Pandora Lives Online

Many who hope to learn a foreign language can just hop a flight to the country of origin. That is, if there is a country of origin.

It could be said that the native habitat of the new language Na’vi is the Internet. Following the record-breaking theatrical run of James Cameron’s epic fantasy “Avatar,” fans around the world have taken to learning the language invented specifically for the film.  They can’t travel to Pandora, the fictional home of the native Na’vi, but they can visit LearnNavi.org.

Paul Frommer, the linguist who created the Nav’i language, didn’t realize that it would take off as it has, but he’s happy to hear that people are speaking it.

“I think it’s just fantastic, and I really encourage it,” Frommer said in a phone interview. “There’s a real community.  Literally thousands of people around the world are speaking the language.”

The website, run by a German student at the University of California Santa Cruz named Sebastian Wolff, aims to serve as a forum for Nav’i speakers around the globe.

Tristan Roberts, 16, of the United Kingdom said in an email that he had been considering learning a science fiction “constructed language” (often called “conlangs” for short), such as novelist J.R.R. Tolkien’s language Quenya, created for the elves in his Lord of the Rings series, or Klingon from Star Trek. Then he saw Avatar for the first time.

“The beauty of the language blew me away, as well as the fact that, I could (if I learnt hard enough) understand it without subtitles,” wrote Roberts.  “What also helped me start was the fact that there was a level playing field in knowledge and understanding that doesn’t exist in older conlangs like Klingon or Quenya.”

Na’vi is the first constructed language developed in the full-blown Internet era.  But now, even Esperanto, created in the 19th century to be a universal, non-national language, has a home on the web, as well as 2,000 native speakers and about 2 million people who have learned it as a second language.

But like many creative products disseminated over the Internet, and unlike other languages, Na’vi has an owner.  20th Century Fox technically owns the language, since they commissioned Frommer to create it, but the company has little control over its transmission through the web and can’t stop people from sharing their learning online.

It’s hard to say if the Na’vi language will be be able to thrive offline and in the real world.  The forums on LearnNavi.org contain a few threads of users encouraging others to start their own Na’vi geographical communities, but so far, the world exists mainly on computer screens.

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