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Constructed languages on film

Two weeks ago, linguist/lexicographer Ben Zimmer had a piece in the New York Times Magazine about the use of fictional languages in science fiction films. From that piece I learned that various aliens in Star Wars spoke Quechua, one of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in South America, and Haya, a Bantu language spoken in Tanzania.

Zimmer points out how the state of the art in science fiction languages has changed since the 1970s. The article includes discussion with Marc Okrand, the linguist who created the Klingon language (known to its most devoted fans as tlhIngan Hol) for the Star Trek films.

The news peg for this discussion is the new film Avatar, for which Paul Frommer created the Na’vi language. Although producer James Cameron suggested that Na’vi would “out-Klingon Klingon,” Frommer expresses respect for Okrand’s work. Both Okrand and Frommer appear to have used their knowledge of linguistic typology to give their constructed languages an authentic yet ‘alien’ feel.

Today Frommer has a guest posting on Language Log where, at Zimmer’s invitation, he describes some elements of Na’vi. Due to “contractual obligations” Frommer is only able to offer a sketch of the grammar, but it is a treat for hardcore grammar fans.

4 thoughts on “Constructed languages on film”

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  3. For an earlier consideration of language use in sci-fi movies, see: “Linguists in Hollywood” by Jim Wilce, Anthropology News, Oct. 1999, pp. 9-10. The article summarizes discussion appearing on the LINGANTH listserv from May-June 1999. (Sadly, the online LINGANTH archive only extends back to Nov. 1999.) Hal Schiffman’s quote about how alien languages are designed to “confuse and amuse” (specifically in reference to the Star Wars pseudo-languages) first appeared in that discussion.

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