Tuesday, September 14, 2010

EFL in Na'vi

Well, I finally watched Avatar. Dear gawd that was an awful movie. No one ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of American movie goers. Oh well.

I posted a bit about the creation of the Na'vi language here, but when I watched the movie, there was one glaring linguistic issue that seems to have gone entirely unnoticed: English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Na'vi. According to the story, some of the Na'vi attended a school at some point where they were taught English, so we get to hear them speak not only Na'vi, which everyone loves to talk about, but also English, which everyone missed as an interesting lingo-topic (as far as I can tell).

My point is that they're remarkably good at nuanced English constructions, except when the writers decided they had to throw in an EFL error to make it look more realistic, and they didn't do a good job of thinking about what Na'vi EFL errors might look like. I suspect they did not consult Frommer on this question.

Here's the first English we get to hear from the first two Na'vi characters to speak English on screen, transcribed as faithfully as possible by yours truly, and not including the intervening dialogue of Jake Sully.

  • Don't thank. You don't thank for this. This is sad. Very sad only.
  • All this is your fault. They did not need to die.
  • Your fault. Your fault. You're like a baby. Making noise. Don't know what to do.
  • Why save you?
  • You have a strong heart. No fear. But stupid. Ignorant like a child.
  • Sky people can not learn. They do not see.
  • No one can teach you to see.
  • You're like a baby.
  • You should not be here.
  • No. Go back.
  • Go back.
  • Seeds of the sacred tree. Very pure spirits.
  • Come. Come.
  • My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • That is mother. She is Tsahik. The one who interprets the will of Ewah.

Mo'at (mother of Neytiri)
  • What are you called?
  • Why did you come to us?
  • We have tried to teach other sky people.
  • It is hard to fill a cup which is already full.
  • What are you?
  • It is decided. My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well Jake Sully. Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured.
Based solely on the written form of the speech examples we have above, I think it can be said that these two Na'vi speakers speak pretty good English (they played up accents heavily in the movie to try to disguise this so I want to focus on the written speech). What's most striking is how good they are at some things that non-native speakers, especially those who have had as little exposure to English as presumably the Na'vi must have had given the movie's plot. Now, the sentence structure alone isn't going to be critiqued because, in the context of the dialogue, something like "ignorant like a child" sounded natural and acceptable.

What they're good at that I would have expected them to have problems with:
  • Contractions: They both fluently use you're, don't, and we'll.
  • Quantifiers: all this and no one.
  • Subjectless Imperatives: Go back, Come, Learn well Jake Sully.
  • Degree Modifying Adjectives: Very pure spirits.
  • Progressive Aspect: My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • Multiple Subordinations: Then [we'll see if [your insanity can be cured]]
  • Embedded Modals: Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured. This is a very difficult thing for virtually all EFL students.
  • Hypotheticals: Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured, My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • Use of which: It is hard to fill a cup which is already full. This one confuses even native speakers of English.
  • Dummy it-Subject: It is decided
Nonetheless, even with this impressive fluency, they managed to pepper in some errors. My hunch is that the writers threw these in to make them look like non-native speakers but they spent much less time thinking about the nature of how the Na'vi should speak English than they did about how they should speak Na'vi:

  • Omitted Determiner: That is mother.
  • Adverb Placement: Very sad only (this is the best example of a clear EFL-style error in the passages above, probably in the whole movie. Yeah, adverbs are tough.)
  • Awkward Construction Choice: What are you called? This is first day English class: Q: What is you name? A. My name is Bruno.
Some constructions are ambiguous:
  • Copula: It is decided. This is a semantically difficult stative copula where the state is expressed by a past-tense verb (i.e., it is in the state of having been decided) which is acceptable in English, but is likely to be used only by highly fluent speakers. If this is an erroneous form of It has been decided, did some part of Na'vi grammar cause such an error?
  • Failed Contractions: They did not need to die, Sky people can not learnYou should not be here. While I lauded their fluent use of contractions above, they're rather inconsistent. Again, it's like the writers wanted to throw in a "can not" here and there just to make it sound less fluent.


Ryan said...

I think it's not necessarily fair to call "That is mother" an error. To me at least, if one were to write it, "That is Mother," it's perfectly acceptable. It all depends on whether Mother's a simple noun or more of a title.

Chris said...

Ryan, yeah I thought about that. It's ambiguous. It could go either way.

James said...

It's sad how infrequently writers ever make the attempt to convey the strangeness of hypothetical alien languages. StarTrek-TNG did that several times, in minor and major ways, with both good and bad results. One episode (Nemesis) that still sticks with me has an alien fighter saying "If we greet the nemesis in the trunks, you'll fire like the rest. As long as you're with us, you do my tellings. Fathom?" It really sounded like the Universal Translator was working hard to directly render the alien idiom.

And a favorite of many, of course, is "Darmok", where the aliens have have an incredibly peculiar grasp of pragmatics. Even if you didn't buy into it, at least the writers gave it a shot, and waded into some deep waters.

Chris said...

james, yeah, I'm sure it's difficult and I respect any writer who gives it the old college try.

michael- said...

I wonder how much of your dislike for the movie is due to your snobbish take on its dialogue, or your subconscious recognition that the critique at the heart of the film is aimed directly at people like you (war profiteers and technocrats) - with the resulting self-hatred and denial.

It was a movie for a general audience (including children), so it was designed to have a simple narrative. Someone so educated should understand this.

You might be good at linguistics and creating tools/programs for the neo-imperial plunder and destruction of other people, but you are a terrible film critic.

Chris said...

Michael, I welcome dissent and coherent debate. My dislike of the movie had little if anything to do with the EFL dialog. It happened to be the focus of this blog post simply because it was linguistically interesting, not because it was the heart of my reaction to the film.

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