The James “Titanic” Cameron blockbuster, Avatar, has just arrived in cinemas and continues the director’s preference for epic stories on a grand scale. If you’ve missed the trailers, the story is about a disabled US marine called Jake Sully who takes on a new alien form in order to be able to infiltrate the alien planet Pandora, populated by the Na’vi.
Unlike many movies set in outer space, the aliens don’t actually speak English. The linguistics expert from the University of Southern California, Professor Paul Frommer, persuaded Cameron that he could create a new language for the Na’vi.
James Cameron's Avatar features the Na'vi race, who speak a newly constructed language.
Prof. Frommer created not only words but a complete grammar system for his new language and of course he had to teach it to the actors playing the Na’vi so they could communicate convincingly.
Some say the language sounds vaguely Polynesian with elements of German and Japanese, whilst Frommer himself says that whilst he still isn’t fluent in this new language, he hopes that it will create its own momentum, just as Klingon has done from the Star Trek canon.
"What do you want?" (That's a Klingon 'hello' translated into English)
Klingon was devised by actor James “Scotty” Doohan for use in the original series, but was later formalised by linguist Mark Okrand and has several thousand fluent speakers.Doohan was a talented voice artist who was famed for his range of accents and voices, although some might argue that his “Scottish” accent perhaps wasn’t the most accurate in his repertoire…..
In Star Trek, the Enterprise’s computer performs instant translation so that Kirk, or Picard, can continue to speak English and receive responses in English, even when conversing with an alien vessel.
This is exactly the concept behind our own Telephone Interpreting service whereby our customers speak in English and our interpreters play the part of the Enterprise’s computer [often at warp speed, although we don’t insist on Star Fleet uniforms], providing instant interpretation.
Still in the world of the movies, but with due deference to great literature, the hugely-successful Lord of The Rings trilogy had Elvish as a key language.
Tolkien himself developed two main dialects of Elvish in the original books; Quenya [High Elvish] and Sindarin [Grey-Elvish].He based the sound of this language on elements of Welsh and Finnish and there’s no doubt that the results were very convincing in the movies.
Perhaps the most famous example of a constructed language is Esperanto. http://www.uea.org/info/angla.html
It was developed in 1887 by L. Zamenhof as a “universal second language” so that all the peoples of the world could communicate successfully.Today, we estimate there are up to two million Esperanto speakers worldwide.
Interestingly, in the first series of Red Dwarf, all the signs on the spaceship are in English and Esperanto, implying that Esperanto will have achieved its aim of being the world’s second language in the future.
However, this weekend I’ll be armed with my 3D glasses and Na’vi phrasebook for two hours of epic drama at my local cinema. Let’s hope Avatar is as good as it sounds, in any language.