Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hoping to out-Klingon Klingon

In the run-up to the release of his sci-fi blockbuster Avatar , James Cameron has been proclaiming the richness of the Na'vi language spoken by the film's jungle-planet aliens. As the director has said, he wanted to “out-Klingon Klingon.”

It's a tall order. The Klingon language (or tlhIngan Hol as diehard Trekkies know it) not only raised the bar for Hollywood alien-speak, with its full grammar rules and relatively wide vocabulary. It also spawned The Klingon Dictionary and even translations of Shakespeare. Developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek films (beginning with Star Trek III ) and subsequent TV series, the guttural Klingon was based around many of the most uncommon grammar structures and consonant sounds of real-world languages, to make it sound all the more alien.

The late UCLA linguist Victoria Fromkin is often credited for being one of the first to devise a full dialect for alien characters, with her language for the primates in the original Land of the Lost television series. Film and literature, though, brim with invented languages, from Nadsat in Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange to the Middle Earth languages of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Clips with Avatar 's Na'vi language, developed by California professor Paul Frommer, seem to have the burr and open vowels of a kind of Latin-American Spanish patois, albeit by way of Africa. And as opposed to Klingon, Cameron wanted the language to sound appealing.

Frommer has said he came up with enough vocabulary to allow him to translate certain lines from the script quickly. But sometimes he had to invent new worlds on the spot. Given the language's swinging gait, you can't help hearing hints of real-world tongues, and maybe that's the point – to give the phony language the ring of believability. Guy Dixon