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 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.)


  1. Na’vi comes to life indeed! A fun phrase coined by professor Frommer a while back is ” ‘Ivong Na’vi,” or “Let Na’vi bloom.”

  2. Maybe if the Welsh or the Navajo painted themselves blue and showed more cleavage….

  3. How is this different from Klingon?
    Not that I speak either.

  4. Sili, very few people aspire to live like Klingons.

  5. mollymooly says

    I am surprised to find there appears to be no Klingon-Navi dictionary yet. Icon Group International has let me down.

  6. John Emerson says

    Molly-m., be patient. Maybe someday a Klingon-Navi pidgin will be creolized.

  7. What do you bet a Na’vi Bible is available before the dictionary. There is already a Klingon Bible, along with a translation tool for Vulcan, Romulan, and Mando’a– scroll down for Roman Catholic-oriented Klingon mediations based on the 23rd Psalm. (No, really. “The paths of righteousness” is “mid-course correction”.)

  8. meditations

  9. (“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”)
    Hmmmmmm…..If some English people move to America and teach some Germans and Irish and and and to speak English, is it still English?
    “Sili, very few people aspire to live like Klingons.”
    Lukas, there are whole clubs of them, and in every state. They ride motorcycles. Do you just stay out of that part of town?

  10. The appeal to authority happened in Klingon too. Thus the “Friends of Maltz” (the Klingon who first taught the Federation the language in the mythos): Klingonists who got to ask the language inventor for a word. (And because Marc Okrand likes to play with semantic mapping, would often get several back in response.)
    I got three words for “cousin”…

  11. John Emerson says

    How many words for snow?

  12. There will definitely be a Na’vi bible out before a dictionary.

  13. Sili, very few people aspire to live like Klingons.

    Somebody obviously haven’t seen the wedding photos.

  14. A few years ago some guy near Portland was hailed into court, so he demanded that all the documents be made available in Klingon in accordance with Oregon’s bilingual accomodation law. All he manage to accomplish was to generate some discussion of that law.

  15. That story fooled me seven years ago.

  16. I will not even pretend to be on topic, but Ben Goldacre just threw out a link to this blog, that I suspect might be of interest to the assembled literati:
    BG linked directly to Hunter S. Thompson. Other names on the frontpage: Huxley, Kerouac, Hemmingway.

  17. Thanks, Sili, that’s a great site. Lots of very interesting letters.

  18. “That story fooled me seven years ago.”
    Oh, yeah; the whole thing was bogus. But enough people believed it long enough to start talkking about the offical language thing again in Oregon.

  19. Brian Barker says

    I like neither na’vi nor klingon as the future global language. Especially when you have to dress up for it 😀
    We also need a future international language. One which is easy to learn, as well !
    And that’s not English! Esperanto? Certainly yes!
    If you have a moment see

  20. Bathrobe in Ulaanbaatar says

    I don’t find it strange that people need an “authority”. The same thing happens when people learn English. The authority they turn to may be not so much grammars and dictionaries as native speakers. It’s fine to go off and create your own English lexicon and rules for everything that’s missing from that single American movie you watched, but it’s not the same as learning more about English from the people who actually use it and speak it.
    The difference in the case of Na’vi is that no one speaks it — it’s all in the mind of one person — so you need to go to that person to find out the full intended scope of the language in all its detail.
    (And yes, I’m back in UB again, for an extended and indefinite period of time).

  21. Forever? DG in UB. This is a gub.

  22. Not forever. Just until the boss decides to send me back to Beijing 🙂

  23. Ulaan Baator looks like a wild and crazy place. I see the Stupa Cafe has a lending library and free Wifi.

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