, they can be an absolute delight to decipher.
This was exactly the case with the folks who recently figured out Isu, a fictional language in Assassin's Creed Valhalla used by an ancient race of human-like beings. Watching their video on exactly how they managed to translate some Isu texts was incredibly impressive, but it got me wondering, who went to all that effort to make it in the first place? The answer is Antoine Henry, associate director at Ubisoft Singapore.
Henry tells me the plan to come up with the Isu language started out as a wild idea he didn't think would actually happen.
"The idea of creating a language for the Isu came about during a casual discussion with [narrative director] Darby McDevitt, where I was telling him about my passion for languages and creating them," Henry tells me over email. "When he mentioned creating one for the Isu, I thought it was just one of these crazy ideas you come up with in a discussion for the fun of it. Even though we were both excited, I didn't think he was serious at all. Months passed and I thought that would be the end of it. Then one day, out of nowhere, Darby contacted me to see how we could make it happen!"
Their main goal when creating the Isu language was to "add a layer of depth to the Assassin's Creed universe". The Isu lore already goes pretty deep too - they're an ancient and advanced race of god-like people who made the human race to act as their workforce. You can find info on them dotted about in Valhalla, (and the entire series) which essentially tells an alternate history for our world. However, because the Isu created us, them having their own ancient language meant that it had to develop into the more modern languages of the human race. That's where some clever reverse-engineering comes in.
"It seemed logical that they would have taught humans, at the very least, some of their language in order to communicate with them," Henry says. "To convey this, the Isu language has been designed as a fictional ancestor to Proto-Indo-European - the theorised common ancestor to one of the largest families of languages on earth."
"The process of creating the Isu language was writing in reverse a history of how humans learned it from the Isu, and how it then evolved over time to become Proto-Indo-European," he adds. "I started from old languages in that family (Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, etc.) and academic reconstructions of what Proto-Indo-European could have been like, and worked my way backwards from there."
"Languages have an aesthetic to them, and as a creator, it’s great to have control over that."
A language created like this is usually referred to as a "conlang" (literally, constructed language), and it requires a lot of knowledge of how real languages work. Henry tells me he's been conlanging professionally for years, but even with all that experience, creating the Isu language wasn't exactly the easiest of jobs.
"The biggest challenge was to find a balance between credibility as an ancestor to real languages and artistic intent. Languages have an aesthetic to them, and as a creator, it’s great to have control over that," he says. "But at the same time, I wanted to make sure it fits the lore we had decided for it. Sometimes that meant letting natural linguistic (de)evolution drive the creation process. In a sense, I feel like I discovered this language as much as I created it!"
Another difficulty Henry faced was trying to make the language connect with the existing lore of Assassin's Creed. Previous games already have various symbols and glyphs that artists have used, and Henry tells me he wanted to use some of these pre-existing bits to make it feel as though the language had always been there.
Once players began exploring Valhalla they could uncover the Isu language in all its glory. It took just two months after the game's release for some lingo-savvy fans to decipher it, figuring out the rules by studying some of the in-game translations to help them work out untranslated text.
"We completely intended for the community to decipher some of the language, but I would have never imagined that they would go as far as they did," Henry tells me. "They managed to break down words and rules that I didn't even think could be identified! I am amazed by their passion and dedication. As a creator when you see this, it really makes the effort worth it."
Seeing as the language has been mostly figured out now, I wondered how doable it would be to learn to read, write and speak it. Henry reminds me that the Isu language is designed for an advanced race who have a sixth sense, so there are aspects of it that we could never truly comprehend. Despite that, the answer is still yes, you can learn it - as well as a simple human possibly could, anyway.
He says he actually recorded an "Isu 101" video for Gudmundur Thorvaldsson and Chantel Riley (the voice actors for Valhalla characters Sigurd Styrbjornsson and Layla Hassan), so could understand how to speak their Isu lines. The only problem with the language is that there aren't really any words for normal things we'd want to talk about in 2021.
"They would have to discuss engineering the human species, the end of the world, or other topics of interest to the Isu..."
"The community has done a tremendous work breaking down the vocabulary, syntax, grammar, numerals and pronunciation from the extracts found in-game. From this, I think anyone interested enough would be able to speak and write basic sentences," Henry tells me. "However, they would have to discuss engineering the human species, the end of the world, or other topics of interest to the Isu whose writings are found in the game. Otherwise, they will be a bit short on vocabulary!"
Well, I suppose these could be things we talk about in 2021. The year is young. If you fancy learning Isu yourself, Henry says they might consider releasing more official info on it in the future, but they don't exactly have plans to release a grammar book. Ubisoft want to keep a few mysteries to themselves, after all, so for now you're stuck with studying the texts in Valhalla. That's doesn't seem too bad a deal though, as Henry puts it:
"What better way to learn than to play?"