How Language Log helped jump-start a subculture

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Arika Okrent, author of the wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages, has a new article on Slate about the burgeoning community of Avatar fans who have become obsessed with the movie's alien language, Na'vi. Before the movie was released, I had gotten to know the creator of the language, Paul Frommer, for a New York Times Magazine column I wrote about Na'vi and other cinematic sci-fi languages. At my request, Paul was then kind enough to write up a Language Log guest post, "Some highlights of Na’vi," just in time for Avatar's opening weekend. As Arika tells it in the Slate piece, that guest post and its comments section played a key role in the emergent subculture of linguistically engaged Na'vi-philes.

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!! ;-)"

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 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.

As further evidence of the ravenous popular interest in Na'vi and other invented languages like Klingon, check out the exhaustive Q&A that Paul and Arika recently conducted on the New York Times blog Schott's Vocab.

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23 Comments »

  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    I suppose it's only a matter of time before a community forms somewhere of people who speak in Klingon of Na'vi—a real community, I mean, as in people who live in the same area and interact face-to-face every day—and they start having kids and speaking the language all the time when the kids are around. If there's enough of a critical mass, they could end up with a bunch of native Klingon speakers.

    For all I know, maybe it's already happened.

    [(bgz) Well, there's the much-reported case of D'Armond Speers, the linguist who taught his son Klingon, but see Arika's debunking of the media accounts in the Schott's Vocab Q&A.]

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Make that "…people who speak in Klingon or Na'vi…"

  3. Spectre-7 said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    Make that "…people who speak in Klingon or Na'vi…"

    I rather liked it the other way. The idea of a group of folks coming together to discuss the relative merits of one constructed language while speaking in another has a certain nerd-charm to it… and it's probably just about the most exclusive subculture I can imagine. :)

  4. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    From the Slate article:

    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….Prrton and fans like him want a language authority….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.

    Robert Hartwell Fiske, eat your heart out.

  5. John Lawler said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Well, this appears to be a good venue to mention that there is now a book about how to do what Paul Frommer did: The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder, available on Amazon for U$10.08, and a remarkably useful book for any conlanger or any linguist to read. [Blurbed by me on the cover, btw]

  6. Richard Littauer said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    It also might be good to mention that there already are many groups that do meet up to speak Na'vi, off of the forum. I've met a few, already. As well, there is a subforum on the http://www.learnnavi.org forum for Klingon speaker's to learn Na'vi, in Klingon. Perhaps a bit ridiculous.

    The guest post really did help. I've used it countless times, as one of the mods on Learn Navi.Org. Thanks for that. And Prrton's early message did pave the way for our direct collaboration with Paul Frommer on his language, such that we now have many questions answered by Frommer himself, as well as many documents which he has looked over and occasionally commented on.

    'Ivong Na'vi. (As Prrton, Frommer, and originally a 12-year old from Galway stated: Let Na'vi bloom!)

  7. Kylopod said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    I suppose it's only a matter of time before a community forms somewhere of people who speak in Klingon of Na'vi

    Successfully forming a community speaking even a reconstructed language is exceedingly difficult–according to a report I did in college in this topic, Hebrew is the only true example of this occurring on a significant scale. To do this with a fictional language is probably even harder.

  8. Julie said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    Here's a question:
    If Universal Grammar and the Language Acquisition Device and all that is something that is inherently, genetically human, would humanity even be able to learn an alien language, or vice versa? There would be absolutely no reason to believe that such a language would be subject to the same rules and constraints, as they would not have the same genes!

  9. J. Goard said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    @Julie:

    Well, if we could, some linguistic nativists would probably straight-facedly argue that we had some extra Na'vi/human parameters somewhere that just had never been flipped that way before. In terms of evolutionary theory, this wouldn't be that much more ridiculous than what some prominent scholars already believe.

  10. be_slayed said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    @ Julie:

    I had a similar thought – see "Nepali, Nez Perce, and Na'vi: On alien-language in Cameron's Avatar, with remarks on etymology and 'Universal Grammar'" [Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇa]

  11. Nick Lamb said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 7:04 am

    Julie, two answers, one optimistic and one pessimistic:

    • The novel "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell concerns a linguist (in the sense of "person who knows many languages" but also in the sense of "language theorist") who is sent on a "first contact" mission. He is able to learn an alien language, but in part this is because the first aliens he meets are traders who have a pre-existing tradition of language learning.

    • The very nature of "aliens" is likely to make us unable to comprehend each other. Even mathematics, which we feel intuitively to be universal, reveals some of our biases. Who cares about the natural numbers for example? Every human child would recognise counting, but aliens might mostly know graph theory, or order theory or goodness knows what. So, our maths professors can talk to their maths professors (if they even study math), but everybody else has nothing to say.

    "Should we be threatened by the aliens? What is their intention? Are those weapons?"
    "I have no idea, but they do have some fascinating conjectures about 2-spheres".

  12. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    @me:"If there's enough of a critical mass, they could end up with a bunch of native Klingon speakers"

    Been there, done that.

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    Juliet O'Brien's play The Letter Writer (recently performed in Wellington, but first written and performed in Paris as L'écrivain publique) includes some dialogue in a fictitious language, supposed to be the language of the fictitious country Morland. It sounded quite convincing to me, and a couple of phrases were intelligible because the words (I can't remember what they were now) were recognizably the same in almost all European languages, but I suspect the rest was just gibberish, not a painfully worked-out invented language like Na'vi.

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    it's something of a tradition in first contact stories that we begin communication with aliens with math–beeping prime numbers to them in unary, etc.

  15. Aaron Davies said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    @simon: sounds like europanto.

  16. John said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

    Kemaweyan, Plumps, Prrton, and Tirea Aean came up with a uniquely Na’vi way of listing and pronouncing the 33 phonemes (distinct sounds) in the language—20 consonants, 7 vowels, 2 “pseudo-vowels” (ll, rr), and 4 diphthongs (aw, ay, ew, ey). printer ink

  17. donne russe said,

    February 23, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Where you can learn Na'vi ?
    Thanks

  18. Tirea Aean said,

    June 5, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    @donne russe at http://www.learnnavi.org of course. ;D (the forum and wiki are good places to start.)

  19. Kris said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 8:46 am

    it's something of a tradition in first contact stories that we begin communication with aliens with math–beeping prime numbers to them in unary, etc.

  20. Alien Chat said,

    December 2, 2012 @ 5:09 am

    Klingon – a hundred ways to say "die"
    Na'vi – a hundred ways to say "you're stood on my hair"

  21. eticaret said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

    Thanks for that. And Prrton's early message did pave the way for our direct collaboration with Paul Frommer on his language, such that we now have many questions answered by Frommer himself,

  22. Koh Phangan Hotels said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    Successfully forming a community speaking even a reconstructed language is exceedingly difficult–according to a report I did in college in this topic, Hebrew is the only true example of this occurring on a significant scale.

  23. mani kandan said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 1:28 am

    it's something of a tradition in first contact stories that we begin communication with aliens with math–beeping prime numbers to them in unary, etc.

    http://www.codenread.com

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