Making up language

Vanity Fair, that bastion of linguistic knowledge, recently published an article on the creation of Na’vi, a constructed “alien” language used in the upcoming $400 million flick Avatar. There’s a bit of phonetic explanation, though not much, and a sound clip. I’m quite curious how linguist Paul Frommer came up with his linguistic hodge-podge; director James Cameron apparently told him he wanted it to be both exotic and pleasant, and gave Frommer some Na’vi names he’d already come up with. Browsing further articles didn’t turn up much detailing Frommer’s inspiration, though Wikipedia explains the basic construction rather well.

Typically, of course, languages develop in context, just as they are learned in context. This did actually happen occasionally even in this constructed language, as Frommer explains in the Vanity Fair article.

To some extent, new language creeps into being all the time. This year, for example, “unfriend” was officially recognized in English. Language evolves with the times and technology.

And also with the subculture. I had the strange experience of growing up in a rural microculture of ten souls: me, my four siblings, and the five children we played with. Somehow we invented our own words to keep the peace, the most important of which sounded something like “ught.” If someone said this word, everyone else had to shut up and listen. If you “broke ught,” everyone else looked at you like you were evil (In retrospect, this sounds disturbingly like the


Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.

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