Fìskxawngìri tsap’alute sengi oe - Avatar comes to the big screen
12/17/2009 by: Darleen Hartley
Inhabitants of the Sci-Fi world Pandora in the movie Avatar, speak, as you might expect, a language alien to humans. Its creator, Dr. Paul Frommer, who sports a doctorate in linguistics, calls the language Na’vi. He recorded his creation for the actors to listen to on their iPods in preparation for roles in the film.
He and the actors worked together with dialect coach Carla Meyer. While on the set, Frommer’s role was to help the actors with pronunciation and coach them between takes. If the situation called for new dialog, Frommer had to construct it on the spot. Commissioned by Director James Cameron, the language was designed to be appealingly pleasant to the ear, with a consistent sound system, morphology, orthography, and syntax.
Composer James Horner faced the challenge of integrating the new language into his soundtrack for the movie. Not only did the actors need to learn Na’vi, but the singers had to perfect the pronunciations too. Learning Na’vi for real, and not just by rote, means learning grammar – remember those grammatical diagrams in high school? This is a noun; this is the properly conjugated verb; this is an adjective. During one impromptu situation, Frommer had to come up with two adjectives, "big" and "blue," and one new noun "butt," so the character Jake could explain what had happened to his. All in all, Frommer came up with around 1,000 words for his new language.
No one outside of Avatar is speaking Na’vi yet, but Frommer has hopes that like the guttural Klingon, constructed for Star Trek, the melodious Na’vi might take on a life of its own outside the theater. He describes Klingon, invented by another linguist, Marc Okrand, as the "gold standard for this alien language niche." He commented on the earlier alien language in an NPR interview: "Klingon is an incredible language. It's a difficult language … There's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon. So if Na'vi ever achieved anything close to that I'd be absolutely delighted." Frommer is quite familiar with Klingon, he included an exercise in deciphering it in a linguistics workbook.
In developing Na’vi, Dr. Frommer drew from his knowledge of various languages, including that of the country of Malaysia, Malay. However, he points out that his invention is "very eclectic, so it has a grammatical system which is found in some languages, and it has certain sound elements that are found in other languages, but it does not follow any one particular language." He went into greater explanation of the sounds involved in the speech during an interview with Vanity Fair. He said that he "added a little spice to the language" called ‘ejectives’ that are popping sounds like ‘tx-ooo,’ and ‘tx-aaa’.’’ Ejectives are in several languages, including Native American and African.
Dr. Frommer spent four years piecing his invention together for the movie, and has continued the work for the Avatar video game for Ubisoft. When asked for an example of Na’vi, Frommer provided: "Kaltxì. Ngaru lu fpom srak?" which he translates literally as "Greetings. Do you have a sense of well-being?" or as you and I would say, "Hello, how are you?" Another phrase noted in TIMES Online is my favorite: Fìskxawngìri tsap’alute sengi oe, which they translate as "I apologize for this moron."
Language, 3D graphics, tall blue aliens, and totally cool aircraft all are shaping up to what Cameron hopes will be a blockbuster. Avatar opens December 18, or December 17, if you live on European continent.
James Cameron, Avatar, Klingon, Star Trek, Sci-Fi, Pandora, Na’vi, Paul Frommer, James Horner, Marc Okrand, linguistics, Hamlet, Ubisoft, aliens, 3D, Dolby 3D
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