I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that within hours of the release of Avatar, people had decoded the made-up language in it, called Na’vi. It’s amazing that someone could do it so quickly. I’m impressed.
But there’s one niggling thing that is bugging me. It seems to me that Na’vi was just mapped onto English—new sounds for the same concepts. Did Paul Frommer (the creator of Na’vi) simply paste our cultural assumptions (e.g., subjects and objects exist in a container called space, animals and plants can’t “talk” to humans, rocks aren’t conscious) into that language? Or did he incorporate the culture of Pandora into it?
On Pandora, in addition to the obvious new concepts, such as “floating mountains” (more on that later), I didn’t get a sense in the language for what is truly remarkable about that culture, namely, their ability to become one with. (Or am I mistaking conquering and dominating for becoming one with?) For example, that special relationship the Pandorans have with the horse-like animals and pteradactyl-like animals in which they become one through the connection that looks like an organic electrical socket—how is that oneness conveyed in the language, if at all? The subject-object relationship of rider and horse breaks down when they merge. They become one unified being, with one mind and two hearts. Is that expressed in Na’vi, and if so how? Is there a form of “I” that is a “we” or a form of “we” that is “I” or a new type of pronoun altogether?
What I want to read about, but haven’t found anything written yet, is how the language and the culture of Pandora intersect. So far, the people interested in Na’vi seem only interested in the technical aspects like the vocabulary and the grammar. I want to find out what cultural assumptions underlie Na’vi itself and how they are expressed in the language. Because if they can be expressed in Na’vi, then we can surely express them in English, right? The culture of Pandora was grounded in harmony with the natural environment, and I want to get Frommer’s take on whether he built that into the language.
What is Conscious(ness) on Pandora?
The jellyfish-in-air parts of Eywa definitely had a consciousness of their own. How is the attribution of consciousness conveyed when it pertains to nonhumanoids? This might be part of the animacy hierarchy that William Annis asks for in his description of Na’vi.
How do the Pandorans address the living environment, as someones or somethings?
The floating mountains, how is that relationship to gravity expressed while the rest of their world has a more earth-like relationship to gravity? It could just be James Cameron’s “artistic license” in which surrealist imaginings were used essentially for effect. And I love the paradox of it. AND I want to see whether the imagination that went into creating Pandora can help us re-imagine our own world.
Obviously the reason I have these questions is because I am on a quest to build similar types of cultural assumptions about connectedness into our own language (instead of making up a new one). And perhaps all the creative people out there who are working with Na’vi might consider making up a new type of concept or new type of structure for existing languages that will actually make a difference in our world. What is the point of learning Na’vi if it’s just another language like English, French, or Polynesian? Maybe if we think about these types of things for Na’vi, we can also think about them for English (and French and Polynesian and…). Let’s invent something that, as Einstein says, uses a new type of thinking so that we can solve some pretty significant global “problems.”
(Readers of my novel, The One That Is Both (available on Amazon through the “Stuff” page), know that I tried to invent new types of concepts that embody paradox. However, it had none of the systematicity that Na’vi has. I honor the contribution that Paul Frommer has made and hope that there’s more depth and detail to come.