“We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon!”

A strong late entry in the “significant word of 2009″ sweepstakes would be the noun and verb “conlang”. A conlang is any consciously constructed language; familiar examples include “auxlangs” developed in earnest for international use, like Esperanto, but the hot new conlang is the tongue developed for the giant soft-porn Smurfs in James Cameron’s Avatar by business professor and linguist Paul Frommer.

The best-known precursors of the Na’vi language are Marc Okrand’s Klingon language for Star Trek and the various fictional-poetic tongues developed by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a philologist whose fictive universe seems to have been a consuming spiritual vocation that accidentally generated the Lord of the Rings books as side effects. Assigning features of real human languages to the tongues of different imaginary races came naturally to him, and he probably never anticipated that these languages would become objects of passionate study and popular extension. Okrand was hired to add realism to the Trek universe, building on a small vocabulary base devised for thespian purposes by James Doohan, but he probably knew from a start that there might be a nice little sideline in it.

What’s different now is that a conlang like Na’vi is an anticipated feature of big science-fiction projects. People would have been discouraged and hostile if James Cameron hadn’t hired a linguist. Avatar was released three days ago and fans are already pleading with Frommer for the information that will let them learn Na’vi and speak it with fellow fans. For nerds, the complexity built into Na’vi is a feature, not a bug. Like Elvish and Klingon, Frommer’s language has some un-English features, like grammatical infixes, that make it particularly “alien” to English-speaking viewers but that are found often enough in the “wild”, the world of non-constructed human languages, to be convincing.

Indeed, if there is a problem with Na’vi as an pure exercise in exobiology, it is probably the inherent human-ness necessitated by the use of human actors. If we ever do run across sentient creatures ten feet tall, their design is likely to be unrecognizable and surprising. Just for starters—well, there’s an old engineering joke about God’s curious choice to put a sewage system in a recreational area, but surely having our talk-hole be our eat-hole is an even clumsier kludge?

“We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon!”

  1. but surely having our talk-hole be our eat-hole is an even clumsier kludge?

    The sewage system joke is chuckle-worthy, as far as engineering jokes go… but when you think about it, the talk hole/eat hole thing doesn't seem like such a clumsy kludge after all.

    Most of our organs (and orifices) have evolved to perform multiple functions. From an evolutionary perspective, it's probably much more efficient that way.

    • Wouldn't it have been better to speak out of your ears and hear out of your mouth? At least with politicians. That way we might have a chance of decent dialog.

    • Oh i don't know. Why not a an eat-hole combined with an ear-hole? It would have the advantage of one being able to still hear [ although i could see some advantage to being able to stuff food in one hole and liquid in the other...perhaps not, the prospect of binary regurgitation is just too ghastly.] and carry on a conversation without offending mum. Thank god you can't get a knife and fork up your nose

    • Well, maybe I should have put it this way: having our breath-hole be our eat-hole isn't ideal. Though it would be less of a problem if we didn't enjoy hot dogs so much.

  2. If we ever do run across sentient creatures ten feet tall, their design is likely to be unrecognizable and surprising

    Yes, that was the silliest thing about Start Trek, the way they would need to create a new alien life form from the other side of the universe, and the aliens would look like humans but with a funny looking forehead.

    I find it surprising, that with the thousands of languages on earth, so many of them unique, that people are fascinated by the ones appearing on screen.

    As for the talk hole being the eat hole… note that the talk hole is also the breath hole, for obvious reasons. However, some creatures have migrated the breath hole to their backs. These same creatures do not use the eat hole as their talk hole. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_song

    I guess you could conclude some mammals have capabiltiies that we don't have, such as the capability to speak while eating.

  3. The first thing I thought of when I saw the word 'conlang' was the natural skepticism engendered when one hears Stephen Harper speak.

    • As opposed to the gobbledygook that came out of Chrétien's and Dion's mouth? I'm still waiting for the translation for those two clowns.

    • Actually the conservatives dont have their own language. They have merely adopted "newspeak" as it serves their capacities and style perfectly.

  4. I would also point out that any civilization capable of interstellar travel probably doesn't need to rely on some sort of extraterrestrial MacGuffin ("unobtainium") to meet its energy needs.

    • Shut up and bring me some energon cubes

    • They didn't actually say it was to meet energy needs…Who knows, maybe it is used for some futuristic recreational drug.

    • Any civilization capable of interstellar travel is capable of dropping metal darts from orbit on its primitive enemies, wiping them out with no possibility of resistance or counterattack.

  5. tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a', Colby?

  6. Man, people aren't that proactive anymore. If one knows enough linguistics to acquire an invented alien language*, one knows enough to begin creating one's own. Of course I suppose that limits its utility somewhat, heh heh heh. Anyway, enough waiting for the Chief High Linguist to disclose the mysteries of the Na'vi Primer. Tolkien reported that, in WWI, he used to run into other young guys who, having had their creative scope narrowed in school to declension & conjugation, were likewise busy creating new languages; though sadly most of those guys must have been killed. Anyway, get out there, creative linguists, and create!

    *in any meaningful way

  7. I had my very own two feet tall little alien doing some conlang… My son Nicholas! who for some reason didn't speak a word of english or spanish but made his own ,until he was almost four years old, it was so funny and the best part is that we all understood what he was trying to say… this is an example of some of his words…
    crayons – guttyguttygos ( I can only imagine you spell it like that!)
    Thomas the train – mimi
    power rangers – daz
    gum – lele
    thank you – ut
    Now he is 12 and would hate me for telling anybody this.
    I miss it!!

  8. Another example: Anthony Burgess came up with a paleolithic language for use in the movie Quest for Fire. (Come to think of it, does “nadsat” from Clockwork Orange also qualify as a conlang?)

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