Avatar fans are learning how to speak Na'vi.

Language and how we use it.
March 24 2010 10:51 AM

The New Klingon

Without so much as a dictionary, Avatar fans are learning how to speak Na'vi.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Twenty-four hours after Avatar appeared in theaters, the Web site Language Log was teeming with comments about Na'vi, the alien tongue spoken in the film. The site is always lively, but it was especially so that day because Paul Frommer—who created the language—had shown up to discuss Na'vi syntax and phonetics. His fans were asking questions. How to say "I don't speak Na'vi" or "I love you," for example. An especially ambitious commenter named "Prrton" even posted a lengthy statement in the new language:

"Ngaru ätxäle … oel set futa Hal'liwutta tsayeyktanru ngal peng futa lì'fyati Na'viyä nume nereeiu a ngeyä wotxa lì'utìtäftxurenu sì aylì'uyä sänumeti perängey ayoel. Ayoel nereu a tsa'u ke tsayängun lu txo ayoel pänutìng futa rawketi sayi nìwotx ulte Eywafa ke txayey. Kawkrr!!;-) Eywa ngahu."

Or, in English:

"I now ask you to tell the Hollywood bosses [Hal'liwutta tsayeyktanru] that those of us who want to learn the Na'vi language are waiting (impatiently) for your full grammar and lexicon. We promise to raise a lotta hell if what we want is not forthcoming, and 'by Eywa' we wont stop. Ever!! ;-)"

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Prrton—a California consultant who goes by Britton Watkins in the real world—is clearly a little unusual. But not because he's an Avatar obsessive (there are lots of those). He's unusual in that he formulated a paragraph in Na'vi without a complete grammar or dictionary. And he didn't just stick a few words from the movie into random order or repeat lines that had occurred in the film. He produced an original and grammatically correct statement.

At this point, you might be wondering how that's even possible. But it is, because Frommer developed a complex system of rules that determines the "correct" form for Na'vi sentences. And fans who pay close—very close—attention, can figure out those rules just by listening to the dialogue. They can take the information available and back-engineer the system, like anthropologists jotting down field notes in the jungle. Fans of The Princess and the Frog, which came out the same week as Avatar, could not do the same with the made-up language spoken by the frog-prince, who hails from the imaginary kingdom of Maldonia. He utters a few vaguely "European"-sounding phrases, but there is no system behind them. Aspiring Maldonian princesses can exclaim "Ashidanza!" when they think something is "cool," but they can't produce never-before-uttered Maldonian sentences.

Aspiring Pandorans, however, can introduce themselves, give opinions, make requests, and even write poems in Na'vi. This, in fact, is what they are doing at learnnavi.org. The forum there already has 153,000 posts by 4,300 people—aficionados who chat, translate, and encourage novices who have never even studied a foreign language. (Yes, there are people who didn't bother learning Spanish in high school but who are eager to learn the invented language spoken on a fictional alien planet.) Na'vi, it would seem, has been taken over by the Na'vi speakers. While waiting on Frommer's full lexicon and grammar, Na'vi enthusiasts have produced their own study guides, word lists, and audio samples. They have posted guidelines for picking a "correct" Na'vi name and compiled warnings about common beginners' errors.

But here's the catch: These budding Na'vi speakers don't want full control over the language. Although it's possible for them to create the language from the ground up using the little information they have, they'd rather Frommer direct them. After Prrton asked the "Hollywood bosses" for a grammar and dictionary, he started a Web petition asking for the same. As of this writing, there are 3,868 signatures.

Prrton and fans like him want a language authority. They want confirmation that what they have figured out so far is correct. They want more vocabulary to work with and a wider range of sentence examples so they can better determine how to use the language. Na'vi is attractive to fans because it's usable in the real world, but it loses its value without a coherent connection to the fictional world of the film. If Na'vi speakers just made up words as needed and settled questions of grammar on their own, they would no longer be speaking the language of Pandora. And that's the whole point: to speak Na'vi, not some other weird language. There is also the danger that a sequel will come along and undo all the decisions they've made in a few lines of dialogue.

For Na'vi, Frommer is the ultimate authority, so the words and sentences that come directly from him are valued the most highly and considered the most trustworthy. A page on the learnnavi wiki offers a complete list of all "official" Frommer-created Na'vi material, including the text of his out-of-office e-mail reply. When it comes to decoding the rules of the language, an offhand comment from Frommer in a radio interview trumps any Avatar product that came from someone else.  

Frommer told me in a phone interview that he is thrilled to see fans taking up his language and impressed with their progress. He also feels a sense of responsibility to this community and has been corresponding by e-mail with the most active members. He would like to put out more information in the form of a Web site, with lessons, sample texts, sound files, and grammar exercises, but he is still waiting for word from Fox on whether they would support such a project. In the meantime, he is not sure what he is allowed to do on his own under the terms of his contract. That's why Prrton and the other petitioners appeal not only to Frommer but also to the "Hollywood bosses" who they assume have some control over what will happen with the language.

On the publicity circuit, James Cameron frequently made proud mention of the fact that he hired a linguist to create a realistic language. (He said he wanted to "out-Klingon Klingon.") His move paid off in that people who notice these things like the result. They've embraced it with gusto, and now they want the rest of it. The most likely explanation for the delay in working out how to release the Na'vi language to the world is not that the Hollywood bosses don't want Frommer to do it but just that they haven't gotten around to thinking about it. But Hal'liwutta tsayeyktanru be warned: The natives are getting restless.

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Arika Okrent holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages.

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