What impressed me most about the blockbuster movie Avatar is, surprisingly, not the amazing 3D animation, which nevertheless blew my mind as it did everyone else. After a while though, my eyes got used to the 3D effect; the novelty didn’t last long. It was not even the utterly patronizing storyline featuring a White Messiah coming from an advanced civilization to save a tribe of nature-oriented locals by undergoing a change and becoming one of them. How could that have impressed anyone? The storyline was predictable after a while as just another typical action movie with love thrown in, except with the twist of a White Messiah which we have seen in a few other movies like “A Man Called Horse,” (which is said to have started the pattern), and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” What about “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai”, “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”?

No, what I was most impressed with was the Na’vi language of the movie, which I’ve now discovered was totally made up. Now that’s creativity. Of course, from the time I saw the movie last week, I knew that I was watching a totally made up language, and this is not a slight on the movie but common sense. It would be foolhardy to expect a White director to put a real world language in the mouth of a made up tribe of “primitive” aliens, especially in the age of political correctness. But I wasn’t reallysure until I confirmed today on Wikipedia. Here’s what it had to say:

From January to April 2006, Cameron worked on the script and developed a culture for the Na’vi. Their language was created by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist at USC. The Na’vi language has a vocabulary of about 1000 words, with some 30 added by Cameron. The tongue’s phonemes include ejective consonants (such as the “kx” in “skxawng”) that are found in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, and the initial “ng” that Cameron may have taken from New Zealand Māori.

As a linguist, this fact tickled me to no end, and it should tickle you too. Click on the Na’vi language link on Wikipedia to see the form and phonology of the Na’vi language, developed solely for a movie. This is how to make a movie. This is one of the qualities of great artworks – the attention to detail, and the lengths to which artists go to make their work authentic. All the actors in the movie had to spend quality time learning to speak this totally made-up language, and master its nuances of speech – at least, its accepted speech patterns. The last time I was this impressed with movie language was after seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in which the actors spoke old Aramaic and Latin, two altogether dead languages that are no longer spoken by any group of living people (except the Catholic church, and scientists, for Latin, and a very small group of people, for Aramaic). So this is what makes Avatar great, and not the patronizing earth-saving story of the renegade crippled-White-Marine-who-falls-in-love-with-native sentimental crap. And the movie is darn too long!

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