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Fictional Languages in Film:The Linguists Behind Na’vi, Sindarin, Klingon and Ulam

Among the ten films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, one prompted a lot of discussion amongst language professionals: James Cameron’s Avatar, which features the fictional language, Na’vi. In honor of the linguistic work in Avatar, Beyond Words has compiled a shortlist of films that feature invented languages, and a brief discussion of the linguistic research behind each one:

Paul Frommer’s Na’vi Language

For the indigenous Na’vi of the planet Pandora, James Cameron wanted to create a “complete and consistent” language that sounded both pleasing and alien, but was learnable by the human actors who would be required to speak it. He created a list of 30 base words that encompassed the “smooth and appealing” sound that he envisioned for the Na’vi language, and then passed that list on to linguist Paul Frommer.

Frommer, in turn, presented Cameron with three distinct phonetic structures: one tonal, one using different vowel lengths, and one using ejectives. The director chose the ejective structure and from there, Frommer created the 1,000-word language. Na’vi incorporates morphology and syntax from many existing languages, such as the infixes of Austronesian and Austroasiatic languages, and the tripartite language system of the Wangkumara people. In a recent interview, Frommer describes his thought process behind the language’s creation.

The hardest part of Na’vi, according to Avatar star Zoe Saldana, wasn’t speaking the language itself, but speaking English with a Na’vi accent. “It would always sound like Queens.”

Those feeling up to the challenge of learning to converse with natives of Pandora can find lessons at Learn Na’vi, or listen to samples of the Na’vi language here.

The Na’vi language may be only a couple of years old, but the languages of Middle Earth have been the subject of study for decades. Author J.R.R. Tolkien started creating languages at the age of thirteen, starting with Nevbosh. For his collection of fantasy novels, he created not only Sindarin and Quenya, the languages of Elves, but also abbreviated lexicons and syntax for the languages of Men, Dwarves, Ents, Ainur, and Orcs.

Tolkien’s Sindarin Language

Sindarin, in particular, is one of Tolkien’s most highly developed languages. It stemmed from his Gnomish language, dating from as far back as 1917 and first published in Parma Eldalamberon #11. Tolkien later referred to Gnomish as “the Elvish language that ultimately became that of the type called Sindarin.” He deliberately chose Welsh-sounding phonetic structures, as he felt that it seemed to “fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers.”

Tolkien’s Elvish languages have inspired academic papers, journals, and even the creation of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an international organization dedicated solely to the study of the invented languages of Middle Earth. To learn Sindarin, check this out.

Marc Okrand’s Klingon

As popular as Sindarin is, it is Klingon that Paul Frommer called the “gold standard” of fictional languages. Klingon was first heard on screen as spoken by James Doohan for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Since then, not unlike Tolkien’s Sindarin, it has taken on a life of its own. Several notable works have been translated into Klingon, including the Bible and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing (according to Chancellor Gorkon, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon”). The language has also inspired three heavy metal bands, one opera, and numerous organizations dedicated to its learning.

Klingon was developed into a fully-fledged language by linguist Marc Okrand. The producers of Star Trek wanted the Klingon language to sound “guttural and harsh”, not unlike the characters themselves. To achieve this, Okrand chose sound combinations not usually found in human languages. For example, Klingon has no velar plosives, but does combine voiceless alveolar plosives and voiced retroflex plosives. Even the punctuation follows its own rules. The apostrophe is a character itself, representing a full glottal stop. You can read various works in their original Klingon here.

Anthony Burgess’ Ulam Language

No list of movie conlangs would be complete without the Ulam language from the movie The Quest for Fire. The Ulam language, spoken by the Neandethal Ulam tribe, was created by none other than Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame. By the time he was approached to create Ulam, Burgess had already created the Nadsat slang for A Clockwork Orange and was a noted polyglot.

Ulam was not the only language used in the film. The language spoken by the more advanced Ivaka people was that of the Cree/Inuit natives of northern Canada. It would seem, however, that the Cree language was not as well researched as the Ulam, as most of the lines spoken by the more advanced tribe in the movie have nothing to do with the plot itself.

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