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On aliens, difference, and the language of Avatar

Written By: daveski on January 5, 2010 14 Comments

avatar_wallpaperAmong other topics, the hit movie Avatar has been getting a lot of attention for the constructed language of the inhabitants of its far-away forested land of Pandora. Called Na’vi (also the name of its speakers), the language is an example of what’s known as “cinematic xenolinguistics” – a language constructed solely for a film, in the manner of the Klingon language of Star Trek fame. Na’vi, for its part, is the result of conceptual work done first by Avatar director James Cameron, and then, substantially, further conceptualization and development into a full linguistic system of 1000+ words by USC professor Paul R. Frommer.

So far, so good: Language Log’s Ben Zimmer, writing near the time of the film’s release for the New York Times Magazine’s column On Language, pointed out that “expectations are more sophisticated now when it comes to alien tongues” than they used to be. This, apparently, is thanks at least in part to “Berkeley-trained linguist” Marc Okrand‘s creation of the Klingon language, and the efforts of the substantial fan community in producing Klingon dictionaries and even an opera in Klingon. Sensing and responding to a potential cult of language in ‘realistic’ science fiction portrayals of humanoid and other ‘alien’ beings (as in Avatar), Frommer and a contingent of dedicated fans seem to be moving at warp drive to try to promote its learning and use: a website dedicated to learning the Na’vi language offers a downloadable “pocket guide” to Na’vi along with dictionaries, fan forums and other resources; a Facebook group boasts 1660 members at the time of writing this post; @LearnNavi on Twitter tells its followers they can now pre-order LearnNavi t-shirts; and of course there’s an extensive Na’vi page on Wikipedia expounding on the pronunciation, grammar, and even orthography of the language (do the Na’vi write?).

If this hasn’t stoked your curiosity to hear and see the Na’vi language being spoken, I’m not sure what would; here’s an in-depth report from ABC News with clips from the movie, an interview and mini-lesson with Frommer, and some comments from the actors of Avatar:

On the surface, the development and promotion of Na’vi all seems as one might have expected, considering the incredible investment of time (five years) and money ($300,000,000+) in making the film, and its need to serve the blockbuster imperative of both entertaining and breaking money-making records. In that sense, it was interesting to me that, according to a recent blog post by Zimmer, director Cameron had insisted to Frommer at the beginning that–in contrast to the movie’s reliance upon spectacular visual effects–the sounds and patterns of Na’vi speech be unmanipulated by technology, and that they be learnable by the the film’s actors. In other words, Na’vi had to sound ‘natural’, creating what Cameron called “an authentic but exotic feel”.

This feel is where I want to start raising questions, if for no other reason than to quell the fidgety feeling I had every time I saw the subtitles for Na’vi speech across the bottom of the screen, accompanying the ejectives (sounds like kx, px and tx that require explosive bursts of breath, as Frommer explains in the video above) and other ‘exotic’ sounds befitting of an ‘alien’ tongue. In contrast to Klingon, the sounds for which are said to be derived heavily from Native American languages, the sounds of Na’vi were designed to be unidentifiable with any particular language, but to evoke many: “Cameron wanted something melodious and musical, something that would sound strange and alien but smooth and appealing,” said Frommer. And, according to Zimmer, he answered the call by “mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages”, drawing up sound palettes from which Cameron was to choose the sound most befitting his aliens.

This might be a good point to ask, considering for the moment only the linguistic representations in Avatar: are the inhabitants of Pandora, the Na’vi, supposed to be considered people? It would be interesting to see if the perceived sophistication of the linguistic ‘system’ used by inhabitants of other planets in other films influences whether they get labeled more often as “humanoids” (like the Klingon) as opposed to “aliens”; Cameron, apparently, (and the titles of most online articles on the topic I’ve surveyed, like the NPR article here and the LA Times article here) seems to be leaning toward the latter. The Language Log’s Ben Zimmer, in his post on the topic from 2007, goes so far as to suggest that Cameron saw the Na’vi people as a sort of noble savage, whose language is “‘pronounceable’ yet sounds ‘exotic and not specific to human languages'”–a manner of linguistic representation that would, in the end, have the effect of “primitivizing and exoticizing the linguistic ‘other.’”

Na’vi, then, is designed to sound “alien” to its English-speaking viewers. Of course, this fact might be all fun and games in space–after all, it’s only a movie, right? But, on my view, it has potentially nefarious consequences for the speakers of Other languages here on earth, the forms of which are in danger of becoming (yet again) nothing more than a palette of exotic colors with which LearnNavi fans worldwide can ‘paint’ the exotic sounds of their own avatars in video games, or themselves endeavor to pronounce in fan conventions, online forums, and other venues.

This might seem like the end of the road for this post–enough critique of what many rightfully see as Frommer’s significant linguistic accomplishment. But it’s so easy when pointing fingers at the development and representational trajectories of the Na’vi language across multiple media contexts, to stop at the same place that most favorable descriptions of Frommer’s work stop: the impression it makes on the ear. In fact, deeper than the discomfort that I felt at hearing the Na’vi othering of earth’s underrepresented languages was the near disbelief I felt at seeing the ease with which Na’vi characters in year 2154–Zoe Saldaña (a bilingual Spanish-English speaker of Dominican descent)’s character of Neytiri in particular–managed to understand and speak the unmistakably 2009 American English of Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington, himself an Australian) and the other cast of swaggering U.S. military characters–a cast that was, as has been amply pointed out in the blogosphere, on Facebook and in Twitterdom, almost exclusively white.

Again, this ready translatability is a common and some might say necessary convention of (at least American) movies these days. But, given Cameron’s goal of depicting a clash not just of different species but of civilizations, and considering the implicit critique of U.S.-style “shock-and-awe” military (and dare I say cultural?) adventurism in the world today, should (and could) Na’vi be so easily, so directly, translatable into English?

In last month’s NPR article, “Do You Speak Na’vi? Giving Voice to ‘Avatar’ Aliens”, Na’vi designer Paul Frommer recounts a memorable incident of having to design language on the movie set on-the-go. At one point, he said,

“Jim Cameron and Sam Worthington came up to me and said, ‘We’ve decided that the character Jake is going to be recounting an incident he had where he was bitten in his big blue butt — so how do you say ‘big blue butt?’ … I had ‘big’ and I had ‘blue,’ but I didn’t have ‘butt.’ “

Putting aside for the moment the question of why in Na’vi culture one would have to describe the generic color of one’s own skin to other Na’vi (aren’t blue butts the norm?), here we can see evidence of what might be called a homogenized and fast-capitalist model of communication, or what Deborah Cameron might term the “communication culture” of global corporations. Indeed, Frommer–a professor on the faculty of the Center for Management Communication at USC’s Marshall School of Business and not, as Cameron had originally thought, the head of the department of Linguistics–is said to have prized “the communication principles of precision and clarity” in fulfilling the linguistic mandate for Avatar. Thus, while the ideal for the form of the Na’vi language was to create something of an icon from exotic, different sounds, the meanings of the lexical units, for convenience’s sake, appear to directly correspond to English: apxa means “big”, ean means “blue”, and…well, you get the picture.

In the end, Avatar’s Na’vi language does appear to succeed in this sense: it is (apparently) a readily learnable linguistic product, being fashioned as we speak for sale and consumption on the hypermediated blockbuster film market. And I would be ready to bestow deserving praise upon Frommer and his followers if Na’vi were, in fact, a t-shirt rather than a language.

But to the extent that Na’vi passes in popular culture and parlance as a language, it seems to perpetuate the myth that it is form that constitutes cultural difference, and not the linguistically encoded and contextually defined differences of concept and worldview that are much harder to learn. The notion that there really is one fundamental code underlying both inter-national and inter-terrestrial communication is attractive but, I think, perhaps more dangerous even than the kind of gun-brandishing bigotry that James Cameron sets out to critique as part of his larger Avatar project. For, as Toni Morrison so eloquently said in her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993, if language is to remain alive it should not–cannot–be held in one’s hand. To convert language into a product is to assure its death, and to guarantee the loss of vitality of its people.

Kind of ironic when you think about the lessons to be learned from the forest of Pandora, don’t you think?

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14 Responses to “On aliens, difference, and the language of Avatar”

  1. Graham Simpson on: 8 January 2010 at 11:54 am

    Why must there necessarily be a difference in the meaning of the words? Some concepts are universal across most cultures within a species… To a single species, with a single visual range… blue is going to be blue for everyone. Likewise, you may find differences in scale between interpretations… but big is big. The two things that would define the meaning of a word are the physical/biological senses and capabilities of a species and it’s culture.

    Take for example tsahaylu – a word that regards the joining of the nervous systems of two Pandoran individuals, not necessarily from the same species. How do you translate that as a word into English? Similarly, in Na’vi the words for describing if something is attractive or not differs as to whether the subject of the sentence is sentient or not. This does not have an analogue in the western languages I can think of on the top of my head. Some languages have many words for “snow” while we have one. Then also note the number of words in the language. The pocket latin dictionary on my desk is larger than a kindle, an inch and a half thick and contains 25000 words and phrases. By contrast, the public Na’vi dictionary is on a little over five hundred.

    The Na’vi species is shown to share much human physiology and demonstrates a culture not unfamiliar to many people, at least generically – and where it doesn’t match up then the language shows semantic differences. I stand by the idea that the native language of any group of individuals that shares physical and cultural similarities with your own group would have a subset of their language that could be directly interchanged with your own language. “Blue” springs to mind…

    Also, just a quick note on your last paragraph, “Terra” generally refers to our planet specifically. This is why many science fiction shows featuring earth will describe it as “Terra” and its inhabitants as “Terrans.” Interplanetary would work better as a word. Likewise in Na’vi, “Eywa” would refer to the global consciousness of Pandora alone, and to translate similar phrases for use on Earth, perhaps we should substitute “Gaia?”

    Megs - Scattered Bits Reply:

    Being an enthusiastic linguistic researcher and conlanger, I would like to address your first point: that blue is always cross-cultural.

    It is not.

    There are whole spectrums of people (I’m thinking of Africa at the moment) where colors are described in different terms than ours. In some languages, there is blue-green, but there is no blue. In some languages, red is a shade of orange, not the other way around. While large language concept correspendence can be expected, the truth is if there is none, then it is not a cultural language. Language is a different way of seeing the world if it is cultural.

  2. Graham Simpson on: 8 January 2010 at 11:58 am

    “Then also note the number of words in the language. The pocket latin dictionary on my desk is larger than a kindle, an inch and a half thick and contains 25000 words and phrases. By contrast, the public Na’vi dictionary is on a little over five hundred.”

    Sorry, it’s cold in here. The point I aimed to make with this is that we have only seen a tiny subset of Na’vi culture and language. (Speaking as if in continuity) Should the language be more completely demonstrated from different perspectives, we may come across many other words that would have no analogue in our own language.

  3. daveski on: 9 January 2010 at 10:46 am

    Graham–Thanks very much for these insights. The point about sentience and attractiveness is pretty interesting. And I acknowledge my own limitations and standpoint: I’m not a Na’vi learner, speaker, scholar, or innovator. Likewise there are many who study formal linguistics who would be in a better place to offer insights about the (semantic etc.) specifics of the language. I find the Language Log to be really insightful for these kinds of questions–do you read that?

    What interests me is the ways in which the phenomenon of filmic representation, learning, and (to some extent) marketing of the Na’vi language in Avatar draw upon our tacit understandings of the other languages spoken by the people of our earth. And how those things then (subtly perhaps) influence our way of thinking about other languages, cultures and people as objects. This is all at a time, too, when linguists like John McWhorter are writing that in 100 years, only 1/10th of the number of languages currently in existence will still be here. (interesting post on io9.com discussing this)

    Na’vi already has more resources, more interest and funds at its disposal, than many of the world’s real languages. I wonder if, in the end, linguistic and cultural diversity is only going to be preserved in places like scifi films…

    Thanks for the point about “terra” too. Perhaps “inter-planetary” would have been a better choice in my post.

  4. Graham Simpson on: 10 January 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I hadn’t heard of the Language log, I’ll check it out.

    As for the prediction that 1/10th of current languages may be here in 100 years… I speak what might be described as a dialect of Middle Egyptian, a language that “died” over two thousand years ago. texts survived, papyrii, stelae, tomb carvings… I have no idea how the language would have sounded, only an interpretation of the words into a vocal pattern. In comparison, Klingon and Na’vi have no complete formal alphabet. They’re written in a variant of the latin alphabet, with IPA to tell us how to pronounce them. If John McWhorter is worried that languages are dying, perhaps he should start writing them down? My Kindle here notwithstanding, books last and are treasured and remembered. If we were to write down the structures and vocabulary of a language, in a hundred years when no-one who speaks it remains alive, an enterprising young linguist could walk into a library, or look at Google’s successor’s successor’s successor – and read the IPA and speak those words with no formal training. The language would survive.

    If anything, I thought the whole plot of Avatar was about how we shouldn’t treat cultures and cultural traditions with anything other than cautious curiosity and respect… Likewise, the “marketing” of the language as such has only occurred in the “Activists Survival Guide” a book which contains some limited and in places incorrect Na’vi terminology. I would suggest that the need for a real language in the movie more reflects on the improved attentiveness and sensitivity of the modern world to these issues… In a cinematic experience such as Avatar, or as a predecessor Star Trek – you could speak gibberish, but if it was done so for any longer than a few seconds in the whole film… people would notice. But use something that previously exists, and you might ruin the whole “capturing” experience. They’re put into place for a logical reason.

    If anything, I worry too about loss of diversity, in the “natural” world, the human genome, cultural differences and linguistics. It’s part of why I choose to study linguistics. But I do believe creating new ideas, cultures and traditions is equally as important if not slightly more so than protecting those past. Without change and evolution, you get stagnation. This is the worst fate.

    So… to answer your final paragraph… I disagree, with both points. Na’vi has about a thousand or two people who are interested in it, if the twitter followers (http://twitter.com/LearnNavi currently) mean anything. Most of the language students I know think it’s ridiculous that I find it so fascinating. I call lack of Joie-de-vivre on their part. I would surmise most of the thousand-or-two people are only briefly interested because of the current infamy and success of the movie, as well as the ease of access of infamation. The community-created documentation of the language is incomplete and high-level, and my expectation of my estimated current two thousand people is that a number of far less than a hundred will ever become truly fluent, or continue practising the language long term. That number is more comparable with the majority of minor languages, although I will accept that there are those where the number is less than five.

    I think the Avatar 3D blu-ray disc I intend to buy on release will be ruined long before my copies of the “Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary” or Faulkner’s “A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian.” Although I hope Simpson’s “Concise Dictionary of Omaticayan Na’vi” doesn’t fare too badly either. 😉

  5. Juliette Wade on: 10 January 2010 at 11:13 pm

    What an interesting discussion! Thanks for pointing it out to me, Dave.

    I want to approach this from two different directions. The first direction is the question of “actual” alien languages. When it comes to the question of what communication with aliens would really be like in the real world, it’s hard for me to imagine that we’d be able to communicate at all much. I don’t think the chances are that great that we’d have such similarity of physiology and perception that communication would evolve in a way we’d find easy to tackle. Even if you’re dealing with a species that resembles us greatly, so that for example they recognized objects as discrete etc., the method of categorization would probably be vastly different. I have a post on this very topic currently up on my blog: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2010/01/alien-languages-how-foreign-would-they.html

    The question of creating alien languages for movies (and stories) is a very different one, because it has everything to do with audience design. I create alien languages regularly for the purposes of use in short stories (I’ve had two appear in Analog magazine). In the story context you don’t really need to create a large vocabulary, just enough to imply a phonology. I end up putting most of my emphasis on the types of alternate-world-situated metaphors an alien would use, along with specific cultural concepts that would cause misunderstandings between this alien and humans. A story can do this because it has to be written predominantly in English and can’t use subtitles!

    Movie languages have to have lots of vocabulary because they’re going to be spoken on screen. I find it interesting that they wanted Na’vi to be pronounceable by human actors; I often base my phonology on the articulatory physiology of the aliens I design, and it’s clear to me that they didn’t want to do serious alterations to human articulatory phonology here. It makes sense. The other thing they would end up doing is looking for a phonological pattern that would give the language a “feel.” I see this “feel” as resembling intertextuality. Certain combinations of sounds will evoke feelings and contexts in our minds – it’s unavoidable, and given that they wanted the language to be human-pronounceable, I don’t see how they could have gone about it without using sounds from existing human languages. Similarly with their choice to use less commonly heard languages; if you want to avoid people having the feeling that they’ve heard this language before, you need to avoid sounds that people find very familiar. I know that there are aspects of the movie’s plot that have been criticized from the point of view of the imperialist vs noble savage model, and I’m sure it’s easy to tangle the two together, but I don’t think we can assume there were imperialist tendencies involved in the choice of language sounds.

  6. Juliette Wade on: 10 January 2010 at 11:31 pm

    Continuing my thoughts above…
    As for the idea of making the language structure very different, and looking for extremely different syntax, semantics etc… It would be possible to try for that, certainly, and if they had it would probably have taken Na’vi further toward the alien and been more “realistic.” I put that in quotes because of my views on how alien real alien languages would actually be. On the other hand, it would have made it harder to translate for the subtitle folks, and it would probably also have made it harder for humans – particularly human English speakers – to pick up and use. Another question of audience design, to my mind. I suppose in some ways it’s a shame that the audience isn’t learning the real unusual languages of the world, but I figure a lot of them haven’t learned a foreign language at all, so if they get into this one, I can’t imagine that’s too bad a thing. Some might become interested in foreign language generally, and the ones who are just playing around probably weren’t going to be headed in that direction anyway. I don’t think it’s bad as a form of basic linguistic consciousness-raising to have a language like this being learned by audiences, and I admire the amount of work that must have gone into Na’vi’s creation.

    One final note: When you’ve got a tricky difference between human language and alien language, particularly one of those marvelous conceptual discrepancies that leads to misunderstandings, it is best (in my book) to make it central to the unfolding of the plot. It seems pretty clear to me that there was no room for that in the way that James Cameron wanted his plot to unfold. So I’m glad they made room for the special concepts like the linking between species just to gesture at the fact that such things are possible.


  7. diana Arya on: 11 January 2010 at 1:33 am

    So, there seems to be some intersecting variables here . . . conlangs necessary according to the amount of time that it is used in a movie/narrative and the amount of attention and sensitivity to such issues. Question–is there a way to operationally compare the “quality” (whatever that would mean) of the Nav’i language with other conlangs like Elvish and Klingon? Have people done this?

  8. Megs - Scattered Bits on: 12 January 2010 at 8:31 am

    There has been huge debate on quality of conlangs and the truth is, that depends on the purpose. His purpose was to make it feel alien. To do that, a different structure perhaps should have been considered as it was, effectively, in Klingon.

  9. daveski on: 12 January 2010 at 11:49 am

    Wow, this is fascinating–feeling very edified myself by this discussion.
    @Diana: the “quality” question seems to ask more about the context in which the language (and the entire artistic work for that matter) is trying to situate itself. What I find so interesting is the frequent remark I’ve seen that audiences these days just ‘won’t stand for’ ‘jibberish’ languages like those spoken in Star Wars by Jabba the Hut, R2D2’s chirps and buzzes, etc. Is one of the real objections to those languages the fact that the characters were totally bilingual in each other’s languages (C3PO spoke English, while R2D2 spoke, well you know; and Chewie spoke Wookie, and how long did it take Han Solo to learn that???)
    @Juliette: On your very last point, perhaps it was the almost complete lack of *misunderstandings* in Avatar’s Na’vi-Enlgish interactions that I viscerally objected to most.

  10. Juliette Wade on: 12 January 2010 at 12:16 pm

    I agree with you, Dave, that the quality of the language really depends on what it’s trying to accomplish. You could get a very different answer about quality depending on whether you wanted the language to be “really alien,” versus “maximally effective for a short story” versus “maximally effective for a movie,” or yet again “able to be adapted into a real method of communication between fans.”

    I actually like the idea that audiences are being a bit more critical of movie languages and want them to be language-like. Maybe the awareness of other languages as languages rather than gibberish is starting to penetrate the population… I could hope so.

    Interesting about the lack of misunderstandings, too. I suspect that’s not so much a flaw in the language as a flaw in the plot of the story, which didn’t leave any room for that eventuality (which we know would certainly happen somehow!). My sense is that the language is cleverly designed to do exactly what the story writers wanted it to do…which leaves it with flaws. Some folks I’ve talked with have remarked that any species that has the ability to do fiber-optic-like synaptic linking with other species is unlikely to have a language as simple as the Na’vi do, and I agree with that. On the other hand, it’s hard to make that kind of complexity work in a movie.

  11. J. Lowe on: 6 March 2010 at 9:59 pm

    I wrote a really long post and now it’s gone because I didn’t fill out my email address the first time around. Grrr.

    Anyways. Now that I’ve finally had a chance to see this film (yes, I know, I’m late) I can comment on this: well-written post, Dave! I had problems in general with the movie’s exoticization of the Other, which felt very similar to the way that the Other generally gets exoticized by America. I was also reminded of Sherry Ortner’s theory of female versus male/nature versus culture. In this case, it was male U.S. military, bringing in all of the evil cultural weapons and technologies versus the Na’vi, represented most strongly by Neytiri, with their deep, biological connection with nature. Truthfully, the Na’vi are who they are as a result of their distinct cultural practices, but in the movie, these distinctions are glossed over in favor of emphasizing the Na’vi’s affinity with nature in stark contrast with the U.S./humans.

    daveski Reply:

    I agree, and thanks for persisting and posting another comment! There must be many gender analyses of Avatar, along with the questions of race, colonialism, indigeneity, and other problematic aspects dealing with power relations between worlds that have collided together. A certain V. Lasmana also pointed me in the way of this article, which I haven’t read yet but plan to tonight: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23726

  12. daveski on: 21 March 2010 at 11:13 am

    Neat article in the New York Review of Books by Daniel Mendelsohn, arguing that lots of critiques of Avatar have overlooked the film’s aesthetic engagement with reality and cyborg fantasies, and the fact that it mirrors most heavily not Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas but the 1939 Wizard of Oz, in all but one important respect: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23726

    Thanks, Viola, for the link!

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