Oel ngati kameie, or “What’s up” in Na’vi

by Translation Guy on December 18, 2009
29 comments

Avatar, James Cameron’s latest alien epic (this time the aliens are the good guys), hits the theaters this weekend. And what’s a new blockbuster without a new language? USC Linguistic professor Paul Frommer wrote up a new language from scratch suitable for the 10-foot tall blue humanoids who inhabit a jungle world about to be eminent domained courtesy of the US Marines.

Four years in the making, the vocabulary of the language has grown to about 1000 words from 30 or so Cameron had made up himself. Frommer pulled bits of syntax and grammar inspired by his linguistic knowledge to construct a new language from scratch.

Frommer, in an interview by Jordan Hoffman:

It is virtually impossible to say you’ve created something that is wholly unique, in the sense that no other language on Earth doesn’t do it this way. I mean, there are roughly 3000 languages in the world. What I can guarantee is that the particular combination’s of elements in Na’vi is unique. It has a grammatical property here and you may say “that is reminiscent of Persian” or “this sounds Indonesian,” but the particular combination of elements, of sounds and of word-building rules, and rules of putting words into phrases, that is unique.”

So as constructed languages go, is it going to beat out Klingon, or maybe even Esperanto? Or will it encourage artificial language multilingualism? You can imagine a Trekkie at some SciFi convention putting the moves on some blue cosplay gal tricked out to look ten feet tall and blue. Experience in language acquisition may pay off when he can drop a few choice lines, like “I understand your soul….” which is the literal meaning of the “traditional” Na’vi greeting, which shows I guess that even though they ride dinosaur and walk around without shirts, they are still a sensitive bunch.

Here’s a link to Paul Frommer speaking Na’vi on NPR.

So,  this language may have legs. Cameron ordered it up to advance his story, and/or his political or personal agenda, or whatever. Now, having bought his own language, he has the potential to magnify his legacy in countless, inestimable ways. The language has the potential to reach far beyond his film work, a language promoted by the monster publicity machine that adds value to the franchise.

Usually new languages are a collaborative effort. Klingon, invented by Marc Okrand, has certainly become a collaboration among fans. Malay and Swahili were trade languages, a collaborative effort by the creators to find an easy way to make a buck.

Now in the virtual age, one Hollywood big-shot can pitch a world that will never exist but in pixels and mind share. As a promotions and marketing tie-in, he creates a new language.  The budget must have been insignificant compared to the total spend.

And now there is a new language, Na’vi, soon to be spoken by thousands. A recreational language, a consumer’s language, a language spoken solely for pleasure. All at the command of James Cameron. But if it does catch on, and evolves in the linguistic collaboration of thousands of speakers, will it still embody his values, (or those of Paul Frommer). What if that were to become an important question?

As virtual worlds consume more of our time and attention, it’s possible to imagine that a play language such as Na’vi could become as important as a real world language like Latin, or English.

Comments in Na’vi are welcome.

29 Comments

  1. fharrysyowe says:

    While this is good news for conlangers, it is unfortunate that someone outside the community got this job while others within the community were not aware of it. The Language Creation Society, a group within the conlanger community, recently facilitated the creation of a language for a television show in development, offering a array of complete languages (grammar done, all needed text, several thousand word vocabularies) in a matter of a couple of months. At present, it appears that all these — and especially the one selected — are comparable in quality to Prof. Frommer’s smaller, still incomplete, offering. This is not to derogate Prof. Frommer’s work, which looks quite good in thre available samples, but to point out that there is a cadre of skilled artisans ready to take on these tasks when the need arises, without calling upon those not already in the field.

  2. Jasper R says:

    There are seven vowels, a ä e i ì o u. Although all the sounds were designed to be pronounceable by the human actors of the film, there are unusual consonant clusters…

  3. Jasper R says:

    Tsun oe nga-hu nì-Na’vi pivängkxo a fì-’u oe-ru prrte’ lu

  4. Brian Barker says:

    And before “Avatar” and “Star Trek” there was Bill Shatner speaking Esperanto, in the horror film called “Incubus”.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F77k6SQX7iQ&feature=related

    As an Esperanto speaker I found it terrifying! His Esperanto pronunciation that is, not the film.

    Your readers may be interested in http://www.lernu.net :)

  5. Nawm! This movie watched was nawm, yes! Thank you thanks for making this movie, it was true good!

  6. Hugh7 says:

    “What’s up?” is a bit casual for “Oel ngati kameie”, isn’t it? Literally “I See [laudatory] you” doen’t it imply a deep spiritual recognition? Please don’t water it down before it’s even got off the ground!

    And the language is right out of Cameron’s hands now. You might say “the aliens are the good guys,” or you might say we are the aliens (they have seen the enemy and he is us).

    I think it was “One Million Years BC” (1966) that had a “language” consisting of perhaps two words – “akita” and “makam” from memory. And before that I think it was Flash Gordon that had the aliens lipsynching to tapes played backwards. I wonder if anyone downloaded the soundtrack and found out what they were saying?

    Good grief fharrysyowe! Looks like you’ll have to unionise!

    • Ken says:

      You found me out, Hugh 7. I hope to see it after Xmas at IMAX. Looks like I got nailed on a translation error due to lack of research. How do you say, “I’ll do better next time” in na’vi (with feeling)?

  7. JustinCase says:

    Hugh7, I agree…seems Ken may not have seen the movie…

  8. Jon says:

    is there a website to start learning it?

  9. rye pocknell says:

    Oel ngati kameie means i see you

  10. Jose Swinard says:

    This post seems to have recieved quite a lot of buzz around the net and many of the social networking sites. Seems you hit the nail on the topical head with this one Ken. Great read – thanks!

  11. Coda says:

    Kaltxi, ma frapo. Ponguya Na’viya plltxeyuri http://www.learnnavi.org . Nerume ke lehaseya li’fya niftue ke lu, sla ayoeya ni’ul tslam fratrr. Txo nga new, za’u ulte ayoe tsive’a. Eywa ngahu.

    Hello, everyone. There is a community of Na’vi speakers at http://www.learnnavi.org. It isn’t easy learning an incomplete language, but we understand more every day. If you’d like, come by and see us. May Eywa be with you.

  12. Vey cool website Coda, very active forums as well!

  13. Amber C. says:

    Hey, so I was wondering if anyone here coud translate this for me.

    Oel new ne nìm mì ngayä menari, ulte peng, “Oel ngati Kameie, tutee ta oeyä ayunil.”

  14. Jena says:

    heeeyyy.. I need some help… what’s the word that the Na’vi’s use for : Make the connection in the moviee??? plsss I need to know
    Thanksssssssss

  15. Morten says:

    WTF?!? Fail website. “Oel ngati kameie” means “I see you”, not “What’s up?!?”.

    • Ken says:

      “I see you” is so literal, Morten. And besides, in Na’vi it means “see,” which is more than just see, if you know what I mean, kind of like “know” in the Bible. So I went for the feeling, in the biblical sense.

      But you’ve shaken my confidence. I dispair that insensitive earthlings like me are ever going to really master the nuance of James Cameron’s fantasy language. Maybe, as the creator, Jim alone is the only one who really understands, and by that I mean “understands.” All I can tell you now is that Jim is not returning my calls

  16. ibin says:

    you mean tsaheylu?

  17. James says:

    Tsahaylu (bond) I’m loosely studying the language with what little free time I have.

  18. Ken says:

    Great discussion everyone! For those of you who can’t get enough Na’vi, I’ve created a new post called “Na’vi is for Geeks”. Check it out.

  19. Marc says:

    i really want to speak Na’vi fluently but i guess it will take a while until i can so i’ll have to keep going…

  20. Kelsey28 says:

    That DOES NOT mean Whats up!!!!!!?????? Are you serious? Its deep and spirtual..As soon as i just read the headline i didnt want to read anything else because that just tells me you have no idea what you are talking about..!

    • Ken says:

      Kelsey, I meant “What’s Up” with feeling And I mean deep feelings, like when I buy my donut from the donut wagon every morning. Now that’s a spiritual exercise. I look deep into the donut guy’s eyes, he looks back, and then makes my coffee just the way I like it. Wow, huh? Everyday, like clockwork. It is a beautiful way to start the day.

  21. Fiyre says:

    😛 i was lookin for that

  22. HELP says:

    heyy i need some one to help me translate a sentence from na’vi to english, french or german. the sentence is this : Fi’u tiyawn lu srak? Oel tiyawnit ‘efu ma oeyä eylan.
    I do’t know what it means and my friend, who wrote this sentence, doesnt want to tell me what it means XD thansk for you help

  23. mike says:

    Oel ngati kameie actually means I see you lol

  24. Anonymous says:

    ummmm, HELP, the best I can get is
    ‘love this thing? I feel love for you my friend’

  25. sly says:

    pls translate :-

    oe pivlltxe san nga lu snumìna nìtxan, ma muntxatan sìk, slä oe ke omum txo nga new tsakem sivi

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