One hot Thursday in July 2013, I met a lanky young man at Union Station in Washington, DC He was energetic and a little nervous; shaking my hand, he hastily led me to a silver sedan, driven by his girlfriend Sarah. And although he introduced himself as Ian Riley, for the next five days he was Ftiafpi for me. Ftiafpi, which means “for the sake of learning,” is his name in the Na'vi language, specially designed for the 2009 James Cameron epic film, Avatar.
Ian and Sarah drove me to AvatarMeet, an annual gathering of Na'vi-speaking fans and passing in the vast forests of the Shenandoah
National Park in Virginia. As we approached the gathering place, the landscape became greener, eagles replaced urban pigeons, and road signs increasingly pointed to waterfalls and farms instead of highways. The closer we approached, the more Sarah became irritated because of the traffic, and Riley in the front seat showed more and more signs of excitement because of the anticipation of the meeting. The inscription on Riley's custom-made T-shirt read “Oeru syaw fko Ftiafpi,” which on Na'vi means “My name is Ftiafpi.” This was his first meeting in two years, as he reported, reaching out and touching Sarah by the shoulder. “And this is the first time for Sarah,” he said, beaming, while she patiently removed his hand and concentrated on the road.
Over the next five days, I discovered a community defined by a language that did not exist a few years ago. Code hackers have become the vanguard of the community: as in most other communities gathered on the topic of invented languages, many, if not all, of those who speak Na'vi belong to engineers, computer scientists, researchers in laboratories, and archivists to related professions to the development, structuring and organization of information. But for others, Na'vi represent a way of organizing new relationships with the world of Avatar, and bring them closer to utopia. The ability to speak this language gives them the opportunity to touch the sublime beauty of Pandora through direct communication with her.
Pandora is the moon orbiting the fictional gas giant Polyphemus. "Avatar" tells the story of the Na'vi aborigines, who are fighting the invasion of people who founded a mining colony there, mining a precious mineral called anobtanium
. Cameron's world turned out to be complex and detailed, with its unique physical properties and ecology, saturated with bioluminescent flora and fauna. The romance between man and na'vi, interplanetary colonialism, mystics against the industrialists, is a version of the Pocahontas
story for the space age in which the native American Indians are replaced by blue cat-like aliens. At the same time, na'vi are not so alien for people that their experience or ideas about life are radically different. Viewers can empathize with their position and perceive their culture - including, surprisingly, their language.
The language of the Na'vi was invented by Paul Frommer, a linguist and emeritus professor of management communications from California. Na'vi is melodic and fast, contains an unusual syntax and combinations of consonants, sounding beautifully and exoticly for the Anglo-Saxon ear. This is one of the many so-called artificial
, or constructed languages (conlans): specially created by people with a specific purpose. Artificial languages have occupied us for centuries: from achieving peace in the world with the help of the language Esperanto
, to extending logical possibilities through the Loglan
language. Na'vi is a subtype of an artificial language known as an artistic
or artistic language (artlang): it was created with a specific aesthetic purpose, as an integral part of a work of art. Like other famous artlangs (elvish in Tolkien, Klingon from Star Trek, languages from the television series Game of Thrones, Dotharks and Valirians), na'vi was intended solely for fiction.
When I met Frommer on the second day of the meeting, he said that he had no other purpose for language than to enrich the Avatar script. But he understood that to match the complexity of the world of Pandora, the language must be just as realistic. “One of the limitations for me was that it was necessary to create a language that human characters in the film could learn and speak,” said Frommer. It had to be a language that was alien enough for it to be true, but that it could be learned like any other language. ”
It came as a surprise to Frommer when, just a few days after the premiere of the film in Britain, he received an e-mail written in Na'vi, where he was begged to expand the grammar of the language. Na'vi, like the Klingon, began to gain popularity thanks to the persistence of his very first fans. Wanting to build more tangible connections with the utopian world of Avatar, they plunged into the film and found something that was no longer limited by the fiction. Frommer now estimates that about 100 people speak na'vi, although other researchers claim that there are many more, and the vocabulary of the language has grown to about 2,000 words.
The first na'vi language site was learnnavi.org. It is still updated weekly, and the forum, chat rooms and rare Skype calls are the main ways to communicate between people who speak this language. The forum became the center of linguistic activity with the help of my roommate, Richard Littauer.
My first encounter with na'vi was due to Littweer, when we studied together at the institute in Edinburgh. He became interested in Na'vi because of how the elements of different languages of mankind from all over the globe mixed up in the language. Artificial languages are promising, according to Litthuer, familiarity with them seems to be a delight when meeting a new puzzle of words or numbers. “Do you know how some people like to do crossword puzzles every day?” He asked me when I met him at a Manhattan cafe before the annual meeting. “This is how I feel about artificial languages. They represent a challenge for the mind, a coded system that needs to be cracked. ”
To take a few random sounds and put them into reasonable words — Litter enjoyed such an exercise for the mind in a way that the mathematician enjoys, seeking out complex evidence. “We often chose to discuss one topic, a question or a line of dialogue from the film, and then tried to understand its meaning and grammar,” Riley told me. “It was like the code we were trying to crack.” It was an interesting pastime, because any piece of information could drastically change everything. ”
Littuer and other Na'vi fans understood that the first thing to do in a language game is to transcribe the Na'vi conversations from Avatar and to compare each of the spoken words with English subtitles. It was a time-consuming task, since phonemes from Na'vi are rarely found in English or Romance languages - for example, abruptive consonants
, or sounds like “pp” and “ll”, working as vowels, or familiar consonants in unusual places, for example, “ ng "at the beginning of words. They found that the study of na'vi is similar to the work of an anthropologist who fell into a distant Amazonian tribe, armed with only a little knowledge of the local language obtained through transcription, which may be incorrect.
They noted that, unlike English, the word order in na'vi can be quite arbitrary, as in Russian. This flexibility makes it easier for the speaker, but has made the work of the fans in formalizing the language and reviving it more difficult. They also understood that na'vi is an agglutinative language
. Its vocabulary is small, but new words can be compiled using infixes and suffixes attached to existing words. Instead of separating the words “hunt” and “hunter”, for example, the word taron (hunt) is combined with the suffix yu (what does something with another object), and it turns out taronyu: hunter; Littower chose this word as his name in Na'vi.
Pretty soon, the growing na'vi community realized that they needed a consultant. Just a few days after the Avatar premiere in Britain, Paul Frommer received the very first email written in na'vi. At first, he didn’t particularly want to participate in this venture due to possible copyright problems, but he was too interested in this, and could not help but offer help. He gave the community a dictionary and basic grammar rules. This material was present in the film, but without a detailed understanding that only Frommer could offer, people who spoke Na'vi could not fully understand everything.
“After this, the idea resembled a puzzle assembly, but now we have a chance to at least look at parts of the whole picture shown on the box,” explained Riley. In just a few weeks, the translations from the Na'vi to English film were almost exactly fulfilled. Littower spent his winter vacation, compiling the first version of the Na'vi-English dictionary.
This paved the way for new discoveries. Na'vi had a three-pronged
system for nouns and pronouns, in which intransitive verbs
(“John slept”), agents
(“Mary ate marshmallows”) and patients
(“marshmallows”) are marked differently, which makes it possible to accurately express specificity. Moreover, verbs can be marked by the speaker's attitude, that is, he is pleased, dissatisfied, or has not decided on his attitude to what he is saying. Therefore, such a phrase as “I ate a fly” immediately begins to seem ambiguous - we do not know how the speaker relates to this event. Na'vi allows the listener to know the exact meaning of the words and the intent of the speaker. Pronouns are also more accurate. The equivalent of the word "we" in na'vi indicates exactly who is meant. Relationships between people are constantly being defined and strengthened.
Such discoveries increasingly forced fans to believe that the Na'vi language was associated with Pandora’s idyllic qualities: its unique grammar; accuracy in expressing a relationship; less hierarchical ratio of ownership and interaction with the subject; no division of pronouns by sex. “The language embodied all the feelings that I had for the film,” Riley told me. “It's almost a code for an extra level of aesthetic pleasure.”
Frommer, however, is wary of trying to get Na'vi too close to culture. His uncertainty reflects the mindset of modern linguists. In the middle of the 20th century, the American linguist, Benjamin Wharf,
suggested that people who speak different languages also have a different perception of the world around them. A person who speaks Russian will never fully understand the Malay, and vice versa, since the language imposes restrictions on their ability to understand each other’s worldview.
The theory of Whorf, which later became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is now largely disproved. However, recently, a soft version of the theory, which says that our self-expression affects some aspects of our culture, is gaining popularity. The most famous proponent of this version is Israeli linguist Guy Deutsch.
Daicher supports and extends the statement of the linguist, Roman Jacobson, that "Languages, in fact, differ in what they have to transmit, and not in what they can transfer." Daicher writes that language affects our thinking "not by what our language allows us to think, but by what it usually makes us think."
For example, some languages require you to specify the source of information, for example, the Amazonian language Tuyuka
. Others, such as English, require you to specify a time for action. Hebrew makes it necessary to reveal the floor of the speaker and the addressee, which is why the phrase “I love you” cannot be composed without indicating the gender of “I” and “you.” According to Deicher, by getting into the habit of talking about something in a certain way, we get into the habit and think about it the same way.
“Some languages are very specific, but na'vi allows you not to specify the gender, time and attitude of the speaker,” noted Frommer. “In many languages it is impossible to remain neutral and not mention anything about relationships. This is an interesting aspect of culture. This brings us back to the idea that language forces us to disclose what information it requires to issue. Na'vi gives you more choices. ”
The specificity of the gender of nouns in the Romance languages allows linguists to shed light on the relationship between culture and language. A 2002 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology explored the role of gender in the grammar of French and Spanish, and the influence it has on the perception of the gender of the speaker. The researchers chose the word "fork" because it is an everyday object, having the Spanish masculine gender (el tenedor), and in French - the female (la fourchette). This difference is accidental, but when the subjects were shown a cartoon with a hand-drawn plug and offered to choose a voice for it, the Spanish-speaking sought to choose a male voice, and the French-speaking people wanted to choose a female voice. This difference in the sense of sex is also conveyed by speakers of other languages, since people endow inanimate objects with masculine or feminine traits to conform to grammatical norms. The social consequences of this are such that speech patterns affect the perception of identity and how we communicate with others and perceive others.
Na'vi's concentration on inclusiveness and social approach is reflected in how it brings together completely different people. In the process of continuing its decoding and reconstruction, its unique properties are increasingly perceived on the aesthetic and moral level, and lead to corresponding changes in the objects of interest of the na'vi community. With the development of language, personal relationships of people who speak na'vi, and the depth of their connection with the film, which gave rise to these relations, develop.
On Saturday evening, the whole group of AvatarMeet participants is going to watch the Avatar movie in the camp. When I watched a movie with them, I noticed two girls in the row in front of me, Amber Eliot and Sarah Noel, who wept during conversations in Na'vi, who looked neutral in the subtitles, but corresponded to a very emotional video sequence. The ability to perceive Aboriginal moans, when their world is being torn apart by the invasion of people, gave the scene a special atmosphere that the English text was unable to convey. They said that the visual world and the language corresponded to each other in a way that the English language could not. “Now that we are watching a movie,” Elliot told me after the show, “we get more out of it than other people. And this is a great feeling. ”