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Learning Lavinian: professors create a new Slavic language

Dragana Obradović and Christina Kramer. Photo by Diana Tyszko.

Dragana Obradović and Christina Kramer. Photo by Diana Tyszko.

Lavinian, a new Slavic language created by Professors Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradović, will never be taught in classrooms or spoken on the street. Yet, it will live on, immortalized in Butcher, a play by Nicolas Billon that premiered at the Alberta Theatre Project and runs through Nov. 1.

Billon, a Governor General’s Award winner, knocked on Kramer’s office door out of the blue about seven years ago. He had an idea for a play, Billon said, and asked Kramer to create a Slavic language for him to use in it. Kramer agreed, then set the idea aside.

In 2013, Billon contacted Kramer again to tell her that he was developing the play and would need the language soon, since some of the lines would require translation into Lavinian. Billon named the language after Lavinia, a character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

Kramer set to work, but wasn’t satisfied with the result, so she invited Obradović to join her. Both professors teach South Slavic languages. Kramer specializes in Balkan linguistics, Macedonian and Bulgarian, while Obradović focuses on Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian literatures and languages.

“We needed syntax, sound and verbal structure,” said Obradović. “We wanted it to be authentic, credible and non-translatable. We tease the audience with the idea that it might be a language they know, but it isn’t.”

The result is a South Slavic language  one that replicates the case structure of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian (i.e., special endings on nouns, adjectives and pronouns indicate the relation of words to each other) with the tone, sound and rhythm of its related South Slavic languages. Not only is the grammar based on other Slavic languages, so, too, is the vocabulary, but often in disguised form.

For example, the two words, Raskomajte plaknu, mean “Open your jacket” in Lavinian. Both words are new creations, but were built from native roots, prefixes and endings. Plakna  here in its accusative case  is a meshing of jakna, “jacket,” with platno, the word “cloth.” The combination gives the words texture and history, because in combining these two roots the Lavinian creators added a metaphoric meaning that resonates in the play. It is not only a jacket that must be opened, but also a secret that must be uncovered.

“Slavs think the language is really weird,” said Obradović of Lavinian. “They can’t place it, but they recognize that it is Slavic.”

In other words, it was perfect for use in Butcher. Kramer and Obradović recorded themselves reading the lines so the actors could hear the proper pronunciation of the language, and it can be found in written form in the published version of the play, released by Coach House books in time for the premiere.

Kramer and Obradović were invited to attend the premiere in Calgary and were excited to hear Lavinian performed onstage by others.

“One thing we realized,” said Obradović, “is that we are quite creative in our scholarly work but we are also able to use our knowledge in a different, creative way.”