Monday, November 23, 2009

Science fictional languages just jumped the shark

The upcoming film "Avatar" is going to have an alien language even more geeky than Klingon:
The Na'vi language in Avatar isn't just a collection of pretty sounds. It's an actual language, constructed by a USC linguistics professor, complete with its own grammar and syntax. He talks language creation, and explains how Na'vi compares with Klingon.

As part of his worldbuilding for Avatar, James Cameron sought to create an actual language for the Na'vi to speak on screen. So he tapped Paul Frommer, a Hollywood linguistic consultant and a professor of clinical management at the University of California's Marshall School of Business. Cameron has a few dozen Na'vi words including characters' names, and he looked to Frommer to build a language that was melodious and exotic, but still pronounceable by human actors.
Let's step back and make a reality check about this. "Avatar" is a film that is so child-oriented that it's going to market toys on a Lucas-like scale, yet its producers expect it to be so intellectually stimulating that hipster geeks across the world will jump at the chance of speaking "Na'vi" at their "Avatar" conventions.

This makes no sense to me. Look, George Lucas may have a ego the size of a small planet, but even he didn't believe that children everywhere would become so enamored with the ridiculously cute Jar Jar Binks that they would rush en masse to bookstores to buy Gungan-to-English dictionaries. "Avatar" is essentially a remake of "Dances with Wolves", except with space elves instead of Native Americans; I don't hear about a lot of people learning Lakota just so they can chit-chat with Kevin Costner at "Dances with Wolves" conventions.

In reality, this is all about the money. James Cameron had a limitless budget to make "Avatar", which means that everything in "Avatar" has to be bigger and better than anything that came before. If "Star Trek" took 15+ years to reach the point where a handful of Klingon speakers are now running around, then "Avatar" is going to have a language that's even better than Klingon and have people speaking it fluenty by the week after release.


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