Seven hundred people gathered at the University of California, San Diego, one day this spring to hear the creators of three fictional languages talk about how linguistics has infiltrated Hollywood, particularly when it comes to building believable make-believe worlds. When it comes to building make-believe worlds, inventing a language makes it seem that much more real to the audience, fueling the willing suspension of disbelief that lies at the heart of entertainment.
“The days of aliens spouting gibberish with no grammatical structure are over,” University of Southern California linguistics professor Paul Frommer told the New York Times in 2011. Frommer invented the Na’Vi language spoken by the tall blue native inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, and was on the San Diego panel, along with David J. Peterson, who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s smash hit series, Game of Thrones, and Mark Okrand, who created the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
People who create new languages as a hobby—a very serious hobby—are called “conlangers.” The oldest and most successful invented language is Esperanto, dating back to 1887. It hasn’t yet ushered in world peace, as it was intended, but between 10,000 and two million people speak Esperanto today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South America, with as many as 1,000 native speakers who learned it from birth. There is also a tradition of inventing languages in the science fiction and fantasy realm. J.R.R. Tolkien invented an Elvish language while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Disney’s John Carter featured an invented Martian language called Barsoomian.
Avatar director James Cameron approached Frommer in 2005 about developing a language for the Na’Vi inhabitants of Pandora, building on the 30 or so words he’d already devised. They “had a vaguely Polynesian feel,” Frommer told me in a recent interview, perhaps because Cameron had been in New Zealand and his ear was attuned to Maori. So Frommer used that as a starting point and drew on his familiarity with various other languages as needed: Chinese, Persian, Gaelic, Malaysian, Indonesian, even the Hebrew he learned as a child.
For instance, Na’Vi doesn’t have the equivalent of the verb “to have.” If you want to say, “I have a book” in Na’Vi, you would say, “There is to me a book.” Frommer borrowed that particular structural element from Hebrew. However, while there may be elements of other languages in Na’Vi, the combination is unique.
Na’Vi now has 2,000 words in its vocabulary; Klingon has 10,000 words, mostly focusing on spacecraft and warfare, so it can be awkward for everyday conversations; most languages have between 40,000 to 50,000 words. (English has as many as half a million, if you take into account rarely used esoteric vocabulary.) “It’s quite extraordinary what you can do with a small vocabulary if you use language in creative ways,” he said. “The question is, does the language serve the needs of the speakers?
Frommer doesn’t know if Na’Vi will ever catch on to the same extent as Esperanto, or even Klingon, which boasts a nonprofit Klingon Language Institute and a translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Frommer maintains a blog where he occasionally posts new words for the Na’Vi speakers. But language is not just about vocabulary; you also need grammatical structure—syntax, morphology, phonology, phonetics—to build a legitimate language. And every language is tied to an environment and a culture. “If something is important to a culture, there will be an efficient way of talking about that thing in the language,” said Frommer. Peterson used a similar reasoning when inventing the Dothraki vocabulary, which now has 10,000 words. The Dothraki have 14 different words for horse, for example, but no word for toilet or cell phone. (He drew the grammatical structure partly from Swahili and Estonian.)
Frommer doesn’t know if Na’Vi will ever catch on to the same extent as Esperanto, or even Klingon, which boasts a nonprofit Klingon Language Institute and a translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Thhtmaa language spoken by the termite aliens in Dark Skies never really caught fire; nor did Disney’s Barsoomian. And Dothraki is still a bit too new, although the enormous popularity of Game of Thrones bodes well for its future.
At the moment, most people who study Na’Vi are better at reading and writing the language, rather than speaking it. But Frommer and others are doing their best to foster more immersive learning environments. “You need comprehensible input” to master a language, according to Frommer, able to both hear the language and comprehend what is being said in the social context. “You need to listen first, hear the language and absorb some of the sounds before trying to speak it.” He is working on developing listening exercises to help with that.
Ultimately, it’s the community that makes it a living language. Some are drawn to Na’Vi because they love the film and the fictional world of Pandora; “They can’t visit Pandora, but they can learn the language,” said Frommer. Others relish the intellectual challenge of learning the nuts and bolts of an invented language. Regardless of motive, the biggest appeal is being part of a broader community. “We are learning the language together; it’s not just me.”
Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer and the author of The Calculus Diaries and the forthcoming Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Follow her on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.