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Cracking Avatar’s Language Codes

A fictional language makes the jump to reality.

One hot Thursday in July, I met a gangly young man at Washington D.C.’s Union Station. Energetic and slightly nervous, he politely shook my hand and ushered me to a silver sedan where his girlfriend, Sarah, was at the wheel. Although he introduced himself as Ian Riley, for the next five days I would know him as Ftiafpi. Ftiafpi, meaning “for the sake of studying,” is his name in Na’vi, a language specially created for James Cameron’s 2009 epic 3-D film, Avatar.

Ian and Sarah were taking me to AvatarMeet, an annual gathering of fans and Na’vi speakers to be held amid the sweeping forests of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. As we drove towards the gathering, the land became greener, with eagles replacing city pigeons, and road signs pointing to waterfalls and farms instead of expressways. Nearing our destination, Sarah’s exasperation with the traffic grew while Riley fidgeted in the front seat with anticipation. Riley’s custom white T-shirt read “Oeru syaw fko Ftiafpi,” Na’vi for “My name is Ftiafpi.” This was his first Meet in two years, he said, reaching across to touch Sarah’s shoulder. “It is Sarah’s first time, too,” he said, beaming, as Sarah patiently removed his hand and concentrated on the road ahead.

Over the course of the next five days I would discover a community defined by a language that did not exist five years ago. The vanguard of the community was the code-breaker: Like many other fan bases revolving around an invented language, many, if not most, Na’vi speakers are engineers, computer technologists, lab researchers, archivists—professions that work with the design, structure, and organization of information. But for others, Na’vi represented a way of building a new relationship with the Avatar world, bringing them closer to a utopia. Speaking and knowing the language gave them a heightened experience of Pandora’s beauty through direct communication with it.

That world is Pandora, a moon in orbit around the fictional gas giant Polyphemus. Avatar tells the story of the native Na’vi people struggling against an encroaching human mining colony that is harvesting a precious mineral called Unobtainium. Cameron’s world is complex and detailed, with unique physical properties and its own ecology, replete with bioluminescent flora and fauna. With a human-Na’vi romance, interplanetary colonialism, and mystics set against industrialists, it’s Pocahontas for the space age, with Native Americans substituted for blue cat-like alien peoples. Yet the Na’vi are not so alien as to be completely removed from human experience or recognition. Viewers can empathize with their plight and make sense of their culture—including, surprisingly, their language.

I would discover a community defined by a language that did not exist five years ago.

The Na’vi tongue was invented by Paul Frommer, a clean-cut linguist and professor emeritus of management communication from California. Na’vi is melodious and fast flowing, composed of unusual syntax and consonant clusters that sound beautiful and exotic to an Anglophone ear. It is one of many so-called constructed languages, or conlangs: a man-made language authored for a purpose. From world peace, as in the case of perhaps the most widely-known conlang, Esperanto, to expanding our capacity for logic, like the unwieldy Loglan, constructed languages have captivated us for centuries. Na’vi is a conlang subtype known as an artlang: It was created with a specific aesthetic goal, as an integral part of a piece of art. Like other famous artlangs (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish, Star Trek’s Klingon, and the languages spoken in the HBO television series Game of Thrones, Dothraki and Valyrian) Na’vi was intended solely for fiction.

When I met Frommer on the second day of the Meet, he said he had had no designs for the language beyond to enrich Avatar’s script. But he also knew that in order to match the complexity of Pandora, the language would have to be just as realistic. “One of my constraints was that I had to make the language such that it could be spoken, and learned, by the human characters in Avatar,” said Frommer. “It had to be a language that was just alien enough to be believably alien, but it had to be possible to learn it too, just as you can any language.”

It came as a surprise to Frommer, when, just days after the film’s UK premiere, he received an email in Na’vi begging him for more Na’vi grammar. Much like Klingon, Na’vi had started to build momentum thanks to the tenacity of its earliest fans. Moved to connect themselves in a more tangible way to the utopian world Avatar presented, they had dived into the film and resurfaced with something no longer confined to fiction. Currently, Frommer estimates there are around 100 Na’vi speakers, though other researchers have said there are many more, and the language has grown to a vocabulary of approximately 2,000 words.

The first Na’vi language webpage was LearnNa’vi.org. It is still updated nearly every week, and the forum, adjacent chat-rooms, and occasional Skype calls remain the primary means of communication between speakers. The forum became a hive of linguistic activity with the help of my roommate, Richard Littauer. 

My first encounter with Na’vi came via Littauer when we were students together in Edinburgh. He had become intrigued with Na’vi because of the unique way in which it mashed up elements found in human languages across the globe. Constructed languages hold a promise, Littauer told me, much like the excitement someone might feel when facing a word or numerical puzzle. “You know how you do the crossword every day?” he asked me when I met him at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan before the Meet. “Well, that’s how I feel about constructed languages. They are a mental challenge, a coded system to be cracked.”

Na’vi is melodious and fast flowing, composed of unusual syntax and consonant clusters that sound beautiful and exotic to an Anglophone ear.

Taking a few arbitrary sounds and manipulating them into intelligible words was a mental exercise that Littauer enjoyed in much the same way a mathematician might enjoy solving a difficult proof. “We often would gather around one topic, question, or line of dialogue from the film and then attempt to work out what the meaning and grammar was,” Riley told me. “It was almost like a code that we were trying to break. Those days were very exciting, as any small piece of information could change things drastically.”

Littauer and other Na’vi fans realized that the first step in the language game was to transcribe each line of Avatar’s Na’vi dialogue and try to match each spoken word to the English subtitles. This was a painstaking task, as Na’vi has phonemes rarely heard in English or Romance languages—like ejectives and sounds like “rr” and “ll,” which function as vowels, and familiar consonants in unusual places, like “ng” at the start of words. Learning Na’vi, they discovered, was like being an anthropologist dropped into a remote Amazonian tribe, armed only with a few snippets of the local language that had been transcribed, possibly incorrectly.

They noticed that unlike English, Na’vi has a relatively free word order, similar to Russian. This flexibility eases the task of the speaker, but made the fans’ job of formalizing the language and bringing it to life more complex. They also realized that Na’vi is an agglutinating language. Although its vocabulary is small, new words can be made using infixes and suffixes attached to existing words. Rather than separate words for “to hunt” and “hunter”, for example, “taron” (hunt) combined with the suffix “yu” (a thing that is doing something to another object), creates “taronyu”: hunter, which Littauer chose as his Na’vi name.

It wasn’t long before the burgeoning Na’vi community realized that they needed a guide. Mere days after Avatar premiered in the U.K., Paul Frommer received the first email ever written in Na’vi. Initially reluctant to get too involved due to copyright issues, Frommer was too intrigued to not offer some help. He gave the community a list of definitive vocabulary and some basic grammar points. The material had been originally included in the film, but without Frommer’s nuanced understanding the Na’vi speakers hadn’t been able to fully grasp it all.

“After that, it was still like putting a puzzle together, but now it was as if we had a chance to look at parts of the completed picture on the box for the first time,” Riley explained. Within a matter of weeks, the Na’vi-English translations from the film were mostly accurate. Littauer spent his winter break writing the first incarnation of the Na’vi-English dictionary.

This opened the door to additional discoveries. Na’vi has a tripartite case system for its nouns and pronouns, where intransitive subjects (like “John slept”), agents (“Mary ate marshmallows”), and patients (the marshmallows) are all marked differently, allowing a high degree of specificity. Further, verbs can then be marked to show the attitude of the speaker, indicating if they are happy, unhappy, or uncertain about what they are saying. The English phrase “I ate a fly,” suddenly seems ambiguous—we don’t know how the speaker feels about the event. Na’vi lets the listener know immediately the exact meaning and intention of the speaker. Pronouns, too, are more specific than in English. The Na’vi equivalent of “we” makes clear who exactly is included. Relationships among people are constantly identified, and reinforced.  

Discoveries like this led to a growing sense among speakers that the Na’vi language was intrinsically bound with Pandora’s idyllic qualities: its unique grammar; clarity of attitude; a less hierarchical way of indicating ownership and interaction with a subject; a lack of gendered pronouns. “The language has come to embody everything I feel about the film,” Riley told me. “It is almost a code to an added layer of aesthetic appreciation.”

Frommer, though, is cautious about identifying Na’vi too closely with culture. His reluctance reflects the thinking of modern linguists. In the mid-20th century, the American linguist Benjamin Whorf theorized that speakers of distinct languages had equally distinct ways of perceiving their world. Someone that spoke Russian would never fully understand a Malay speaker, and vice versa, because language placed a restriction on their ability to perceive each other’s worldview.

Whorf’s theory, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is now largely discredited. But recently, a softer version of the theory, positing that how we express ourselves reflects certain aspects of our culture, is gaining traction. The most vocal proponent of this revision is Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher.

Deutscher supports and expands on the linguist Roman Jakobson’s claim that “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Deutscher writes that language affects how we think, “not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

For example, some languages require you to cite your information’s source, such as the Amazonian language, Tuyuca. Others, like English, require you to specify tense. Hebrew forces you to reveal the gender of the speaker and the addressee, making phrases like “I love you” impossible without identifying the gender of both “I” and “you.” According to Deutscher, by getting into the habit of saying something a certain way, we get into the habit of thinking about it that way, too.

Language affects how we think, “not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

“While some languages are very specific, Na’vi allows you to be neutral about gender, tense, and speaker attitude,” noted Frommer. “You cannot be neutral about saying anything regarding your relationships in many languages. That is an interesting aspect of culture. This goes back to the idea of what language makes you reveal, what information it requires you to give out. Na’vi gives you more of a choice.”

The gender specificity of nouns in romance languages offers linguists a window into the relationship between culture and language. A 2002 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology looked at the role of grammatical gender in French and Spanish grammar, and the impact this had on speakers’ perceptions of gender identities. Researchers chose the word “fork,” an everyday object that is masculine in Spanish (el tenedor), but feminine in French (la fourchette). The difference is arbitrary, but when shown an animated cartoon fork and asked to choose a voice for it, Spanish speakers tended to choose a male voice, whereas French speakers picked a female one. This difference in gender perception translated to other language speakers as well, with people endowing inanimate objects with masculine and feminine features to match their grammatical gender. The social implications of a part of speech carry over into our perceptions of identity, inflecting how we communicate with and perceive others.

The focus on inclusivity and community apparent in Na’vi is reflected in the way it has drawn together people from different backgrounds. As it continues to be decoded and reconstructed, its unique features are increasingly being felt on an aesthetic and moral level, causing a concomitant shift in the focus of the Na’vi community. As the language develops, so too do personal relationships among Na’vi speakers, and the depth of connection they share to the movie that spawned it.

On Saturday night, the entire group of AvatarMeet attendees gathered for a screening of Avatar at the camp’s lodge. As I watched the movie with the group, I noticed two of the girls in the row in front of me, Amber Elliott and Sarah Noel, sobbing at several lines of Na’vi dialogue that seemed flat in subtitles, but were matched with a highly emotive visual tableau. Being able to hear the laments of the Na’vi as their world is torn apart by the invading humans brought to the scene a visceral quality that an English text box could not replicate. The visual world and the language, they said, matched one another in a way English didn’t. “When we watch it now,” Elliott told me after the film, “we get more from it than other people do. And that’s a good feeling.”


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