Theatre prof contributes to constructed language in hit sci-fi TV show

Eric Armstrong

Eric Armstrong

Theatre professors are no strangers to the limelight, but for one York University academic, Eric Armstrong, the cool factor is off the charts. He created the accent for a constructed language called Belter, used in the white-hot sci-fi television series “The Expanse,” set 200 years in the future. This new language, developed by linguist Nick Farmer with the assistance of Armstrong as dialect/accent coach, mashes up six existing languages.

The American series, the third season of which airs 2018, has a captivating premise: Humans have colonized the solar system and Mars has become a military power. One social class has not fared well in this world. The new language belongs to this group of people, called Belters, who survive by scavenging materials in a particular Asteroid Belt.

In this Q&A with Brainstorm, Armstrong  ̶  who teaches voice, speech, dialects and Shakespearean text at York  ̶  talks about the new language and the television show that are taking centre stage in his career.

“The Expanse.” Image reproduced with permission.

“The Expanse.” Image reproduced with permission

Q: How did this gig on “The Expanse” transpire?

A: One day, I got a call from my agent, asking if I knew anything about made-up languages in science fiction shows. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a nerd. I had read a lot about what are called ‘con langs’ or constructed languages in the press, most notably due to “Game of Thrones.” Dothraki and Valyrian are two made-up languages in that show.

When I was brought in to speak with the show creators, they could see that I knew what I was talking about, even though it was a ‘first’ for me.

“One day, I got a call from my agent, asking if I knew anything about made-up languages in science fiction shows. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a nerd. I had read a lot about constructed languages.” – Eric Armstrong

Q: How did your career lead up to this position as dialect/accent coach on a hit television series?

A: I trained to be an actor and worked professionally in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal for about five years. I always felt an attraction to teaching voice. York had an MFA program in this field. One of my mentors was David Smukler, Canada’s foremost voice teacher at the time, who started the voice teacher diploma program here at York. I completed this program, then worked freelance for a year. And from then on, I’ve had full-time voice teaching jobs in Canada and the United States. I returned to York [as a faculty member] in 2003.

York University’s Theatre Program

The Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre at the Keele campus is one of the venues used by York University’s Theatre Program

“Our acting classes at York are diverse; and that diversity motivates me to teach in a way that is inclusive… That’s very rewarding.” – Eric Armstrong

One of the jobs that I took early on teaching was at Brandeis University [Massachusetts] where I was the speech and accents teacher – a narrower niche in the voice teaching field. I felt a little underqualified, so I took the time to do further research. I started to coach professionally in the theatre in Boston. That got me on the path. After that, I went to Chicago, where I started to work on film and television on a much bigger scale. My first film coaching job was with the [British actor] Tom Wilkinson, who had just been nominated for an Academy Award.

Q: Belter is comprised of Chinese, Japanese, Slavic, Germanic and other languages. What was it like developing the accent for this fabricated language?

A: Belter is a creole, a combination of languages. Nick Farmer, creator of the Belter language, studied creoles and used the structure of many creoles to create a new creole. English is at the core of Belter. But he took many of these other languages that you referenced as ingredients.

Diogo, a Belter (played by Andrew Rotilio). Image reproduced with permission.

Diogo, a Belter (played by Andrew Rotilio). Image reproduced with permission

Special feature: Listen to audio of Eric Armstrong reciting Shakespeare with a Belter accent.

To begin with, he created a basic dictionary. For this, he turned to different languages for the source words, then undertook a transformational process to create phonological rules. [Phonology is the study of how sounds are used in language. This includes how sounds interact with each other.]

So, Nick handed me the phonological rules [for Belter] and gave me some samples of what Belter sounded like. As I ‘auditioned’ for the show – really, it was more like an extended interview –  I took those sounds and developed an overall feeling of the language.

At first, Belter felt like Jamaican, also a creole. But we didn’t want it to be exclusively one thing; we wanted it to feel global. So, I took elements from Chinese, European and English accents, and salted them in to the recipe as a means of counterbalancing the Jamaican accent. As a result, Belter seems familiar… but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Later, I was surprised to find out that a Singaporean accent sounds quite a lot like Belter.

Two Belters: Drummer (played by Cara Gee) and Anderson Dawes (played by Jared Harris). Image reproduced with permission

Two Belters: Drummer (played by Cara Gee) and Anderson Dawes (played by Jared Harris). Image reproduced with permission

Q: What’s next for you at York?

A: I’m currently working on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-funded project on developing accent resources for the Indigenous performance community, which is underserved. This is a mandate I created for myself. For far too long, accent resources have primarily targeted mainstream actors. The industry is dominated by people who look like me, and I would like that to change.

Our acting classes at York are diverse; and that diversity motivates me to teach in a way that is inclusive… That’s very rewarding.

To learn more about the television show, visit the space.ca website. To read an interview with Armstrong in Wired magazine, visit the site. Armstong’s credits are listed in the Internet Movie Database, IMDb. For more information about Armstrong, visit his faculty profile.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca

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