On learning Na'vi (or any "fictional" language)

There are a number of people out there who have expressed an interest in learning Na’vi (the language spoken by the Omatikaya in Avatar ) and are getting verbally shat upon by the communities they dare to mention this in. And, I can understand the knee-jerk reaction that it’s silly to learn a language from a semi-random piece of popular fiction. But, I can also think beyond that.

Learning a language, any language, is a remarkable thing, especially in American society, and if you think about it, there is nothing more or less valid about a language that was created for a movie. Does it really matter how a language came to be? The fact is that it is a legitimate and speakable language. Koreans write in Hangul, a writing system that Sejong the Great made up from scratch less than 600 years ago. They didn’t need a writing system, they were getting by with Chinese characters. It just so happens that the Korean people seemed to agree they deserved their own writing system, so they switched, but it was no more a “real” writing system than any of the ones Tolkien created for his languages. There are two million Esperanto speakers, and maybe ten million who have studied it. It’s a conlang (constructed language) just like Elvish and Na’vi, the only difference being that it was created to bring world peace through improved communication instead of just being created for the sheer love of language.

So, should Korean’s stop using Hangul because some guy made it up? Should Esperantists throw in the towel? What about Esperantists who learned it as their first language? Esperanto, the Hangul writing system, Na’vi, and Elvish are all “fictional”. None of them existed until someone got it in their head to go create it.

…this wouldn’t have been such a remarkable case from the perspective of time - as you already have entire regions of internet clogged with Tolkienfags who struggle to master his own fictional languages despite being unable to use english properly. - Random Ass-Hole

I’m not even going to bother pointing out the grammatical errors in that statement, but the sentiment is not uncommon. The logic however, is horribly flawed. Our native tongues are things so deeply ingrained in our thinking that it isn’t possible to step outside of them and analyze them without first learning something else. Think about it. How can you possibly analyze the limitations of a language without bias when your tool for analysis is the same language which is, of course, bounded by the same limitations and biases?

Seriously? Go learn an actual language, not something from a movie. - Ignorant Jerk

Ignoring the fact that Na’vi is, in a very real sense, an “actual” language. I would argue that learning Na’vi or Klingon would be much better choices than any of the Romance Languages for someone who is interested in leaning how language itself works. This is because both of these languages go out of their way to be very un-English. English, for example, is a Subject Verb Object language. Na’vi has no such restrictions. Through the use of accusative, ergative, genetive, dative, and topic marker suffixes speakers of Na’vi are able to construct their sentences in whatever way flows best. Can you say that about English? Do you with your years of practicing English even know what those are?

“Verbs in Klingon take a prefix indicating the number and person of the subject and object, plus suffixes from nine ordered classes, plus a special suffix class called rovers. Each of the four known rovers has its own unique rule controlling its position among the suffixes in the verb. Verbs are marked for aspect, certainty, predisposition and volition, dynamic, causative, mood, negation, and honorific, and the Klingon verb has two moods: indicative and imperative. The most common word order in Klingon is Object Verb Subject, and in some cases the word order is the exact reverse of word order in English. “ - Wikipedia

That’s not to say that there aren’t such significant variations amongst natural languages. Pretty much every twisted idea you can conceive of to warp a language has already been done by a natural language at some point in history. But what better way to learn your own language than to attempt to learn something so radically different from it that you are forced to question everything from word construction to sentence construction?

The naysayers

“Avatar? No, it is your idea of learning language used by in-movie characters that is disturbing, problematic and life wasting. NONE of us are bashing your fave movie.” - Random Ass-Hole

“How about, instead, you learn one of the hundreds of real languages that are in danger of dying out, and help preserve some of the collective heritage of humanity? You know, instead of wasting your time learning a language made up for a film everyone’s going to forget about?” - Clueless Ass-Hole “Please learn a dying human language if you’re going to bother learning a language at all.” - Polite, but ignorant.

Conlangers have a different take…

” I find the “languages are dying” line the most irritating thing someone can possibly say against the invention of a conlang. There is a lot of diversity of viewpoints in the conlang community, but there are certainly many of us who do care very deeply about endangered languages. Creating a new hobby language doesn’t affect natural languages any more than playing Monopoly affects the economy. Field linguists can preserve a record of the language, and members of that community can work to maintain or revive the language, but how exactly is it supposed to help endangered languages if we all stopped this conlanging business? I think that [conlangers] are probably more keenly aware than most people that language is a community activity. (This just sort of slaps you in the face when you are the only person who knows your language.) I can learn an endangered language– probably pretty imperfectly at my age – but unless I can participate meaningfully in that language’s community or spawn a new community of speakers, it’s nothing more than hobby, just like making up entirely new languages. “ - M. S. Soderquist

conlangers simply are not equipped to save endangered langauges. Linguistic fieldwork requires specialized skills which most of us do not have; while many of us may be capable of writing a fairly useful grammar of a language, hardly anyone of us have experience in conducting a linguistic interview and all that. And documenting an endangered language is only the first step in preserving it; the much harder part of it is to create and maintain the social environment in which the language can flourish. That is well beyond the possibilities of most conlangers, who are merely hobbyists in linguistics. “While conlanging indeed does nothing to save endangered languages, it also does nothing to endanger languages, and most … Indeed. The survival of a language requires the existence of a community that speaks it, and a consciousness of the language’s value within that community. “ - J. Rhiemeier

A language is more than a collection of words and rules. It is the repository wherein a community encodes its values and viewpoints. Very recently we have learned to read Mayan, but no-one with half a brain would suggest that anyone is capable of creating any new writings in Mayan that actually capture the Mayan viewpoint. The same goes for ancient Egyptian. Sure we can read hieroglyphs and there are definitely people who can write in it, but again, we don’t truly grok it. We’re like computers parroting back words in accordance with some pre-defined rule-set. Even if you were to bring the handful of speakers together their usage would not reflect that of the original language even if it was syntactically correct, because we simply do not think like they did. We are not capable of observing the world around us the way they did.

The only people who can truly save a dying language are people who are part of its community of native speakers. Yes, an outsider can become part of that community. You, sitting there reading this, can pick some dying language and help save it. All you have to do is travel to where it’s spoken and truly become one with its community, assuming there are enough speakers to even form a community. You’d have to give up your way of life and take up theirs if you really want to save it, because language expresses a community’s perception of the world and the reasoning behind their actions in it. And you can not express that accurately if you do not share it yourself.

Which brings us back to Na’vi. Na’vi is not a dying language. If anything it is a blossoming language. Maybe it won’t survive, but there are thousands of people waiting excitedly for enough information to truly learn to speak it, and we will create a community around it. Some have even gone to great lengths to accurately piece together its rules based on the limited information we have at the moment. And almost anyone who attempts to learn it will learn more about their native language in the process.

Does it really matter that what is bringing us together is a “fictional” language? Isn’t it more important that people are coming together to participate in a creative, and educational act? Isn’t that an order of magnitude better than just sitting at home and watching the next episode of House? Note: some names have been changed in order to better reflect the guilty.