Klingon-speakers, prepare for war. From this weekend, science-fiction aficionados across the globe will have a new make-believe extraterrestrial language to learn and digest, thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar.
With its headache-inducing syntax, violently pronounced “ejectives” and 1,000-word vocabulary, the Na’vi language — created by a Los Angeles university professor — is Hollywood’s first serious attempt to usurp Klingon since the Star Trek villains’ tongue was introduced in 1984.
Not that Paul Frommer, 65, the former linguist hired to create the alien vocabulary — including the names of 50 fictional plant species on the moon of Pandora — sees it quite that way. “I have nothing but tremendous respect for Klingon. It’s the gold standard of extraterrestrial languages,” Professor Frommer told The Times. “But I think Na’vi goes in a very different direction.”
He has been working on Na’vi for about four years, ever since a colleague at the University of Southern California took a call from the production company of James Cameron, the film’s director. When Cameron’s producer explained that he was looking for someone to invent an alien tongue, Professor Frommer was put on the line. “At this age, I never thought I’d find a new career,” said the academic whose day job involves teaching business communication.
“The response has been quite remarkable and totally unexpected. I never thought there’d be this level of interest. But I really don’t think of Na’vi as a competitor to Klingon. If it does develop a following, that would be quite wonderful.”
Cameron, whose 1997 film Titanic took $1.8 billion at the box office, making it the highest-earning film of all time — is not quite as diplomatic as his linguist-in-chief, going so far as to boast that his intention was to “out-Klingon Klingon”.
This will be no mean feat, given that Klingon’s acceptance in popular culture has led to a Klingon iPhone translator, a Klingon Language Institute, of which there are 2,500 members in 50 countries, and a Klingon version of Hamlet.
For students of such memorable Klingon phrases as Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam (“Today is a good day to die”), the emergence of a rival system of alien communication is without doubt a “hargh” (“major confrontation”).
Avatar will be inescapable over coming weeks, thanks to a global promotional budget of $150 million, in addition to its record-breaking $300 million-plus production budget. The 3-D film about a US Marine sent to live on a moon populated by blue humanoid creatures known as the Na’vi had its premiere in London on Thursday and goes on general release next week.
Critics have been taken aback by the attention to detail. Even Star Wars did not feature proper alien languages: the voice of Chewbacca, for example, was a collection of overdubbed animal noises, including that of a black bear at the Happy Hollow Zoo in San José.
Nevertheless, science-fiction languages on the screen date back to the 1970s, when the prominent linguist Victoria Fromkin was hired as a consultant on Land of the Lost.
A decade later, another linguist, Marc Okrand, was taken on by the makers of Star Trek and Klingon began to take shape.
Professor Frommer says that the only rule he had to follow was creating a language that was not beyond the capability of human vocal cords. The film’s actors are no doubt glad of this, although they struggled.
“It was so hard,” Zoe Saldana, who plays the leading Na’vi, said in a recent interview. “All the actors worked together. It was the only way.”
Useful Na’vi phrases
It’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you in Na’vi
Tsun oe ngahu nìNa’vi pivängkxo a fì’u oeru prrte’ lu