A Linguistic Guide to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Ubisoft consulted with native Welsh speakers, 13th-century Icelandic texts, and Gaelic scholars to create the game’s lingua-scape.

Invading my own country has been one of the most surreal experiences of playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and the variety of languages included in the game makes it one of the most thought-provoking.

Assassin’s Creed is an award-winning historical action game series known for putting players in the middle of transformative events in history. Valhalla is set during the Viking invasions of Britain, during which the main character, Eivor, and their brother Sigurd embark on a quest to conquer a new land. They travel by boat from their native country Norway to a place that is home to new Viking settlers, eager to forge their own legacy of glory. This gave me an outsider’s perspective of my own country, eavesdropping on everyday conversations in busy settlements and deciphering the origin of war cries on mountainsides.

I was interested in the variety of languages and dialects used in the game—which takes place in Norway, England, and beyond. Assassin’s Creed developer Ubisoft put an impressive amount of effort into accurately representing the languages included. A variety of specialists and translators were brought on board by Ubisoft to bring the game world to life. Valhalla was in development for over two and a half years and Ubisoft Montreal collaborated with a staggering 14 co-development studios.

“The goal for us is to share a little slice of linguistic history, an ‘as authentic as possible’ audio travel log to accompany the gorgeous visual tapestry,” Nicholas Grimwood, voice designer at Ubisoft, tells WIRED.

Norse

The Vikings started arriving in Britain in the late 8th century, bringing their language, Old Norse, with them. As with other Assassin’s Creed titles, Valhalla translates Eivor’s native tongue into English throughout the game—albeit peppered with Old Norse words such as drengr, for young warrior, and skald, which means reciter of poems, honoring heroes and their deeds.

It is intriguing to hear Old Norse spoken in everyday life in the game, such as when the NPCs within the settlements are discussing food and day-to-day dramas. As someone who has studied linguistics, I have the tools and knowledge to analyze language, and as an enthusiast, I’ve found games a rich source of linguistic material to explore. When Valhalla came out, it made me curious about how Ubisoft chose to portray Norse language and culture within the game and the process behind it.

“The Norse used in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is meant to represent a 9th-century form of Old West Norse, the core of which is modeled on the greatest source available to scholars, the early 13th century Icelandic texts of Snorri Sturluson,” says Grimwood. “This is a somewhat generalized common language, variants of which were spoken by the people of the lands that would eventually become Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, and in pockets elsewhere, such as enclaves in Ireland, Scotland, and various isles—Man, Orkneys, Shetlands, and even a brief appearance on Anglesey.”

Ubisoft chose to present the Norse culture with a range of nationalities and accents, with its largest pool of voice talent taken from Iceland. The modern language spoken in Iceland today is the closest we can get to hearing how Old West Norse was naturally spoken, and this influenced the decision to choose Icelandic voice actors to portray the Norse people in Valhalla.

I am impressed with the ease with which Eivor brokers deals and oversees discrepancies between Viking and Anglo-Saxon characters. I questioned whether this would have been the linguistic reality of England during this period. Scandinavian people were present in England long before the time depicted in Valhalla. Norse and Saxons can understand each other, because Norse and English are members of the same Germanic parent language family. It would be like meeting a person who speaks your language, but is using a very different dialect that makes it distinct to that group. Bilingualism would have been the linguistic norm at the time due to the social mix of languages and cultures.

“It is plausible that many people in Eivor’s time would have been bilingual, able to speak both and switch between them,” Peredur Webb-Davies, a senior lecturer in bilingualism and specialist in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at Bangor University, tells WIRED. “The large number of Norse words that have entered the English language—like leg, skill, and window—is indicative of that, for example.

“Some grammatical changes that make written Old Norse look different to English didn’t take place until after the period depicted in Valhalla. For example, a Norse speaker in the later middle ages would usually have pronounced vindr, ‘wind,’ with a v, whereas a contemporaneous English speaker would have said wind with a w—but at an earlier point in time, and quite possibly in the period covered in Valhalla, Norse speakers would probably have pronounced it more like a w, as in English. That could suggest that the two languages sounded more similar in the 9th century than the written sources suggest.”

The remnants of the Norse language can still be seen in Britain today, everywhere from place names to the English language itself. While the influence of Norse in England effectively ended after the 11th century, the Norn language, which is directly descended from Old Norse, continued to be spoken in isolated parts of Scotland until 1850, almost 1,000 years after Valhalla is set.

Old English

Eivor’s exploration of the Valhalla game world gave me an outsider’s perspective of the development of my own language. While the Anglo-Saxons are usually depicted as speaking Modern English in the game, Old English is widely spoken by background NPCs.

I didn’t identify the presence of Old English in the game at first because it sounded so different from the language I speak. Initially I thought it might be an oversight by Ubisoft, and that they had accidentally added large amounts of Norse speakers to predominantly Anglo Saxon areas like Wessex, but as I listened to the language it sounded more like a type of incomprehensible German to my ear than Norse. My suspicion that it was Old English was confirmed when I heard the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred speaking the language with a background NPC.

The language that was to become Old English was brought to England by invaders known as the Anglo-Saxons following the withdrawal of the Romans in the 5th century. These invaders came from areas that are now parts of modern Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, and according to 8th-century Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, they were known as Jutes, Angles, and the Saxons.

“There were several kingdoms with shifting borders in the centuries leading up to a unified England,” Ubisoft’s voice designer Grimwood says. “While Latin was ubiquitous, there wasn’t one Old English language, but a gathering of evolving dialects at times exerting influence over each other via the nudging of a dominant king’s court. We were lucky, however, in that King Alfred, who trained for the clergy, was a proper scholar-king, who insisted on using not only Latin. He and his scribes were prodigious, and most of the sources we draw upon are West Saxon, originating in his latter 9th-century Wessex court.”

Welsh

As someone who lives in a Welsh speaking community, I am used to hearing the language every day, but I rarely encounter it in popular culture. Welsh people are often represented as accented English speakers in the time depicted in Valhalla, and their language is usually overlooked. So when I serendipitously stumbled into a garrison full of angry Welsh warriors, I was pleasantly surprised to find they used actual Welsh phrases as they tried to kill me.

The Welsh are referred to as Britons in Valhalla. The Britons were the Celtic speaking peoples who had inhabited Britain before the Roman conquest. Their language, Common Brittonic, was originally spoken across Britain. Following the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England, it was replaced by Old English in most parts of the country. However, Common Brittonic remained the dominant language in Western regions of Britain and it eventually became the languages Welsh, Cornish, and Cumbric. Interestingly, the Sciropescire (Shropshire) story arc in-game features Eivor meeting the historical Welsh king King Rhodri.

“It is uncertain how much English someone like King Rhodri would have been able to speak, but again it’s not impossible that he was bilingual,” says Webb-Davies, a native Welsh speaker. “The Welsh used in the Rhodri arc consists of some Middle Welsh as well as formal Modern Welsh.”

This level of linguistic detail was a significant undertaking for the development team at Ubisoft.

“To create the Old Welsh used in the western marches, we had the very resourceful Malo Adeux, PhD candidate in medieval literature at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and Ifor Ap Dafydd, development officer at the National Library of Wales. They had a particularly hard task, starting from the oldest extant sources of mostly 12th- to 15th-century Middle Welsh, then having to reverse-engineer that to an even older-sounding form. Like rewriting Dickens in Shakespearean!” Grimwood says.

Welsh also features in the game region of Glowecestrescire (Gloucestershire). While modern Gloucestershire is a part of England, its portrayal in Valhalla is surprisingly Welsh, with many characters having names such as Tewdwr, Cynon, and Modron—and references to the pre-Roman Pagan culture that existed in Britain, such as the Wicker Man and the horned god Cernunnos.  

It is in this region that the player meets Brigid, a woman who is only able to converse in Welsh, during a pagan festival that involves merrymaking, and obligatory weird skulls, and antlers. I am not a Welsh speaker, but I could understand familiar Welsh words such as da, meaning good; maes, which means field; and gwely, meaning bed. At the end of their meeting she says “Diolch” which translates into Welsh as “Thank you.” I also recognized a lot of English loan words.

“Brigid is an interesting case, she speaks in a very informal style mixed with English words. This phenomenon is called code-switching, and is a frequent feature of the way bilinguals speak, then as now,” says Webb-Davies. “It is very hard to follow Brigid at times, even as a native Welsh speaker and Welsh linguist—and her speech is sometimes ungrammatical; I suspect that it was sent through translation software!”

The reason for Brigid’s unusual speech was revealed by the Ubisoft team. “Brigid is a special case,” Russell Lee, a scriptwriter for Valhalla, tells WIRED. “The writer just put ‘unintelligible’ in the script and the actress came up with her own version of incomprehensible ‘Welsh’!”

Gaelic and the Picts

Gaelic is present in the game as a language spoken by the Picts, a group of people who resided in the area that is now modern Scotland. Gaelic was brought to Scotland by Irish settlers between the 4th and 5th centuries AD. By the 9th century, Gaelic had become the dominant language in most of Scotland.

There was also a separate Pictish language, however it was already in decline during the time that Valhalla is set. Although not much is known about the language, evidence derived from place-name research suggests Pictish was probably closely related to Britonnic languages such as Welsh. A neat example is the “Aber” component of Scottish place name “Aberdeen,” which literally means “river mouth” in Brittonic. Traces of this place-name element can be found today in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, however it is not found in Ireland suggesting its a Brittonic rather than a Gaelic word.

Bringing Gaelic into the game was a challenge for Ubisoft, and they consulted Gregory Darwin of Uppsala University to create translations that are appropriate to the time period.“It was in fact an old Ulster Gaelic, heard spoken by the raiders in some northern parts of the game world,” Grimwood says.

While the Picts lived in what is now Scotland, Ubisoft decided to use Irish Gaelic speaking voice actors as opposed to Scots Gaelic speakers. Ubisoft intended to model how the text would have actually been spoken at the time, by recent arrivals from Ireland, to what is now Scotland, to create a more flowing performance for players.

“We did audition as many Scots Gaelic speaking actors as we could find—and we applaud the efforts of those fighting to revitalize the language—but the pool of actors is unfortunately limited, and most performances sounded a bit mechanical,” says Grimwood.

There are also traces of Ogham, an early Irish alphabet used by Celtic tribes across Britain and Ireland, concealed in inscriptions throughout the game. It has captured the attention of games linguists. “The languages used in these inscriptions is accurate to when they would have been written and who wrote them: Primitive Irish for some and Common Brittonic for others. From what I’ve seen so far, the community has yet to decipher some of them!” Antoine Henry, associate game director at Ubisoft, tells WIRED.  

Modern Scottish Gaelic, a descendant of the Gaelic spoken in Valhalla, is still spoken today, mostly in the Outer Hebrides and on the Isle of Skye. There are also communities of Scottish-Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, and there are learners in Australia, North America, and New Zealand. It is an endangered language because the number of speakers have declined over the past hundred years however there have been efforts to revive the fortunes of the language.

Vinland

Later in the game I was surprised to find that there is an optional and unexpected detour to North America, to a region the Vikings called Vinland. While the Vikings are known to have travelled to North America, the historical evidence of their expeditions shows they arrived at a later date than the time period shown in the game.

Upon arriving in Vinland, Eivor remarks on their new surroundings, “Gods. Never have I seen such a place.” Vinland is the literal opposite of the harsh Norwegian landscape they had journeyed from earlier on in the game. On entering the settlement, the linguistic struggle is made clear when Eivor says to himself, “But would my words have any meaning.” Like Eivor, we are in a completely new part of the world in a country that has a radically different language.

The characters in this version of Vinland speak the languages of the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, also known as the Mohawk and Rotinonhsión:ni, People of the Longhouses. As a linguist, I particularly enjoyed Ubisoft’s decision to give players the rare opportunity to hear one of the Iroquoian languages spoken without translation, as I felt it made for a more immersive experience. The language of the settlement is heard through the NPCs speech during their day to day lives. The main Mohawk characters speak their language during the main story mission and it is not subtitled on the screen for players, putting you firmly in the shoes of Eivor, experiencing a whole new culture. Eivor barters with Mohawk traders and participates in a storytelling ceremony around a fire that is a huge part of the Iroquian oral storytelling culture. Eivors speaks Norse but he is still invited to participate and tell his story.

Ubisoft tweaked the timing of the Viking arrival in order to tie the story of Valhalla to the lore of previous Assassin’s Creed games. It is in this region that players meet the ancestors of the Mohawk people who featured in Assassin’s Creed 3.

Iroquoian is a language family spoken by indigenous people in North America and is associated with the Iroquois Confederacy. Iroquoian is a fairly small language family with around 15 members including Cherokee, Huron, Mingo, and Wyandot. Sadly, as of 2020, all surviving Iroquoian languages are severely or critically endangered, with only a few groups of speakers remaining. 

The Isu Language 

Isu is the fictional language of the Assassin’s Creed universe created by Antoine Henry, Ubisoft’s associate game director. In the game, it was created by the mysterious and technologically advanced Isu civilization, which is entrenched in the lore of the games. In the Isu story, humans were created for labor, but they rebelled and flourished while the Isu disappeared. Ubisoft imagined that the Isu would have taught some of their language to humans so that they could communicate with them, and they in turn would have evolved into the languages we speak today in the Assassin’s Creed universe.

You might be wondering why I have included a fictional language from Valhalla in a linguistic guide, but in some ways it does have its roots in the real world. The Isu language is derived from a language called Proto-Indo-European, which is the ancestor of many modern languages, including English, Persian, Spanish, Hindi, Greek, and Russian, to name a few. The people who spoke this language are thought to have had a seminomadic horse-riding culture, and originated in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, north of the Black Sea, around 5,000 years ago. Their culture and language then spread across much of Europe and South Asia. The descendants of this language still share many similarities. Take for example the word for mother, which is Mater in Latin, Mutter in German, Maadar in Persian, and Majka in Croatian.

Ubisoft even developed an Isu writing system, which it has prompted players to decode the messages and share their findings online.

“I found a way to use the alphabet from the Voynich Manuscript—a real manuscript from the 14th century, which has still not been deciphered today,” Henry says. “This manuscript had been used in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed Rogue, and a few comic books. The community has exceeded all of my expectations on that front! They deciphered words and grammar rules I didn’t design to be decipherable. This passion and dedication from our fans makes it all worth it.”

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla shines a light on the linguistic reality of 9th-century Britain, which is often portrayed as a monolingual island in popular culture—but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It can be quite disappointing to see a Welsh or Gaelic speaker portrayed as just an English speaker, as it omits an important part of Britain’s linguistic history. As a linguist, Ubisoft has exceeded my expectations in its depiction of a multilingual Britain. Valhalla portrays this world with a linguistic diversity that is more accurate than most depictions in popular culture. To give you an idea of how poorly these languages are represented in the media, you might be surprised to learn that the legendary figure King Arthur was not English but was supposed to represent a Brittonic speaking Briton who resisted Anglo-Saxon invasion. Including endangered languages in Valhalla raises their profile and brings them to the attention of global audiences. At the beginning of the game I felt like an outsider looking in, by the end I felt like I had rediscovered my own language, learnt about the most surreal cultural customs within my own country and experienced a whole new language and way of life. Ubisoft uses the gaming medium to engage audiences and help them see their own world and indeed languages through a different lens.

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