A new language has been born!

Apr 5, 2010 by

The world has seen a birth of a new language recently. Well, maybe… Almost!

I am talking about Na’vi, the language of the aliens in the film Avatar. Of course, as an alien language, Na’vi would not be of much interest for scholars of human languages. Yet, it is because even though it is depicted as an alien language in the film, it has all the trappings of a human language. It is a product of a human mind (that of Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California and a linguistics consultant) and now it is being picked up and further developed by other humans — fans of the film. How is it possible that the fans can take this language and run with it? The reason is that Na’vi was especially designed to emulate human languages. Despite all the alien elements, nothing — I repeat, nothing! — in this language is beyond what is found in some human language or another.

A good example of that is ejectives stop sounds: the /k, t, p/-like sounds with a certain “spat” quality to them. Let’s see what that means. To pronounce a “plain” stop sound (a [p], [t], or [k]), we close the oral articulators, which prevents the air from escaping the mouth for a short moment, and then release abruptly, which lets the air explode out of the mouth. The oral articulators differ depending on whether you are trying to pronounce a [p], a [t] or a [k]: for a [p], it is the lips that are pressed tightly against each other; for a [t], the tip of the tongue is pressed tightly behind the upper teeth; and for a [k], the back portion of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate (or velum). So for a “plain” stop the game plan is “close-and-release”. Their ejective counterparts are pronounced with a simultaneous closure of the glottis (that is, the space between the vocal cords in the larynx), which greatly raises air pressure in the mouth, so that when the oral articulators separate, there is a dramatic burst of air. You can hear ejective sounds pronounced here.

Sounds exotic enough? Well, as it turns out quite a few of the world’s languages have these sorts of consonants. In fact, 92 out of 567 languages in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures have ejectives. This includes the languages of the Caucasus, such as Abkhaz, Georgian and Ingush (more on these languages in the upcoming postings); Athabaskan, Siouan and Salishan languages on North America; Quechua and Aymara (spoken in Bolivia); Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia); Hadza and Sandawe (spoken in Tanzania); Khoisan languages of southern Africa; Itelmen (spoken in Kamchatka).

Not only are the sounds of Na’vi within the bounds of human language variation (or what linguists call “Universal Grammar”), but its syntax — the rules about how words are put together into sentences — are likewise human-like. So much so, that a fan who pays close attention can figure out those rules just by listening to the dialogue, without a grammar or a dictionary. See, for example, the passage produced by one ardent fan.

Although the possibility of picking up Na’vi from mere listening may seen rather surprising, this is just like millions of children world-wide, who figure out the workings of their elders’ language just by listening in. The only difference is that Na’vi has not evolved gradually but has been invented by one man.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first artificial language to take a life of its own. Many fans of the Star Trek learned Klingon, another artificial film language, invented by Marc Okrand. Not to mention Esperanto, constructed by L. L. Zamenhof to be the world’s universal language. We will look at these earlier constructed languages in the next few postings.

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