Thursday, January 07, 2010

From Klingon to Na'avi - the progress of xenolinguistics

Among 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. To lend extra authenticity to the Na’vi — the tall, blue-skinned, vaguely feline humanoids living on the distant world of Pandora — Avatar director James Cameron enlisted the help of a linguist to construct a full-fledged language, with its own peculiar phonetics, lexicon and syntax. From the mind of Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California, was born a language, with mellifluous vowel clusters, popping ejectives and a grammatical system elaborate enough to make a polyglot blush.

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. It is now a full linguistic system of 1000+ words.

Last month, New York Times published an article about xenolinguistics, saying that "among discerning science-fiction movie fans expectations are more sophisticated now when it comes to alien tongues," hence the need for such linguistic geeks and nerds as Marc Okrand (the creator of Klingon) and Paul Frommer.

Arika Okrent details how the rise of Klingon has spawned a passionate subculture of fans versed in the Klingon language - from operas to Eminem raps. Cameron is noted to say that Na'avi will outrun Klingon: there is already a corpus of the language on YouTube.

And oh, since I love swearwords in all languages - skxawngs (pronunced, to my humonoid ears, as "skaaun") means "moron"!

Below is a videoclip about the Na'avi language.

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