Ave Na’vi

By now, most earthlings have at least a passing familiarity with James Cameron’s fantasy–sci-fi film Avatar, and if you’ve seen it you’ll have heard its original language Na’vi, named after the giant blue humanoids who speak it. Na’vi follows a rich tradition of artificially constructed languages — known informally as conlangs — in film history, in sci-fi and fantasy, and in the broader cultural sphere. Klingon and Esperanto are among the best known examples.

Na’vi was created for 20th Century Fox by linguist Paul Frommer. Recently I listened to an interview Frommer gave to the Language Creation Society. The direct mp3 link is here (29 MB, 1 hour 19 minutes), or you can visit this page to stream the audio, read some background, and follow related leads. It’s a wide-ranging discussion about developing Na’vi (especially its phonetics), teaching it to actors, language death, copyright, Na’vi enthusiasts, and more.

Frommer finds himself in an unusual situation. Avatar has affected some viewers enough to start a movement of sorts whose activities include learning Na’vi, becoming Na’vi, and petitioning Frommer for further guidance on how best to use and advance the language. Frommer is sympathetic but contractually constrained. He doesn’t own Na’vi: 20th Century Fox does. Legal tangles and grey areas surround it. In his own words: “I’m in kind of a quandary . . . about how much I can actually put out there.”

Such impediments surely frustrate those who yearn not just to have an authoritative Na’vi dictionary and grammar, but to belong to a Na’vi tribe — or as close as humans can get to forming one:

[T]he parts of the dream [film] that make our minds blossom more than any other are the beautiful Na’vi and the sounds of their voices dancing in our ears. . . . We must be able to speak with the Na’vi properly in their own language in order for all of us to truly appreciate their world.

The quote is from the aforementioned petition. Frommer responded graciously. For more on the Na’vi language, there’s abundant information in this guest post by Paul Frommer at Language Log; in a Q&A at Schott’s Vocab with Frommer and Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages; and on the Na’vi page at Wikipedia.

17 Responses to Ave Na’vi

  1. I think it’s absolutely hilarious that this Utopian language is the property of a major media corporation! “We must be able to speak with the Na’vi properly in their own language in order for all of us to truly appreciate their world.” While paying royalties to 20th Century Fox, no doubt… (I hope that nobody points out to the rather strange person who wrote that petition that the Na’vi aren’t actually real; they are, in fact, an inconsistently conceived and entirely cliched product of a computer-dependent special effects department, created with the sole purpose of extracting money from a paying audience (except perhaps in the mind of James Cameron, who may actually believe the dreck he writes!)) My apologies for ranting, but, as you know, I thought Avatar was bloody awful…

  2. By the by, I do admire the achievement of creating a working language from scratch…

  3. Stan says:

    Doubtful: There’s a sharp irony to the present arrangement, all right. It reminds me of the considerable merchandising opportunities that arose through Fight Club‘s cult success: what to do but have its pseudo-anti-consumerist cake and eat it too?

    I’m sure the petition writer is aware that the Na’vi are purely fictitious; the greater irony may be that idealists often need icons (real or imagined) as much as anyone. I remember your rant about Avatar, but for what it’s worth I don’t think profit was the only reason the film was made.

  4. I suppose I’m very cynical about films like Avatar, which come sodden with the woolly, pseudo-scientific, softheaded idealism which one often finds in both fascism and cult religions (and, re the profit motive, both fascists and cults have never been shy of making a buck out of their followers). To solve problems in the real world, one needs to deal with real-world complexity, not hanker after some contrived, romantic Never-Never-Land, as it seems a lot of Avatar‘s more extreme admirers are wont to do. It may preach a kind of environmental message – being at one with the planet and all that – but if someone need Avatar to tell them this, they really haven’t been paying attention over the last few decades! (And, as Sideshow Bob might say, they should be aware of the irony of something as environmentally wasteful as the film industry lecturing them on saving the planet!) Sorry to get all ranty again, but something about Avatar really bugs me… (Apologies also for using the word ‘ranty’…)

  5. Stan says:

    No apologies necessary, Doubtful — especially not for an imaginative y-suffixation! It’s hard not to be a bit cynical and ranty about Avatar, but the film (and its cultural appeal) fascinate rather than vex me. For all its clichéd artifice, techno-fetishism and feeble ecobabble, it has a big soppy heart — so soppy it’s practically sopping — and it’s a stunning piece of cinematic escapism.

    The paradox — that escapism is arguably part of the problem — doesn’t undermine Avatar‘s message any more than the ultraviolence in Natural Born Killers undermined that film’s. Neither set of politics was coherent, original, or free of hypocrisy in the first place: they hardly earned the right to be taken seriously, but they can be judged as entertainment. Avatar was a poor film by many criteria, but I found it a spectacular experience.

    We should totally watch it together some day.

  6. Claudia says:

    Thank you for your informative post. Do you know what bothers me about the whole thing? It’s that we have people on Earth, real people, who have exciting cultures and languages, and many are disappearing because nobody care enough to learn how it came about, how it’s working. No grammar has been written. Nobody is taping the old people in the original language, their stories of the past, and translating them.

    I find fiction beings, their geography and languages interesting. My son writes Science Fiction.He’s created different universes. For him, it’s as real as my daily life in Toronto.

    But I consider the loss of parts of our humanity a tragedy. Having lived with the Inuits and the Crees, I still marvel at the richness of what I experienced in their company. Far more important than any invented history. I’m glad that, in the last few years, some people have made an effort to save their cultural heritage. But every year, somewhere, on our planet, a few human languages disappear, and also the past hundred-year-stories of some aboriginal people. I wish I could convey my feelings in a better way.

  7. Tim says:

    I thought that the Avatar film was pretty good. I’m a big technology geek, so it was great to see so many amazing effects. :)

    As for pseudo-languages, you forgot to mention Elvish, as Tolkien constructed and developed that to quite a large extent — and the LotR trilogy was very successful and contained a fair amount of spoken Elvish.

    Then there is Goa’uld from the Stargate universe. There are dictionaries floating around out there, but the language itself is not nearly as developed as Star Trek’s Klingon.

    I’ve considered emulating my own fantasy language for the sake of a novel or series, although just how much would need to be concocted would depend on how many words I decided to selectively use.

    There’s a big difference between a small compilation of vocabulary and a functional language!

    Ps. I’ve been really busy, hence the absence. :)

  8. Stan says:

    Claudia: It’s sad, but seemingly inevitable, that languages die, and that it often happens through cultural assimilation. Despite efforts to catalogue the world’s remaining languages, and a growing awareness among the general public of each one’s unique value, all are destined to fade away — some more quickly than others.

    It’s true not just of minority languages but dominant tongues too: French, English, German, Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, and Arabic will also eventually fall into silence, though they have a better chance of lasting in some form for as long as humans last — but that won’t be forever either.

    Valid parallels can be drawn with the countless biological species whose existence is under threat. Diversity is a sign of health, but loss is implicit in life. And unfortunately, preserving diversity is not a particular talent or priority of our species.

    Tim: The effects were indeed amazing. It’s just a pity more attention wasn’t paid (or permitted to be paid) to the quality of the script! I imagine there’s great pleasure to be had in inventing one’s own language. A great deal of effort and hard work, too, but the Internet offers a vibrant and helpful conlang community. Klingon in particular seems to be thriving in its niche, and can even boast a translation of Hamlet. (I didn’t forget to mention Elvish: I just didn’t mention it.) I’m glad to hear you’re busy — it’s usually a good sign!

  9. Sean Jeating says:

    Far – I think – from being a nihilist: Once again, I am with Thoreau.
    I’ve heard about, read about ‘Avatar’; it might be nice/entertaining, even touching a film to watch, but I do just not care. I might once watch it, though, on TV.
    It’s interesting, anyway, that while languages are dying new ones would be created, artificially, isn’t it?

  10. Claudia says:

    @Stan and D.E.- My son had read your opinions on D.E.’s post. After he went to see the movie, I asked him, “How is it?” He answered, “It’s not that good!” I asked, “Is is bad?” He answered, “It’s not that bad!” Hahahaha! I couldn’t get anything else… I’m still laughing. To have British sons has been the martyrdom of this loquacious,opiniated French mother. I’m not offering him this post. It’s not that he is not interested. He would read everything with much attention. It’s simply that he allows everyone to have (what he calls) a valid opinion and he very seldom offers his. I’ll see that movie myself and give you a 500-word-report, the definitive, final evaluation of Avatar by the Prévost-Gamble expert movie critic. Vous ne perdez rien pour attendre….

  11. Stan says:

    Sean: Your indifference is understandable. Sometimes the more hype a film receives, the less inclined I am to watch it. But Avatar appealed for several reasons, and rewarded a trip to the big screen. It is interesting that we should be creating new languages at the same time that existing ones are dying faster than ever. Again, the biological comparison is inevitable: witness the growing buzz about “synthetic biology” while natural ecosystems continue to dwindle.

    Claudia: Your story reminded me of this comic, though I’m sure your son is more forthcoming than Jeremy! His even-handedness is to his credit, even if his reluctance to elaborate is to your frustration. J’attends ta critique d’Avatar avec impatience!

  12. keen101 says:

    Esperanto is an awesome language. They actually have all the announcements in Esperanto in the background of the Gattaca movie!!!

  13. Stan says:

    keen101: Ah yes, I had forgotten about Esperanto’s appearance in Gattaca. Another idea-rich sci-fi film weakened by its reliance on cliché. Esperanto was also used on the store signs in The Great Dictator.

  14. keen101 says:

    Yeah, synthetic biology is fascinating. It’s probably the field i will go into. But, interestingly enough i like the idea of preserving natural ecosystems as much as possible. I grow Indian Corn just for this reason. …Hey, it’s a start…

    …oh, and to comment on the dissipating languages and cultures aspect.. Yeah, it kind of sucks, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it. In 300 years things will be completely different than they are today, and only one “mish-mosh” culture will exist. It makes one wonder what “space culture” will be like, assuming humans ever get that far.

  15. Stan says:

    keen101: Trends towards monocultures are a worry, especially in fundamental areas such as agriculture, but I can’t imagine a single language being spoken by everyone: human cultures are too diverse, divergent, and geographically spread out. I think some people can do some things to preserve struggling languages (I’m overdue a brush-up on my Irish, for example), but it does seem inevitable that the number of living languages will decrease drastically over the next century or two.

  16. […] “the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one”; in this respect it is similar to Na’vi and Tolkien’s languages. She writes that Klingon both flouts and follows known linguistic […]

  17. […] at J.R.R. Tolkien’s “secret vice” of language construction, how Klingon was invented, and the Na’vi language in James Cameron’s film […]

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