Burgess’s most substantial foray into invented languages was, curiously enough, not conducted for a novel. Ulam is a simplistic language with a slender grammar and limited lexis of terms. Nevertheless, unlike Nadsat or Easy Walker’s slang, it functions independently of English. As well it ought to, since it was intended to be a recreation of proto-Indo-European, the ur-language from which most of the tongues spoken from India and Iran to Ireland ultimately originated. In this sense it can be considered as a more fully realised development of the chanting which he had appended to his version of Oedipus.
Ulam was created by Burgess for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 movie adaptation of J-H Rosny’s 1911 novel La Guerre du Feu. Annaud’s 1981 film, entitled Quest for Fire, required its paleolithic protagonists to act and speak like the first Europeans, those who occupied the continent some 80 millennia ago. Working in conjunction with Annaud, and with the zoologist Desmond Morris (who advised on how the actors should move and behave), Burgess was charged with generating their language. His papers on the project are archived in Manchester.
In an interview with Starlog magazine, Annaud explained that “We always wanted to create a new language for the film. But a friend at Fox suggested that we might as well go all the way and have one concocted that was as historically valid as possible. We went to Anthony Burgess. He’s a linguist. He speaks 13 languages. Right about that time, we thought of coupling Burgess’ work with that of Desmond Morris. We wanted our movie to be as authentic as possible. Since the film is fiction, however, we asked these two great minds to improvise for us.”
Improvise they did. Burgess in particular, despite his stated reliance on etymological dictionaries, had to speculate not only what concepts would have been cognitively available to stone age man, but also how they might organise those concepts and then depict them in oral form.
This was obviously far from a straightforward task. It is possible to run the kind of linguistic changes over time described by the Grimm brothers and others in reverse, in order to approximate languages which we know must have existed but for which we have no written examples. The more recent the language, the more accurate this process can be. But as with all forms of archeological research, and this is a form of linguistic archeology, it is subject to a certain amount of guesswork. For Burgess, reaching back to the very dawn of man’s time in Europe, it became very much an act of creativity.
For one, Burgess was a philologist by training but not a professional linguist. (He did write two books on linguistics, however, though really one was a revision of the other some decades later.) Additionally, the very act of attempting to reconstruct a language from so far back, many millennia before the development of writing, is considered somewhat controversial in linguistics circles. Advocates of the process accept that it is somewhat speculative, and refer to themselves as paleolinguists. Critics of such ‘long-range’ historical linguistics tend to question the hypotheses of such distant historical linguistic assertions.
Perhaps the most significant criticism is that proto-Indo-European did not exist in Europe at the time in which the movie (or indeed Rosny’s novel) is set. It is a much later arrival, perhaps as recently as 6,000 years ago, and the inhabitants of Europe some 40 millennia back would more plausibly have spoken some Afro-Asiatic language, perhaps a proto-ancestor of Arabic or Hebrew. Even more likely is that whatever rudimentary language existed among Cro-Magnon man in Europe at the time has not directly led to today’s tongues, given the process of language death, the multiple waves of human immigration from Africa to Europe, and the lengthy timeframes involved.
It does not assist Burgess’s case that, in an article for the New York Times to promote the movie and explain his process of language invention/reconstruction, he identified it as taking place some half a million years ago mistakenly, a time when hominids in Europe were not Cro-Magnon man, ie modern humans, but restricted to homo erectus and homo heidelbergensis. Later in the article, he locates the piece as taking place 80 millennia back, still long before the arrival of modern humans in Europe. A certain vagueness is present, at least in this journalistic report, if not in the act of generating the Ulam language itself.
Burgess admits in the New York Times piece that some of his decisions, such as the choice to use atr- as the root form of fire, were utterly arbitrary. Additionally, the work was conducted in conjunction with Desmond Morris, as it was deemed likely that much of the Ulam tribe’s communication would be pre-verbal: “Visible gestures are for the day, auditory ones for the dark. It is probable that man developed speech as a night-time language but found it so efficient that he elected to go on using it when the sun rose.”
As a result, the ‘Ulam’ language is almost entirely made up of nouns, and these nouns themselves compound, often in metaphoric or imagistic ways, to generate other nounds. Such as ‘dondr’ for tree multiplying to generate ‘dondr-dondr’, or forest, which in turn is compounded with ‘tir’, meaning animal, to designate ‘tir dondr-dondr’, a stag, literally a forest animal, metaphorically an animal with trees (antlers) on its head.
Ulam is a rudimentary form of communication, not designed to facilitate abstract communication, and this was intentional: “There will be no metaphysical discussions or theological wrangles: we are right at the beginning of human society with no agriculture and hence no astronomy and hence no gods, with a fear of the dark and a great awe at the mystery of fire,” explained Burgess. In the movie, it is primarily an observational, declamatory language, used to communicate simple concepts. It also relies heavily on suffixes to convey specialisations, distinctions and even relationships between concepts, and again this was deliberate.
“The word we used for fruit was bouaa,” Burgess told Starlog. “But a fruit from a tree would be a bouailt. ‘Ilt’ indicating height.” Burgess explained that his intention was to distinguish his invented Ulam from previous depictions of early mankind’s language:”We’ve been taught to think by films that primitive man just used grunts. ‘Uh! Oh! Ah! It wasn’t really like that in real life because men probably developed language in order to cope with a situation when visual gestures were no use. At night, for example, there was always fear. Fear of wild animals, fear of the dark itself, and so on.”
“One can imagine a primitive community with a man, a guard, a sentinel, talking all the time just to assure them that he was there,” Burgess continued. “So, primitive language was what we call agglutinative: it was gluey. Words were glued together in a long stream.”
Taking into account the choice of pursuing a form of Proto-Indo-European as a starting point, the decision to agglutinate via suffixes, the somewhat arbitrary choice of word root forms, and the open admission of the director that the process was both creative and collaborative, we must acknowledge Ulam as one of Burgess’s most inventive created languages.