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?

Cross-posted from Found in Translation