January 29, 2007

Advances in cinematic xenolinguistics

Are you a fan of alien languages like Klingon but find that they somehow lack verisimilitude? Well, director James Cameron of Titanic fame would like you to know that he's making just the movie for you. In a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, Cameron boasted that his new film project Avatar will represent the gold standard in xenolinguistics:

It's the story of an ex-Marine named Jake who travels to the inhospitable planet of Pandora, where humans can survive only by — buckle up, kids — projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered bodies (a.k.a. "avatars"). Seems earthlings want to colonize Pandora in order to mine a valuable substance Cameron conspicuously dubs Unobtanium. Pandora's population — a fearsome alien race who lives in harmony with nature — isn't too keen on being exploited. Jake falls in love with a native, war ensues, and he must choose a side. Cameron is so committed to creating a fully formed Pandoran culture that he has linguistics professor Paul Frommer devising a new language: "[Paul] told me, 'We're going to out-Klingon Klingon!'"

Cameron offered further details in an online interview with EW:

Is it true you have developed a whole culture and even a whole language for the aliens in this movie?
Absolutely. We have this indigenous population of humanoid beings who are living at a relatively Neolithic level; they hunt with bows and arrows. They live very closely and harmoniously with their environment, but they are also quite threatening to the humans who are trying to colonize and mine and exploit this planet.

How long did it take to brainstorm the language? Did you work with people on that?
There's a guy named Paul Froemer
[sic] who I was lucky enough to encounter a year ago. He's the head of the linguistics department at USC. I talked with a number of linguistics experts, but he was the one who kind of got the challenge. He said, "We're going to beat Klingon! We're going to out-Klingon Klingon! We're going to have a more detailed and well thought out language than Klingon!" He's been working on this for a year. It began by riffing off things in the treatment, but from there, it went to how sentences would be constructed, and what the sound system would be. It would have to be something that was pronounceable by the actors but sounded exotic and not specific to human languages. So he's mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages, and all this together. It sounds great.

For the record, Paul Frommer is director of the Center for Management Communications and associate professor of clinical management communication at USC. (He has a PhD in linguistics and has taught courses in USC's linguistics department, but he certainly doesn't head the department — James Higginbotham is the current chair.) According to his personal page, Frommer's specialties include professional writing and editing, cross-cultural communication, and language development for non-native speakers of English. Whether this background has prepared him for the task of constructing a language to out-Klingon Klingon, only time will tell.

Klingon was devised by Berkeley-trained linguist Marc Okrand, who drew on his research in Native American languages for some of Klingon's more off-beat morphological and phonological features. (See one linguist's description here.) A notable phonetic touch in Klingon is the lateral-release voiceless alveolar affricate, as found in Nahuatl (and at the end of the word Nahuatl itself). Similarly, Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt supposedly mined the Quechua phonetic inventory for the alien sounds of Huttese. The way that Cameron tells it, Frommer has embarked on a similar expedition for "exotic" sounds from the world's languages, "mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages" to forge Pandoran.

It's telling that Cameron describes the resulting tongue as something that is "pronounceable" yet sounds "exotic and not specific to human languages." But if the phonetic elements of Pandoran are all derived from actual languages of the world, then how are they "not specific to human languages"? A charitable reading of Cameron's quote is that the sounds of Pandoran aren't specific to any single human language. Less charitably, one might wonder if Cameron thinks that the far-flung languages contributing to Pandoran don't quite sound "human" to him.

A possible giveaway is that the humanoid Pandorans are described by Cameron as "living at a relatively Neolithic level ... very closely and harmoniously with their environment" but are also "quite threatening" to their colonizers. In other words, they're noble savages. Regardless of the relative level of sophistication that Frommer might impart to Pandoran, I have a sneaking suspicion that this alien language will serve much the same cinematic function as the language of the Skull Islanders in the original King Kong: primitivizing and exoticizing the linguistic "other."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 29, 2007 03:55 PM