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Na'vi
December 19, 2009 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Paul Frommer explains the Na'vi language he created for Avatar
posted by Dumsnill (51 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
He also talked about it on CBC Radio's show Q. Podcast is here for a short time (Dec. 15th show, probably towards the last third of the show).
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:50 AM on December 19, 2009


Long story short: They just replaced a lot of words with "Smurf"
posted by Sys Rq at 10:53 AM on December 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


I thought the Smurfette character was pretty hawt.

I'm leaving the house now to explore this new interest by purchasing old copies of "Omaha the Cat Dancer."
posted by KokuRyu at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Working title: "The Smurf Locker"

Seriously though, it's a great movie in the action-adventure-popcorn genre. See it in 3D!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:14 AM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just saw Avatar last night (long story short: it was terrific). The language seemed pretty good--I noticed that, it seemed, nouns were always at the end of a phrase, so I suspected they actually did some real work on the grammar.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:23 AM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Needs more meep
posted by found missing at 11:33 AM on December 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


How were you able to notice that, PhoB?

The language log article claims that the grammar allows for lots of word-order flexibility.
posted by kenko at 11:55 AM on December 19, 2009


That was awesome and makes me wish I'd studied linguistics enough to know half of the jargon that was used. Still fascinating, even in only fragmentary understanding.
posted by Scattercat at 11:58 AM on December 19, 2009


Because there were translations under the screen, and pronouns (character names) and nouns (Na'vi terms for different animals, et cetera) were consistently at the end of phrases.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:00 PM on December 19, 2009


The English translations mirrored the syntax of the Na'vi sentences? That's … weird.
posted by kenko at 12:01 PM on December 19, 2009


No, they didn't--that's what I'm saying. Regardless of where the noun/pronouns were in the translation, they were consistently at the end of the spoken sentence. At least from what I noticed--there's not actually a ton of spoke Na'vi in the film.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:02 PM on December 19, 2009


Spoken Na'vi, rather.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:03 PM on December 19, 2009


Oh character names etc. Right, duh.
posted by kenko at 12:04 PM on December 19, 2009


What is it with sci-fi languages and apostrophes?
posted by Anything at 12:34 PM on December 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


What is it with sci-fi languages and apostrophes?

We've been through that before. I still contend that it's an ʻokina.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:43 PM on December 19, 2009


If I'd put that much time into creating a language then found out that Cameron paired it with subtitles made from what looked like a font from a disc he got in the Office Depot checkout line...

I noticed the same thing as as PhoB, for what it's worth. In each sentence there was usually a proper noun that I could listen for, and it seemed to fall in the same place just often enough to hint that there was a grammar underneath, one with consistent rules and just as consistent exceptions to those rules. (And actually, having that noun tend to fall to the end of the sentence is a clever way of showing off your work, now that I think of it...)

I'll admit I was a little loopy on painkillers--"Ian, you tore that ligament like over eight hours ago! Stop being such a baby and come out with us!"--but I thought it was a pretty fascinating exercise in world-building and a great travelogue for the world of Pandora. As a plot? Not so much: It's Smurfahontas Meets Muab'Dib, but that never really distracted me. It has a plot the way those Discovery Channel specials on dinosaurs have plots...personally, I was never really engaged with the story, but I was never bored by it either.

HAVING SAID THAT, when the credits started, everyone in my group just happily shrugged at each other, like: "Well, there was a thing..." but the audience around us burst into affectionate applause, so I guess the plot really did connect for a lot of people.
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:06 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saw it in true IMAX (5 story screen). A thought that I've had since is: I think I've been transported to worlds just as rich and detailed, with even more immersion, in several videogames. It's too bad they're still not a respected medium for expression, even though movies like Avatar can get crazy praise from reviewers like Ebert (who I generally respect) who have an aversion to games as an art form.
posted by rbf1138 at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2009


Ah, it's not a patch on Tho Fan.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2009


Isn't it just a remake of Fern Gully?

I wasn't expecting to like Avatar anywhere near as much as I did. The plot is cliche after cliche, and while I generally share most of the political/ideological attitudes lauded by the film, there's such a thing as too much political push. It felt like I was watching someone play a very, very good CRPG, rather than watching a movie: deus-ex-machina dumped in the jungle, meet guiding NPC, levelling up, themed zones, training missions, faction loyalty grinding, land/air/epic mount, final boss fight. They even call the mined stuff "unobtainium"; a neat in-joke, but I question the wisdom of making it.

And despite whatever sense the linguistics make, if any, the biology makes no sense at all. Hyper-abundant bioluminescence. Several different basic animal body models (the Na'vi should have two extra eyes and extra arms). Why is the Pandoran USB Port in the braided hair of a Na'vi and in the 'antennae' of any other animal, rather than in the perfectly good, attached-to-the-brain, tail?

Also, there are big "tech gaps". To do the thing the base premise of the movie requires they do, they have to have not only fully sequenced human DNA, but Na'vi DNA as well - in which case, why is the function of the Pandoran USB Port such a surprise? Since it gives control over animals, why can't they just politely ask the local ant and badger equivalents to dig up the unobtainium? Why is Jake in a wheelchair? "Expense" is absurd in the context, it's like setting a movie in the present day and having a character become a soldier because he is otherwise too poor to afford a car, or a mobile phone. And that aside, why a wheelchair, rather than a small exosuit?

Do see it; it is very, very beautiful. Just don't expect any part of it to make any real sense.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


aeschenkarnos: "Do see it; it is very, very beautiful. Just don't expect any part of it to make any real sense."

As someone who never leaves the house, I mean it as high praise that it was worth leaving the house for - even factoring in the headache I left with. But then I went expecting nothing more than the most expensive effects reel in history. And I made a conscious decision to ignore the dialogue beyond what was necessary to understand the plot.

Mrs. Beese loved it.

And congratulations to Cameron for taking us from a figuratively to a literally inhuman standard of slenderness for women.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2009


As the world’s languages die, James Cameron invents a tongue for aliens

(Bizarrely moralistic article.)
posted by Dumsnill at 2:57 PM on December 19, 2009


Did you mean this link, Dumsnill?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:59 PM on December 19, 2009


If you haven't seen it yet, keep an eye out for Sam Worthington's atrophied human legs. In some ways, it's the best special effect in the film: subtle, utterly realistic, and serving the movie's plot instead of vice versa.

I thought the Smurfette character was pretty hawt.

You know, Cameron could have avoided a lot of this by just having "smurf" be one of the slang terms for the Na'vi. I mean, if your McGuffin is ACTUALLY CALLED unobtainium and you have soldiers quoting The Wizard Of Oz...

But yeah, Cameron may have avoided the uncanny valley--did he intentionally make the aliens slightly cartoony or was the tech just not there yet?; the difference between the human base and the Na'vi camp is like Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit--but he definitely blasted right past The "Hey, girl, what's up? Come here for a minute..." Valley.
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:59 PM on December 19, 2009


Thundersmurfs, ho!
posted by ...possums at 4:07 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Multicellular Exothermic: "Did you mean this link, Dumsnill?"

Yes, thank you.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:11 PM on December 19, 2009


It's not really clear that the stuff is actually called unobtainium. A guy references the stuff once, but it might just be that the guy was calling it that to emphasize the value of the material. Like, "This stuff is so rare and useful, we're gonna be rich."

Perhaps there's a proper name for the material that the audience never learns.
posted by anifinder at 4:27 PM on December 19, 2009


They used "unobtainium" twice in the movie. One was in the way you said it: "You know what this is? This is UNOBTAINIUM!".

But the other was a very pragmatic engineering description of how they would spoiler spoiler spoiler to get to the unobtainium spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler, and in that sentence, it really sounded like it was the actual name of the material.
posted by qvantamon at 4:40 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't recommend this film enough. I spent a great portion of it fighting back the urge to lift my hand to try to touch the flora and fauna of Pandora.

Let me walk back my recommendation a bit: if all it takes is just a solitary legume on a platter to send you into overthink mode, don't bother. But note that there are Fridge Logic and It Just Bugs Me elements in every single sci-fi/fantasy film, novel, and videogame out there. I found Avatar well worth the price of admission, even with more than a handful of "Well, why didn't they just..." and "How come nobody saw that coming..." moments.

As for the language, IANAL, but it seems like I can still see and hear the "Indo-Europeanness" in many of the fictional languages created by speakers of tongues from that family, even when they throw in glottal stops. But I still enjoyed hearing Na'vi spoken and sung.

(By the way, did I just completely miss even the barest of explanations for what the unobtainium does? I figured energy source, but it seemed like it might have some anti-grav properties)
posted by lord_wolf at 5:27 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not really clear that the stuff is actually called unobtainium. A guy references the stuff once, but it might just be that the guy was calling it that to emphasize the value of the material.

Someone somewhere mentioned that the early script treatments supposedly explains it as joke name that stuck with the public. The material itself is some robust superconductor with all-around excellent properties. But that's mostly irrelevant for the story arc, of course -- the humans in the movie are miners, navi researchers, and mercenaries, not materials scientists. Not sure the material even qualifies as a McGuffin, and Cameron's choice of name underlines that.
posted by effbot at 5:57 PM on December 19, 2009


You know the first movie I saw that used the word Unobtanium? It was The Core.

Avatar could have cost seventy frabrillion dollars to make, but it reused an in joke from The Core. There is nothing it can do to live that fact down.
posted by JHarris at 6:28 PM on December 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know the first movie I saw that used the word Unobtanium? It was The Core.

Seriously? I must have missed that, I don't remember them using that word...looks like I'll have to watch it again.

*thinks*

Or not. Yeah, definitely not.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:49 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Avatar could have cost seventy frabrillion dollars to make, but it reused an in joke from The Core.

It's actually an engineering joke that's been around for decades. I take it you don't work in any established profession, since otherwise you'd known that most of them are full of things like this.

There is nothing it can do to live that fact down.

Your loss.
posted by effbot at 6:56 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Damn, now I really want to see this movie.

Also, can someone send a script treatment of Blish's A Case of Conscience to James Cameron? I think he'd eat it up.
posted by Ritchie at 10:56 PM on December 19, 2009


Why is Jake in a wheelchair?

I thought this too, after all, they have so much other cool tech, why is fixing a damaged spinal cord so hard. The Colonel uses the prospect of giving Jake back the ability to walk as a carrot to try to guarantee his loyalty, but even still, why such a big deal? Perhaps it was supposed to be some kind of symbolic thing about modern humans being constrained within technology.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 11:08 PM on December 19, 2009


I thought this too, after all, they have so much other cool tech, why is fixing a damaged spinal cord so hard.

Couldn't you kind of say the same thing today?
posted by dirigibleman at 11:10 PM on December 19, 2009


Cameron went to all the trouble of commissioning a conlang for the Na'vi...

...but they still war whoop like 1950s TV-serial depictions of Native Americans. That made me sad.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:00 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought this too, after all, they have so much other cool tech, why is fixing a damaged spinal cord so hard.

It's apparently not that it's hard, it's that it's beyond Jake's financial means as a veteran on a disability benefit. He mentions it in the voiceover.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:00 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought this too, after all, they have so much other cool tech, why is fixing a damaged spinal cord so hard.

That's made pretty clear in the movie -- it's not about the difficulty of the fix, it's about the cost of the procedure. Jake can't afford to have it done, or it isn't covered by his insurance, or whatever. The Colonel uses his power to get the government or the VA or whatever to pay for it as leverage.
posted by hippybear at 1:29 AM on December 20, 2009


aeschenkarnos: The bio-luminescence and properties of unobtanium were reasonable given Pandora's location.

Pandora is so close to its Jupiter-like host, that it must be tidally bound to it, that means really long days and nights. Cue the bio-luminescent flora and fauna.

And to keep it geologically stable (unlike Io) it needed a crutch, like anti-grav rock.

I agree with you on the body forms, I cringed when I saw the lemurs. It's odd that some animals would have multiple appendages, while Navis have the usual set. Here only invertebrates still have a diversity of legs.

I figure they had a second or continued Cambrian explosion. They should mutate quite a bit due to the high radiation levels at the edges of the habitable side of their planet (i.e. the edges from where they could see their Jupiter).

It may have made more sense to use their spine / tail instead of (hair covered) antennae as USBs, but if you have antennae why not use them?

But I'm pretty sure the antennae aren't used to control the other animals, they are used to form bonds (minor mind melds). The animals must still choose their riders.

SPOILER. Their networked intelligence is exactly that, a collection of intelligent actors. They do not control the animals against their will, its a symbiotic relationship. Suggestion and response. If you've seen the ending, you know they're all part of the same planet and would not blindly follow orders to evict some of its inhabitants.
posted by ecco at 1:52 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sigourney Weaver's habit. WTF?! There are alternatives now. I'm supposed to believe the alternatives still suck then?
posted by ecco at 1:58 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


That link was almost entirely incomprehensible to me, but it's cool he hired a linguist. I also offer an enthusiastic recommendation, but make sure to see it in IMAX 3D if you can.

From what I'm gathering the "unobtainium" thing was an in joke? That's good to hear, as all of my friends and I were kind of bugged by the name.
posted by Defenestrator at 2:09 AM on December 20, 2009


As mentioned above, unobtainium (wiki link) has been in use for several decades now as an engineering shorthand, and then later in sci-fi.

You could imagine some interstellar explorers coming across Pandora, and finding this amazing new material that they give a proper scientific name. In an interview, a scientist says, "We have this tradition of calling amazing thought-experiment materials 'unobtainium'. Well, here we have the genuine unobtainium! It does everything!" - and then the name sticks.

So no, it's not a ripoff from the Core.
posted by adrianhon at 3:38 AM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


And here I thought this was going to be about Mega Man.

Or Ocarina of Time.

Christ I'm such a nerd.
posted by Target Practice at 4:34 AM on December 20, 2009


effbot: It's actually an engineering joke that's been around for decades. I take it you don't work in any established profession, since otherwise you'd known that most of them are full of things like this.
[...]
Your loss.

Wow, what a weird thing to get defensive about. I didn't even say I wouldn't see Avatar.

I was just saying that The Core sucks, enough so that suckiness extends outward from the movie, tainting everything it touches. Including Unobtainum, Avatar, James Cameron, the engineering profession, and the whole blighted human race.

Some things (like The Core) are difficult to forgive. Some things (The Core) choke off life and laughter, leaving only dull husks in their wake. Some things (The Core) kill everyone exposed to them, a little, inside, the only joy they provide inspired by their absence.
posted by JHarris at 5:04 AM on December 20, 2009


I can't recommend this film enough. I spent a great portion of it fighting back the urge to lift my hand to try to touch the flora and fauna of Pandora.

Let me walk back my recommendation a bit: if all it takes is just a solitary legume on a platter to send you into overthink mode, don't bother. But note that there are Fridge Logic and It Just Bugs Me elements in every single sci-fi/fantasy film, novel, and videogame out there. I found Avatar well worth the price of admission, even with more than a handful of "Well, why didn't they just..." and "How come nobody saw that coming..." moments.


Ditto. I really enjoyed it. My fridge logic moment was different for me than what's already been mentioned. I couldn't believe that the Na'vi kiss (and do it!) like humans. You have an appendage through which you can form a psychic bond with other creatures and that doesn't figure into your mating at all? Weird.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:27 AM on December 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was just saying that The Core sucks,

You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but I found The Core to be great fun, in part because it was aware of its unlikely or impossible elements and so played them with a wink, and in part because the cast was obviously having a blast.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2009


I got the impression that the entire planet had been re-engineered at some point by the Na'Vi or whatever you would call their predecessors. The horses have built in seats on their backs. The Pandora USB that's compatible with all the larger animals and their major plant life. It seems like something you would come up with as a post post industrial society when you can make plants and animals into all the machinery you would need.
posted by TheJoven at 11:06 AM on December 20, 2009


Just saw Avatar last night (long story short: it was terrific). The language seemed pretty good--I noticed that, it seemed, nouns were always at the end of a phrase, so I suspected they actually did some real work on the grammar.
How were you able to notice that, PhoB?

The language log article claims that the grammar allows for lots of word-order flexibility.
Because there were translations under the screen, and pronouns (character names) and nouns (Na'vi terms for different animals, et cetera) were consistently at the end of phrases."


It's common for languages with free word order to organize sentences based on which word or phrase is topical (that's Linguist for "important old information") or focused ("important new information"). There are a few positions that are crosslinguistically common as places to put topical or focused constituents — right at the beginning, right at the end and right before the verb seem to be the big three. Frommer probably knew this when he decided to make Na'vi a free word order language. From what I've seen, he's made it very plausibly human, compared to say Klingon which I gather was meant to be implausible as a natural human language.

Now, it turns out that the easiest parts of a sentence to guess from context are usually the nouns, and especially nouns that are singled out for special emphasis in one of these ways. You can do experiments where people watch video of a conversation with the sound off and have to guess what was said; they do great on focused nouns and some of the topical nouns, okay on other nouns, and terribly on verbs.

In fact the examples of Na'vi that I'm finding online are all verb-final. But it would make sense if it had, say, a sentence-final focus position, and all the examples posted happen to be ones with focus on the verb. If it's true, that would explain why you're having an easy time recognizing final (i.e. focused) nouns, and a harder time recognizing non-final nouns or final verbs.

(Another common pattern is to have a special position where animate nouns go, whether they're subjects or objects or whatever. Navajo's like this, for instance — in "The hunter fired a bullet," the hunter comes first; in "the bullet hit the deer," the deer comes first. If it's human and animal names you're recognizing, it could be Na'vi's got an "animate nouns go last" rule, although I don't know of any natural languages that do it that way. The usual pattern AFAIK is animate first.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:26 AM on December 20, 2009


For what it's worth, I saw Avatar last night and was on the lookout for this, and I did not notice a preponderance of noun-ending clauses.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:25 PM on December 20, 2009


PhoBWanKenobi: I couldn't believe that the Na'vi kiss (and do it!) like humans. You have an appendage through which you can form a psychic bond with other creatures and that doesn't figure into your mating at all? Weird.

Originally that scene did include them bonding with their ponytail-appendages, but it was cut from the movie for some reason. (er .... perhaps the PG-13 rating doesn't allow scenes that portray psychic bonding?). Apparently the full scene will be included on the special edition DVD.
posted by memebake at 6:44 AM on January 1, 2010


We can pick nits with it all evening, but the SF'nal logic is pretty much as good as that in 80% of the SF published in the last 80 years. Which puts it so far ahead of most SF films, it's not even funny. This is bona-fide SF. It will be the most SF'nal film to win the Hugo or Nebula (which it will, both) in many a year. And that against a pretty strong field (Moon and District 9 will almost certainly both get noms).

The language was essentially a requirement if he was going to spend that much money. It's a minor cost in the grand scheme of things, and it adds significantly to the feeling of quality.

(I can't remember who suggested this to me -- it's not an original idea of mine -- but it seems to me that "speculative elements" are much better handled in film when it's an original script than when it's an adaptation.)

Am I the only person who thinks Cameron must have read Blish's Winds of Altair (unbreathable atmosphere, six-legged fauna, psychic control of the natives to control the planet, rebellion by the controllers, etc.)?
posted by lodurr at 11:19 AM on January 2, 2010


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