Friday, January 01, 2010


OK, if you haven't seen this movie yet but plan to, you may want to skip down to the Na'vi Language part of this entry, since I do give my thoughts on the movie itself here in this first part.

You can read movie critics galore critiquing this movie, so I will not do much of that here.  But I will graciously offer my opinion overall: the movie is cinematographically (that's a long word!) excellent (especially in 3D), and the dialogue is so so.  And, of course, I found the artificial language created especially for this movie quite interesting, but I'll come back to that below in its own separate entry.

As a linguistic anthropologist whose interests and passion lie in the preservation and documentation of already dormant or moribund languages and cultures, I find the movie wreaking with what has become known as "Noble Savage Syndrome," as exemplified in the words of Alexander Pope in his 1734 Essay on Man:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

The analogy to the nineteenth century US with its European colonization and the abhorrent treatment of indigenous peoples, up to and including forced removal and all-out genocide, is very evident throughout the movie.  The only major difference, of course, is that the movie has a Hollywood happy ending, utterly insulting to any Native Americans watching.  American Indians did not in reality, unfortunately, have any Jake Scully defecting from the genocidal European and Euro-American war machine hellbent on Manifest Destiny to save the day and bring an end to what the movie calls the "Time of Sorrow."  This time of sorrow is short-lived in the movie and soon ends, but, lest we need to remind ourselves, such sorrow never ended for our indigenous peoples who still suffer the multi-generational effects of several centuries of European and Euro-American racism, cruelty, and genocide.

But if you can manage to overlook another obvious Hollywood attempt at assuaging our "white guilt," then the movie is fairly good and entertaining.

Na'vi Language

First Tolkien's Elvish, then Okrand's Klingon, and now Frommer's Na'vi! Perhaps there will be a future for us linguists and linguistic anthropologists in the creation and development of artificial languages for sci-fi movies.  In this latest sci-fi hit, the indigenous peoples of the planet Pandora are given a real (invented) language with real vocabulary and grammar.  Paul Frommer, the USC professor who invented the language, tried to make it sound "alien" yet pronounceable.  Probably the most notable sounds are the ejective p, t, and k, which appear in some Native American languages, including Mayan.  Frommer was not the first linguist to examine Amerindian languages as models for inventing an artificial language.  Okrand, a linguist who got his PhD at UC Berkeley with his dissertation on Mutsun Ohlone (a close cousin of Rumsen), admitted that the Ohlonean languages were the inspiration for some of the sounds and grammatical aspects he put into Klingon.

Click here for a short YouTube report on the Na'vi language.  Perhaps there will be a dictionary and grammar forthcoming?


Bill Chapman said...

I did enjoy the film,and the language contributed to the feeling of authenticity.

I do wish that some of the time, money and energy that has gone into Klingon and the Na'vi language had been invested into Esperanto, a language which which was created for such noble aims and which stands ready for wider use.

Brian Barker said...

Think the choice of the future global language lies between Esperanto and English, rather than an untried project.

As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto.

Your readers may be interested in

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Dave said...

Bill and Brian: As a fellow aficionado of Esperanto myself (jes, mi parolas la internacian lingvon), I can certainly understand your enthusiasm for the language. You might both be interested in a book: "In the Land of Invented Languages" by Arika Okrent, in which she talks about many invented languages, including Esperanto and Klingon, all through history. This is what she has to say about the overall lack of enthusiasm for learning Esperanto: "[natural languages] are the repositories of our very identities. Compared with them, Esperanto is an insult. It asks us to turn away from what makes our languages personal and unique and choose one that is generic and universal. It asks us to give up what distinguishes us from the rest of the world for something that makes everyone in the world the same." (These are her words, remember, not mine. And despite this rather gloomy paragraph, she does give a nice description of the language.) I agree that Esperanto "stands ready for wider use" and, with its crystal clear grammar, would be great even as a tool to learning the fundamentals of language in general and as an intro to foreign language learning in general. Unfortunately, I think Esperanto is too politically charged, too much like a religion (people mention its being a 'movement'), to become a true international language. But Klingon and Na'vi, on the other hand, are just for entertainment and "fun" and have no underlying raison d'etre other than being an intellectual exercise for the linguists creating them and a fun pastime for its learners with no further ambitions. But thanks for the links (I always enjoy telling people about Esp. most of whom have never heard of it) and perhaps the Internet will again fan the flames of interest. (PS: I would not count on English remaining an 'international language' either. Given the current economy and state of affairs of the US, it may only be a matter of time until Mandarin Chinese or Hindi take up this role!)

Bill Chapman said...

Mi estas tre kontenta ke vi parolas Esperanton!

Sadly, Arika Okrent is wrong when she says "It (=Esperanto)asks us to give up what distinguishes us from the rest of the world for something that makes everyone in the world the same." The exact opposite is true. Esperanto speakers have always promoted the learning of other language, and have always favoured retaining "what distinguishes us from the rest of the world". I'm an everyday speaker of Welsh, and I don't see Esperanto as a threat to that.