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War of words: Na'vi and Klingon languages square up

Published: 29th April, 2010 at 00:58
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Klingon from Star Trek or Na'vi from Avatar. They both have more than just a few useful phrases so let the battle of the made-up languages commence.

Paul Frommer is a man under pressure. He’s the creator of the language spoken by the blue–skinned Na’vi creatures in the SF epic Avatar. And he’s caused quite a stir. Some people have been so smitten by the sensual and mildly–hypnotic lingo spoken on the moon Pandora that they want to speak it. And they want to speak it now.


The only trouble is, there’s not much for them to go on. Yes, there are the phrases from the film and a few more that have been developed since, giving a vocabulary of roughly 1,000 words. But a growing online community is demanding more: more words and more grammatical rules so they can create their own sentences – converse fully in the language of the blue people.

Fans have been doing their best to figure out the rules. Frommer created a complex system to determine what’s correct and what’s not and some inventive types have been able to work out some of the grammar just by listening to the film's dialogue. Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California, has also helped out on online forums, providing more nuggets of information. But they want far more than that.

The pressure’s mounting. A petition at – one of a plethora of Na'vi language sites that have sprung up since the film – has over 3,800 signatures calling for all the grammar and a dictionary of words. “You have given us the trunk of the sacred tree but too many branches are missing,” reads the petition. It ends “Can you See us father. We are waiting…” And it doesn't end there. Frommer has been sent a 79–page document detailing a request for grammar and words – all categorized into three priority levels.

“There’s a pressure and I’d love to be able to tell you that I have full time to devote to this but I don’t,” he tells me. “I have a day job and there’s other pressures like speaking appearances.” In spite of this, he says, he’s keen to help. But, time issues aside, there’s one major problem standing in his way.

An artificial language created for a film (or book for that matter) generating a big following is nothing new. By Frommer's own admission, the "gold standard" in the 'artlang' stakes is Klingon. The first guttural Klingon utterances were heard in the first Star Trek film in 1979, when James Doohan, the actor who plays Scotty, came up with a few lines for Klingon commanders. But for the third film The search for Spock, linguist Marc Okrand was drafted in to generate more lines using Doohan's words as a starting point – making up linguistic rules as he went. Since then, the language has blossomed. Okrand has produced dictionaries for Klingon speakers and there's even an official organisation, the Klingon Language Institute (KLI), based in Pennsylvania with 2,500 members in 50 countries. It produces a journal HolQeD (Klingon for linguistics) and organises an annual five–day conference, the qep'a' (Klingon for great meeting). There's Klingon translations of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing and a German Trekkie, who goes by the name Klenginem, has translated rap by Eminem into the language of the warrior race.

But after more than two decades as a linguistic superpower, is Klingon about to lose its crown to Na’vi?

The interest generated in Klingon has even been something of a surprise to its creator. "It's very flattering and daunting, actually, that there's people running around saying all these silly things that I made up," says Okrand in a phone interview. "It's totally unexpected that people would take it so seriously. Not that people would be interested, that was not unexpected, but that they would take it so seriously."

So why has Klingon been so popular? A good person to ask is d'Armond Speers in the US, a linguist by profession who is one of a handful of people in the world who can speak it fluently. For the first two years of his son Alexander's life, he spoke to him only in the language of the inter-galactic warmongers.

"People discover the language as a result of its connection to Star Trek," he says. "Secondly, it's a simple language with a limited word list. The third thing, and what really makes Klingon fun to speak, is the fact that there's this culture. So if I'm trying to figure out how to say hello, I can think about what the Klingon culture is like. That context gives the language a vibrancy, it makes it a much more enjoyable experience."

But says Arika Okrent, the author of In the Land of Invented Languages, control is important – control over any new words and grammar created. "I think it helps the language to succeed because if everyone is doing what they want, no-one knows what to study. You'd lose the will to learn it if there were too many versions out there."

With Klingon, that control comes – in a friendly, fatherly, kind of way – from Okrand. And it's something Klingon followers are happy to comply with. "We allow ourselves the conceit that there's a place called Qo'noS [roughly pronounced Kronos] that these people are from and over there they are speaking this language and that's the language we are learning," explains Speers. "And if I were to add words and take it off in my own direction, I'm no longer speaking the language that those people speak."

Going by the online forums, the Na'vi speakers are happy to have fatherly guidance too. And, just like Klingon, there's the cultural context from the film to bring the language to life. So in theory, Na'vi could be at least as big as Klingon. Avatar director David Cameron clearly saw Klingon as the competition when making the film – he's widely quoted as saying "We wanted to out–Klingon Klingon" with a new rich language.

Author Okrent, a first (bronze)-level certificated Klingon speaker, thinks Na'vi could well surpass its more established rival. "The scope of Avatar is even broader than Star Trek and there are a lot of language-interested folks who are not interested in Klingon because of its so-called ugliness, its Klingoniness, the rough and tough grunting. But Na'vi has a romancy-sounding, lots of vowels, beautiful native culture side of it that probably appeals to even more people than the rough and tough nasty Klingon."

But there's a hitch in this battle of the languages – something that could stop Na’vi in its tracks before the fight truly starts. Na’vi needs more ammunition – words and grammar need to be released to the front line before it simply fizzles out. "I think the timing is delicate right now. Before people lose interest, they need something more to keep going with it," says Okrent.

So what's stopping Frommer? He's undoubtedly a busy man. But that’s not the central issue here. What’s really causing this linguistic supply chain problem is that he doesn’t know where he stands legally. If he put something more out there would it invoke the wrath of Avatar's film studio 20th Century Fox? "I was hired to create a language," says Frommer, "which is essentially a product and at the end of the assignment I turned over the product. I don't own it. But then the question is what does it mean to own a language? I understand the idea of owning a screenplay or a novel but a language is not a set of words. It's an algorithm. It's a means of communication. How do you own a means of communication? It's not clear. It's not clear exactly what I can and cannot do on my own. But one way or the other I very much want to put out some materials. At this point it's not so much for the people who have taken up the language and are running with it, but there's a much larger group who I think need a little more instruction."

Frommer says he'd like to put Na'vi language lessons online, with clickable links so people could hear the correct pronunciation. What about a dictionary? "At some point I would very much like to do that – but that presumably would be with the cooperation of Fox studio." And he actively investigating the legal side of things? "Yes, those are ongoing investigations," he says.

But how big does Frommer hope Na'vi will become? Does he think it will be as widely used as Klingon, if not wider? "That would be something very nice indeed. It's really a question of whether people like the language so it becomes a pleasure to use it.”

So what does Klingon-creator Okrand think of Na'vi? "I must confess, I'm one of three people on the planet who has not seen the movie. But I have heard the language and read discussions about it and I think it's very clever. It's very smart, very well thought out." And is he now feeling a little defensive over his Klingon – it's been the big fish in the pond for such a long time. "Sure...", he says, before laughing. "I'm not really... I think it's great that the other thing is there. It creates interest in language in general and there's lots of comparisons going on now between Klingon and Na'vi which means there's interest in Klingon."

And how big does Okrand think Klingon will become? "People get together to play golf, people get together and talk Klingon. And so I think for it to keep going in that way would be great. I mean it's not going to be a language that anybody's going to listen to on a headset in the UN – it's not going to happen. And that's OK, that's fine."


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Andy is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England in Bristol, Programme Leader of the MSc in Science Communication and an award-winning journalist


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