Alien Language in “Prometheus”

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Have you seen Prometheus yet? If not, please consider this your spoiler alert and stop reading now if you don’t want this post to spoil your fun.

The latest Ridley Scott flick follows a team of humans and an android as they travel through space in search of the alien race who created humanity. Some are motivated by a desire for knowledge, though the elderly businessman who financed the expedition is more interested in immortality. Of course, everything goes to hell in a handbasket once they find representatives of the alien race, known as the Engineers.

But how can they expect to communicate with the extraterrestrials to begin with? What language would these aliens speak? In the film, the answer is apparently something close to Proto-Indo-European, otherwise known as PIE.

Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of all the languages in the Indo-European family. There is no written record of PIE, but linguists have reconstructed what they think it might sound like based on comparing all of the languages in the family.

In the film, the android David is shown studying PIE on the ship while the humans sleep in suspended animation, with the help of a holographic projection of a linguistics professor, a real-life language consultant named Dr. Anil Biltoo. Later, David briefly speaks with one of the Engineers. Here’s how Dr. Biltoo translated his speech for the Bioscopist:

“The line that David speaks to the Engineer (which is from a longer sequence that didn’t make the final edit) is as follows: /ida hmanəm aɪ kja namṛtuh zdɛ:taha/…/ghʷɪvah-pjorn-ɪttham sas da:tṛ kredah/
A serviceable translation into English is: ‘This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life’.”

Why Proto-Indo-European? After all, it’s not the common language of all humanity, just of the Indo-European language family. Commenters at Language Log suggest (I think accurately) that PIE was chosen because it’s the oldest reconstructed language that would still sound slightly familiar to the film’s target audience. Even so, the version of PIE spoken in the film was apparently simplified to make it easier for the actors to pronounce.

Perhaps the best commentary on the use of PIE in the movie came from this blogger. I can’t top this:

“That they [the Engineers] would go to the mythic lengths of murdering fathers with the skulls of sons, impregnating women with monsters, and driving companions into a cannibalistic frenzy for the inferred sin of using the debased newspeak of Proto-Indo-European, arguably makes them the ultimate linguistic prescriptivists.

Wow. Those aliens must really not like PIE!