Saturday, December 26, 2009
Conlangs, on the other hand, are usually developed not specifically for practical usage but rather for fun, for fantasy worlds, for use among a select group, etc. Elvish is one example, Klingon is another. Since auxlangers are generally concerned with practical use there is usually not that much crossover between the two communities - auxlangers are generally more interested in using languages, conlangers with the languages themselves. But the newest conlang, Na'vi, is in an interesting and unique position that combines the two, and here's why.
Reason #1: it's new, and will probably end up with a large user base. Na'vi is completely new, the creator of the language is alive, and given that James Cameron intends to create two sequels to the Avatar movie (which is close to $400 million at the box office so far with no end in sight) it is guaranteed to maintain a level of novelty and popularity for at least the next decade. Klingon is also quite popular but the last Star Trek movie had nothing to do with the Klingon language, and nobody knows whether the next one will either. Klingon is also identified with just one race of many in the Star Trek universe, one that appeals to some more than others. As for Elvish, J.R.R. Tolkien passed away more than three decades ago and it's always more difficult to maintain a language when the creator is no longer with us to answer questions.
Less than a week after the release of the movie Avatar, the Na'vi language group on Facebook is rapidly approaching 500 members and a fairly busy forum for those learning the language has started. There is even a site where every existing bit of Na'vi dialogue has been uploaded (one example here). There is so much interest in the language, in fact, that one wonders if it won't be reverse engineered before its creator is able to publish a complete grammar on the language. At the moment the large group of people intending to learn the language is greedily gobbling up every piece of information they can find on it and are doing their best to learn it with the limited resources available.
Reason #2: almost completely free word order. If you've ever translated to or from two languages with a completely different word order you'll know how annoying it can be compared with languages that resemble each other. Take the following phrase in Japanese for example (it's from this song):
あなたの街では もう雪が降りる頃; 会えないもどかしさが 不安に変わる
Romaji: Anata no machi de wa mou yuki ga oriru koro; aenai modokashisa ga fuan ni kawaru
Okay, let's translate that into English. "Now it's around the time for snow to fall in your town (or in more natural English maybe something like "snow will probably be falling in your town soon"); the frustration of not being able to see (you) turns into anxiety."
(It's a song about two people being apart and the man slowly falling out of love with his girlfriend who still loves him from afar)
Okay, that wasn't too bad. But even easier than this would be a translation into Korean. Watch:
Anata (당신) no (의) machi (마을) de wa (에서) mou (벌써) yuki (눈) ga (이) oriru (올) koro (쯤); aenai (볼 수 없는) modokashisa (짜증) ga (이) fuan (불안) ni (으로) kawaru (바뀐다)
There it is, no need to change the word order whatsoever. This makes a translator's job many times easier.
Back to Na'vi: Na'vi has a near completely free word order. This is something I've never seen attempted in an auxlang before, but I've always wanted to see it in practice given how much time I've spent translating from Korean, Japanese or Turkish (all with SOV word order) to English. If we were in a theoretical future world where Na'vi was spoken as a second language, English speakers could translate documents from English into Na'vi using their preferred word order, and people in Japan could do the same thing using their preferred word order. Wikipedia has a number of good examples of Na'vi grammar. Here's the simplest one:
|Oe-l ||nga-ti ||kam‹ei›e |
|I-erg ||you-acc ||See‹laud› |
- "I See you" (a greeting)
Reason #3: Na'vi will positively influence other constructed languages. What better way to show that people from various linguistic backgrounds can communicate in a neutral second language than watching it happen with Na'vi? Watching dozens and dozens of people learn and use the language will provide a good current example of how this works. If someone criticizes the idea of an auxlang (Esperanto/Ido/etc.) a year or so from now, just show a video of a group of people speaking Na'vi, a language that wasn't even created to be an auxiliary language. And if it works for Na'vi then it certainly works for auxlangs.
Reason #4: Na'vi seems reasonably easy to learn. Though conlangs aren't usually created with ease of learning in mind, it's actually pretty difficult to come up with a language as difficult as most natural languages are. Irregular plurals, weird verbs, messed up orthography, expressions that just don't sound right (you don't tell someone you like that "My desire to see you is very strong" even though it's grammatically correct), and everything else. From what we can tell so far, Na'vi seems to be quite a learnable language.
Reason #5: Na'vi is based on a world orbiting a gas giant in a solar system near ours. Humanity is just on the verge of discovering other Earth-like planets, and Earth-like moons around gas giants in other solar systems will soon follow. Avatar is based on a very real possibility, that of humanity making its way to other parts of the universe and the choices people will make then, and whatever helps us to begin thinking about such issues as soon as possible can only be a good thing. Space exploration is about progress, and a common language for humanity is also about progress, so the two go hand in hand quite well. Whether the language ends up acquiring a few dozen users or a few thousand, each one of them will be using a language that is based on a story that could very easily become reality quite soon.