The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Avatar, Na’vi, and the Invented Language Phenomenon

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I took the title for this blog from the negative response (theorized by this guy) that audiences have to humanoids and robots when they’re rendered too humanlike. There has been a debate on whether this effect is in play among the goliath blue cat people in James Cameron’s latest romp–so of course, in gratitude, I’m obliged to discuss the movie in depth.

Which I will. Avatar is visually stunning. The detail of all the flora and fauna on Pandora is an incredible achievement. The Na’vi humanoids did feel a bit uncanny in the trailers, but I got used to them in time for the film. Avatar‘s moral message is painfully unsubtle, but that doesn’t take away from the splendor of the microcosm Cameron has created.

About the Na’vi race and the film’s take on natural and social sciences, more later. What concerns me here is another element of the film that is also a completely made-up world in itself: the Na’vi language.

It seems quite routine now for the world’s linguists to remind us periodically how much we take English for granted. Thousands of languages, many of them endangered, feature grammatical complexities that would drive a native English speaker to madness. As reported by The Economist, (hat tip to Eric Barker), the Berik language of New Guinea has verbs that require seemingly unimportant details:

Verbs have endings, often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened; telbener means “[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects, an ending will tell their size: kitobana means “gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena means “to place a large object in a low place nearby”.

Then there’s Tuyuca, spoken by less than a thousand people in the Eastern Amazon. Tuyuca, for one, recognizes pronoun clusivity; that is, it has separate words for “we, including you” and “we, not including you.” It also has more than fifty noun genders (whereas German has three, Spanish two, and English one). And then there are the verb endings that convey how the speaker obtained the information: “Diga ape-wi means that ‘the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)’, while diga ape-hiyi means ‘the boy played soccer (I assume)’.” There are numerous other examples of these intricate rules found in other languages.

And so along comes Avatar. Paul Frommer, who has a doctorate in linguistics, created the Na’vi language for the film. When spoken, Na’vi becomes a fully realized wilderness. The guttural consonants and the gliding vowels create a strange honey to the ears, independent of whatever their immediate meaning may be. But aside from the aural effect, Na’vi contains a long list of grammar rules that just might give Tuyuca a run for its money. Here’s but one example: verbs in Na’vi have infixes–think prefixes or suffixes, except that they go inside the word. Infixes in Na’vi indicate tense, mood, and the attitude the speaker has towards the action. “Taron” means “to hunt,” while “t-ìrm-ar-eo-in” means, more or less, “I was just enjoying myself hunting,” and “t-ay-ar-äng-on” roughly means, “I am going to hunt but I’m not looking forward to it.” (The closest we get to infixes in English would be in pronouncements like “unbefuckinglievable.”)

Sigh. The wonders of Wikipedia. The movie has been in theaters for only three weeks and already the Wikipedia entry on Na’vi is longer than the one on Pashto, the language of Afghanistan which is spoken by 30 million people. As in, you know, real, non-CGI-created human beings.

What is it about artificial languages that fascinate people? At least Zamenhof had noble intentions when he devised Esperanto, imagining its ability to encourage greater cultural tolerance. A linguistic artist who devotes himself to many years of language construction will produce a creation that becomes, in its own way, a work of art. But what does it mean that people will devote themselves to learning a made-up language and speak it with their friends instead of learning a living, breathing one that’s just as much an Other, but with real-world applicability? Is it just more “fun” that way? Sure, right now, the prospects of a night on the blue-peopled Pandora (provided you have an oxygen mask) is much more pleasing to the eyes and ears than a night along the Khyber Pass. Still, even as a fan myself of language construction, I wonder. With this film likely to spawn sequels, there’s much more to be learned about this.

For what it’s worth:  Mipa zìsìt lefpom ngaru! (Yep, 2010 is already turning into a hell of a year…)

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Written by cwmote

January 3, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Posted in Film, language

Tagged with , ,

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