By now, most earthlings have at least a passing familiarity with James Cameron’s fantasy–sci-fi film Avatar, and if you’ve seen it you’ll have heard its original language Na’vi, named after the giant blue humanoids who speak it. Na’vi follows a rich tradition of artificially constructed languages — known informally as conlangs — in film history, in sci-fi and fantasy, and in the broader cultural sphere. Klingon and Esperanto are among the best known examples.
Na’vi was created for 20th Century Fox by linguist Paul Frommer. Recently I listened to an interview Frommer gave to the Language Creation Society. The direct mp3 link is here (29 MB, 1 hour 19 minutes), or you can visit this page to stream the audio, read some background, and follow related leads. It’s a wide-ranging discussion about developing Na’vi (especially its phonetics), teaching it to actors, language death, copyright, Na’vi enthusiasts, and more.
Frommer finds himself in an unusual situation. Avatar has affected some viewers enough to start a movement of sorts whose activities include learning Na’vi, becoming Na’vi, and petitioning Frommer for further guidance on how best to use and advance the language. Frommer is sympathetic but contractually constrained. He doesn’t own Na’vi: 20th Century Fox does. Legal tangles and grey areas surround it. In his own words: “I’m in kind of a quandary . . . about how much I can actually put out there.”
Such impediments surely frustrate those who yearn not just to have an authoritative Na’vi dictionary and grammar, but to belong to a Na’vi tribe — or as close as humans can get to forming one:
[T]he parts of the dream [film] that make our minds blossom more than any other are the beautiful Na’vi and the sounds of their voices dancing in our ears. . . . We must be able to speak with the Na’vi properly in their own language in order for all of us to truly appreciate their world.
The quote is from the aforementioned petition. Frommer responded graciously. For more on the Na’vi language, there’s abundant information in this guest post by Paul Frommer at Language Log; in a Q&A at Schott’s Vocab with Frommer and Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages; and on the Na’vi page at Wikipedia.