March 11, 2005

Simlish as 21st-century Grammelot?

The things I've read about Grammelot, and the bits of it that I've heard, remind me of Simlish, the fake language used in The Sims and its follow-on games. In case you're not a Sims person, here's a bit of Simlish motherese and some Simlish food enjoyment, just to give you the flavor of this "language".

According to the article on Simlish where I found those samples:

... when The Sims was originally designed Will Wright wanted the language the Sims spoke to be unrecognizable but full of emotion. That way, every player could construct their own story without being confined to a Maxis-written script (to say nothing of the mind-numbing repetition). We experimented with fractured Ukrainian (one of the original The Sims designers was a native speaker), and the Tagalog language of The Philippines. Will even suggested that perhaps we base the sound on Navajo, inspired by the code talkers of WWII. None of those languages allowed us the sound we were looking for – so we opted for complete improvisation, originated and performed by some SF Bay Area professional actors whose specialty was improv; Stephen Kearin and Gerri Lawlor.

So now it is five years since Simlish was born, and the tradition is carried on by an additional nine actors performing all the age range voices: baby, toddler, child, teen, adult and elder. The auditions were held January through May 2003 with over 100 actors from SF and LA trying out. We selected a highly talented cast and quickly got them to work recording many full 8 hour days, recording voice to over a hundred animations a day, resulting in thousands of takes a day.
With such a huge amount of voice data - 40,620 samples at the moment our pre- and post-production processes have been streamlined to get the voice into the game so it can be listened to, assessed and either re-recorded (in rare cases) or hacked (constructed out of similar-sounding files) . Currently there are at least six Maxoids dedicated to getting the sound effects and voice in the game.

And even though I said Simlish is not a language per se, there are some common words that we directed all the actors to perform. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a word that means baby (nooboo), another for pizza (chumcha), and another phrase said during the Dirty Joke interaction that isn’t exactly defined, but just seemed to fit. That one was invented by Liz Mamorsky, our elder female voice.

Near the bottom of this page, there's a link to a video interview with one of the people who does Simlish "voiceovers" (described as "a behind the scenes look at how Simlish is created"). There are now pop songs in Simlish, and Ravi Purushotma thinks that Simlish is a good way to teach foreign languages. Well, really, it's the textual instructions that give the foreign language practice -- but the characters give you feedback in Simlish if you misunderstand and (say) have your character take a shower when what he really needs is lunch.

Here's a recent interview with Will Wright, the creator of The Sims and its sequels and add-ons.

[Update: A sort of Simlish dictionary is available.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 11, 2005 01:35 PM