The wonderful Arika Okrent (see this LH post) has an article in Slate about the craze to learn Na’vi, the alien language used in Avatar (which I briefly reviewed here). She writes about Prrton (real name Britton Watkins), who “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. […] 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.
She goes on to talk about the desire for a language authority (“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 Frommer’s pride in his creation and desire to provide more information; in this wonderful corporate world in which we live, however, this cannot be done until the Hollywood bosses take time out from their shmoozing and backstabbing to give a moment’s thought to the issue, decide whether the potential profit justifies allowing Frommer to publish more on his own—excuse me, I mean of course their—language, and issue a ukase accordingly. (Via Ben Zimmer at Language Log.)