Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Oel ngati kameie, or “What’s up” in Na’vi
December 18, 2009 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 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.

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