The digital fandom of Na'vi speakers

Christine Schreyer

University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Few academic studies have focused on the fans of created or constructed languages. One reason behind this may be the popular impression, intensified by the media, that speakers of these languages are obsessed fans or fanatics. In this essay, I use data from a survey conducted in summer 2011 to determine who is learning to speak Na'vi (a language constructed for the alien race in the 2009 film Avatar), how they are learning the language, and why they are learning the language. I also address the questions of how important community is to fandoms, as well as whether virtual fandoms constitute communities. Na'vi speakers are a digital fandom as well as a speech community, and Na'vi speakers are developing shared social norms and culture via their use of the Na'vi language.

[0.2] Keywords—Avatar; Community; Fans

Schreyer, Christine. 2015. "The Digital Fandom of Na'vi Speakers." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Speakers of media-driven created languages, such as the language of Klingon created for the Star Trek movies and television series and the Na'vi language created for the movie Avatar (2009), have often been seen as over-the-top fans or fanatics. However, as members of a created-language community (note 1), the interactions that bind these members together are based around the discursive practices of a particular fandom, the fandom specifically of the language from a particular movie or television series. To those not in the know, fan activities are often "seen as excessive, bordering on deranged behaviour" (Jenson 1992, 9), and fans are often characterized into two types: "the obsessed individual and the hysterical crowd" (Jenson 1992, 9). The stereotype of an obsessed individual is particularly true of created-language speakers, where cosplay is often combined with language learning. As Okrent writes regarding Klingon speakers:

[1.2] The difficulty of the language keeps it from being just another part of the costume. The ones who end up sticking with it are in it for the language—and the cachet, the respect, that comes (from however small a group) with showing you can master it. Anyone can wear a rubber forehead, but the [Klingon] language certification pins must be earned. (2009, 271)

[1.3] It is this commitment that has caused some to deem Klingon fans (and others with similar levels of devotion, such as Na'vi speakers) as fanatics (note 2). Jenson has argued, however, that "the fandom-as-pathology model implies that there is a thin line between 'normal' and excessive fandom. This line is crossed when distinctions between reality and fantasy break down" (1992, 18). She has also stated that "there is very little literature that explores fandom as a normal, everyday, cultural or social phenomenon" (13). Fandom research has evolved since the publication of Jenson's (1992) work, however, and crucial works in the field include Henry Jenkins's key books Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Cultures (1992), Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect (2006a), and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Cultures (2006b). Fandom research has also expanded to include research on a variety of themes, which Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington (2007) outline as follows: fandom is beautiful (1), fans in the mainstream (4), fan cultures and social hierarchy (5), and fandoms and modernity (7). They conclude their introduction with the following statement:

[1.4] Fandom is ever expanding into "regular" consumption, and…to study fans is to study many of the key structuring mechanisms by which contemporary culture and society work; thus, the future of reception and audience studies requires thoughtful and innovative study of fans in all their forms, identities, media, and spaces. (16)

[1.5] Even within the world of fan studies, little attention has been paid to the speakers of created languages, who are often marginalized as the extreme fans or fanatics of a wider fan community. However, fan language speakers can offer a variety of insight into a wide range of issues, such as how new languages work and what this might tell us about the origins of language; how dialects develop; how people learn languages; and what endangered language communities, as well as second language learners in general, might learn from the techniques these fan communities employ. Additionally, because fans are learning languages that were not originally intended for daily conversation, they continually illustrate perseverance; they often learn these fan languages in isolation, removed from other speakers. This perseverance is also a quality that other minority communities, such as indigenous communities that are working to revitalize their endangered languages, can model to continue what Wyman has termed "linguistic survivance" or "the use of [language]…to creatively express, adapt, and maintain identities under difficult or hostile circumstances" (2012, 2). Because fan speakers are often stereotyped as fanatics, they too have had to work to maintain their fan identity, sometimes in the face of ridicule not only from outsiders but also from other fans.

[1.6] As more fandoms develop online, attention must be paid to how fandoms develop, operate, and form social norms (i.e., culture) in these new digital locales. As Whitehead and Wesch write, online "'native populations'—the freaks, the geeks, the weirdos, techies, and net-addicts—like the savages at the margins of an earlier colonial order, defy simple inclusion into the frameworks of the state and its ethnographies" (2012, 9). However, like other minority groups, they do form imagined communities despite the fact that they may not be imagined nations. Similarly, Roberta Pearson suggests that "the digital revolution has had a profound impact upon fandom, empowering and disempowering, blurring the lines between producers and consumers, creating symbiotic relationships between powerful corporations and individual fans, and giving rise to new forms of cultural production" (2010, 84).

[1.7] Pearson (2010, 93) continues by asking, "How important is community to fandom, and how should that community be defined?" Throughout her article, Person fluctuates between defining community as a group of people and defining community as a sense of something shared. Here I focus on community as a group of individuals who share common interests, pursuits, and/or ideologies. Linguists classify individuals who "participate in interactions based on social and cultural norms and values that are regulated, represented, and recreated through discursive practices" (Morgan 2001, 31) as a speech community. The speakers of Na'vi can be classified as a speech community because they are developing social norms and values about the way Na'vi is spoken.

[1.8] Pearson (2010, 93) also asks, "Does virtual fandom actually constitute a community?" She suggests that to answer this question, academics will need to draw on perspectives from sociology and anthropology—disciplines that focus on group dynamics and the cultures that develop within them. Therefore, this article examines the online virtual fan community of Na'vi speakers via an anthropological lens to further expand our understanding of digital fandoms. In particular, I describe Na'vi speakers' conceptions of their own community, which are multiple and contradictory, to provide a new example of online fandoms, and the communities and their cultures that can develop in these spaces. Using data from an online survey I conducted in the summer of 2011, I provide discussion here about the development of the Na'vi–speaking community, but first I provide background on the history of created languages and fan languages in particular.

2. A history of fan languages

[2.1] To provide a history of fan languages, one must first consider the general history of created languages, as well as the types of created languages (note 3). To begin, created languages can be categorized either by how they are developed or by their intended purpose. When describing how a language is created, it can be termed either an a posteriori language, which has linguistic structures that are based on existing languages, or it can be called an a priori language, which is a language developed from scratch. The majority of popular fan languages fall into this latter category. Created languages are often additionally categorized into two different types on the basis of their intended purpose. For instance, some created languages are known as auxiliary languages, or languages that can be used to aid in communication across diverse communities. One well-known auxiliary language is Esperanto, which was developed in 1897 by L. L. Zamenhof. Zamenhof hoped that Esperanto would be taken up around the world as a universal language that would encourage a more peaceful society (Okrent 2009). Another type of created language is an artlang, a language created for artistic purposes. Artlangs often become the languages of fan communities because they are often associated with larger artistic works such as novels, movies, television shows, and video games. As Okrent writes about the Klingon language, it "is the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one" (282).

[2.2] J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the best-known artlang creators; his novels of Middle-earth were written in association with his development of the languages commonly, and collectively, known as Elvish (Weiner and Marshall 2011). Weiner and Marshall (2011, 107) note the following about Tolkien as a conlanger: "If there are two purposes for invented language—communicative and art—Tolkien is (so far) the master of the art form. He has very few competitors in the field of language invention (or they are very secretive) and it is hard to imagine that his vast web of language and legend could be bettered."

[2.3] It is true that for Tolkien's generation the activity of language invention was a "secret vice," as he labeled his own lecture on the topic ([1931] 1983), stressing the pleasure he received from the development of the languages. In recent years, however, conlanging has come out of the closet. Conlangers seeking community developed the conlang e-mail mailing list in the 1990s, and the Language Creation Society followed suit in 2007 (Peterson 2014). Perhaps this is because, as Tolkien writes in "A Secret Vice," "Individualistic as are the makers, seeking personal expression and satisfaction, they are artists and incomplete without an audience" ([1931] 1983, 202). Who better, then, to appreciate the art of language creation than other conlangers, as well as the fans of an invented world?

[2.4] One of the best-known and most widely spoken fan languages is Klingon. Klingon, as it is spoken today, was created in 1984 by linguist Marc Okrand, and it has gained notoriety for the numerous ways that Klingon has been used since then: translations of Hamlet, a Dutch opera, performances of A Christmas Carol, and many more (Schreyer 2011). Okrand et al. (2011) comment on the motives of individuals learning Klingon. Contrary to Okrent (2009), they argue that Klingon's invention was practical, but that Klingon speakers "are in a sense artistic, speaking or writing at least a bit of Klingon figures significantly in some fan performance of Star Trek, a sort of living fan fiction" (2011, 130). Another type of living fan fiction can be seen in the practices of Doctor Who fans who, in lieu of an official BBC version of the Gallifreyan language, have developed "a rich variety of Gallifreyan alphabets, fonts, dictionaries, tutorials, and other resources" (Vultee 2013, 117). Vultee (2013) argues that social media in particular have helped the online creative community of Gallifreyan writers to develop and expand. In sum, many members of fan language groups are using the languages of their favorite characters and imagined worlds as a performative of their identity, not only as a fans of the larger creative work but also as fans of the language itself. Here I argue that this is the case for Na'vi.

3. Methodology

[3.1] When I began this research, I wanted to discover who the speakers of Na'vi were and why they were learning this particular created language. At the beginning of my research with Na'vi speakers, I was not necessarily concerned with applied outcomes but was rather driven by curiosity about this developing community. From media stories, I knew that many people from around the world were learning the Na'vi language, which was created by the linguist Paul Frommer for the movie Avatar, but there was very little information about who the speakers actually were beyond the conception that they must be fans, if not fanatics, of Avatar. My survey, therefore, was designed to discover who Na'vi speakers are (age, gender, education levels, nationalities, and so on) as well as why people learn Na'vi, how they learn it, and how they think it will develop and change over time (table 1) (note 4).

Table 1. Na'vi survey questions

  1. What is your age?
  2. What is your gender?
  3. What is your educational level?
  4. What is your nationality?
  5. Have you ever studied linguistics or related subjects?
  6. Do you consider yourself an Avatar fan?
  7. How long have you been learning Na'vi?
  8. What would you consider your proficiency level to be?
  9. What methods have you used for learning Na'vi? (Examples: the Web site, YouTube videos)
  10. Why do you study Na'vi?
  11. Do you feel that there is a Na'vi culture and if so, are you a part of it? Please explain.
  12. What would you describe as the most important aspects of the development of the Na'vi language?
  13. In which way do you think Na'vi has been influenced/changed by the fact that the language now is used for human communication?
  14. Do you think most people learn to write Na'vi before they learn how to speak it? Why or why not? In what way do you think this has influenced the language?
  15. Do you think that any Na'vi speakers or the Web sites have influenced Paul Frommer, the creator of Na'vi, in coining new words or developing new grammar? Please give examples.
  16. Do you think the Na'vi language, as known today, has all the vocabulary and all the grammar that is necessary for extensive human communication in all fields of life? Please give examples.
  17. Do you think Na'vi will need more speakers to survive as a language?
  18. How do you think Na'vi can attract more speakers?
  19. How do you think Na'vi will develop in the future?
  20. Do you have any other comments on the development of the Na'vi language?

[3.2] Because most learning appeared to be occurring via the Learn Na'vi Web site (, an online approach to the research seemed best to reach Na'vi speakers around the world. As soon as I posted a link to the survey on the Learn Na'vi forums, Na'vi speakers expressed interest in my project and provided suggestions on how to make sure all of their members' voices could accurately be heard. In particular, the community members gave me advice on age limits (for example, many of them were younger than 19 years of age, so my survey's age ranges needed to be adjusted). Additionally, some of the members did not speak English, so my survey needed to be translated into other languages, which they offered to do for free. I immediately began to see how welcoming and generous the Na'vi speaker community could be. Hellekson (2009) has written about the online fan gift culture, and in this article I provide more details on fandom gift culture, both from outside the typical fan fiction setting and from within the online fandom of Na'vi speakers.

[3.3] Here I describe who Na'vi speakers are based on their responses to the survey. I summarize how individuals are learning Na'vi online, as well as why they are learning Na'vi. I illustrate how Na'vi speakers are included in two types of fandoms: (1) fans of the Na'vi language and (2) fans of the movie Avatar. Because Na'vi speakers often state that one of their reasons for learning the language is the welcoming community of other speakers, I describe Na'vi speakers' ideas about who they are and whether they consider themselves a community, a culture, or both. In focusing on community dynamics, I aim to address Pearson's (2010) questions about whether virtual fandoms constitute communities.

[3.4] The Na'vi speaker survey was based on a similar study of advanced Klingon speakers, conducted in 2004 by Yens Wahlgren, a Swedish linguistics student (note 5). Twenty questions comprised the Na'vi survey (table 1), which was originally advertised on the Learn Na'vi Web site, as well as other Avatar fan sites, and in e-mail mailing lists related to linguistics. I discuss the answers to questions 1 through 11, which address who Na'vi speakers are and the possibility of a Na'vi community and culture. As previously mentioned, the survey was originally provided only in English. However, because of extensive interest from members of the Learn Na'vi community and concerns that community members who were not fluent in English would not be able to participate, volunteers eventually translated the survey into seven other languages (German, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, French, Italian, and Na'vi itself). Concerns that numerous members of the Na'vi community were under the age of 19 and would not be allowed to participate prompted an amendment to the original ethics application so younger individuals could participate. In total, 293 individuals from 38 different countries in seven different languages participated in the survey (note 6).

4. Who are Na'vi speakers?

[4.1] In the online survey questionnaire form, I provided open-ended question boxes for the Na'vi speakers to fill in rather than giving them boxes to check. I wanted to give the Na'vi speakers a chance to share their voices because they had often been stereotyped as fanatics in media stories. This often provided me with more data than I was expecting, but I think it also gave me more insight into the true diversity of who Na'vi speakers actually are.

[4.2] Question 1: Age ranges. The youngest Na'vi speaker respondent was 10 years old, while the oldest was 81—which is quite a large difference. However, the majority of participants (62 percent) were between the ages of 15 and 24, with 100 respondents in the 15- to 19-year age range and 77 in the 20- to 24-year age range.

[4.3] Question 2: Gender. A total of 72 percent of respondents were male, 26 percent were female, and 2 percent replied that their genders were other, such as gender queer, transgender, or gender other. This was one question where the open-ended question boxes allowed for Na'vi speaker diversity to be captured. In fact, one respondent commented, "Thank you for making this a free-response area!" (note 7). In general, Na'vi speakers are three times as likely to be male as female or other.

[4.4] Question 3: Education levels. Not surprisingly, because many of the participants were between the ages of 15 and 24, the education levels of the Na'vi speakers varied considerably. The majority of participants (74 percent) were either still in high school (98 individuals) or had completed some university or college education (113 individuals). However, of the older participants, 24 individuals had pursued some level of graduate study, and four individuals had completed doctorates.

[4.5] Question 4. Nationalities. Participants were from 38 different countries, and within those countries, there were a wide range of ethnic identities. Table 2 lists the complete number of respondents and the countries they identified when asked, "What is your nationality?" It should be noted that the "other (i.e., ethnicity)" number listed includes people who answered with ethnic labels, such as Latino, rather than a country name for nationality. It is not surprising that Germany, Russia, France, Italy, and Hungary were among the countries with the highest numbers of participants listed because a version of the survey was available in the main national languages of all of these countries.

Table 2. Nationalities of Na'vi speakers

Nationality No. of Responses
American 90
German 34
Russian 24
French 16
English/British 15
Italian 11
Hungarian 8
Australian 7
Canadian 7
Swedish 5
Czech 4
Ukrainian 4
Brazilian 3
Chinese 3
New Zealander 3
Polish 3
Belarusian 2
Belgian 2
Danish 2
Dutch 2
Finnish 2
South African 2
Austrian 1
Croatian 1
Indonesian 1
Irish 1
Israeli 1
Jamaican 1
Lithuanian 1
Malaysian 1
Nepalese 1
Norwegian 1
Pakistani 1
Scottish 1
Slovakian 1
Swiss 1
Taiwanese 1
Welsh 1
Other (i.e., ethnicity) 22

[4.6] Question 5: Expertise in linguistics. The Klingon study that this research was based on found that "most of the informants have studied linguistics or languages" (Wahlgren 2004, 17), and therefore I wondered if this would be true for speakers of Na'vi as well. I hypothesized that it was likely that most speakers would know something about linguistics or would have previously learned other languages. This was true for some individuals (28 percent and 20 percent, respectively), but the majority of participants (52 percent) had no knowledge of linguistics and had never learned a language other than their mother tongue.

[4.7] Question 6: Fan status. I wondered whether individuals learning Na'vi were fans of the movie Avatar, since Wahlgren's (2004) study showed that individuals who were learning the Klingon language were not necessarily fans of Star Trek. Wahlgren recorded an interview with Lawrence Shoen, director of the Klingon Language Institute, in which Shoen states:

[4.8] You have people who are Star Trek fans, trekkers or trekkies, and within that group you have people who are Klingons…members of both groups are drawn to the language…particularly among the Klingon fan[s], they are role-playing, they have a Klingon persona, the[y] use make-up, uniforms, so they want some of the language to complete their character if you will. And sometimes they get hooked on the language. The other group could care less [about] the Star Trek, they have no real interest in Star Trek, they come to the language because of the language. These are the people that probably already studied Esperanto or Tolkien's Eldarin languages or dozens of other naturally occurring languages. (Shoen, quoted in Wahlgren 2004, 16)

[4.9] Therefore, a question in my Na'vi survey asked, "Do you consider yourself a fan of Avatar?" The answers were as follows: (1) fan (89 percent), (2) not a fan (8 percent), and (3) no answer (3 percent) (note 8). In my original analysis of this category, I wondered whether level of fandom could be determined on the basis of how people responded in the positive. For example, some individuals simply wrote "yes" in answer to this question, while others responded in all capital letters ("YES"), or included exclamation points ("YES!!!"), or answered with "totally," "absolutely," or "of course." However, without further clarification from the participants, it is difficult to comment conclusively on how many individuals are fans as opposed to huge fans, or whether Avatar fandom affected individuals' participation in the Na'vi speaking community (note 9). While this question examined who was a fan of the movie Avatar, I will discuss the concept of Na'vi language fandom in more detail below (note 10).

[4.10] Question 7: Length of time studying. This research study was conducted in June and July 2011, and at that time, Na'vi had been available as a subject of study for a maximum of 18 months. Some participants had begun learning Na'vi as soon as the Avatar movie came out, while others were still newly discovering that there was a Na'vi language and a Na'vi speech community. The question in this section asked, "How long have you been learning Na'vi?" This was a difficult question to assess quantitatively because some people began when the movie was first released, but they also commented that they weren't able to dedicate as much time to it as they would have liked or that they practiced and studied sporadically. Therefore, the numbers in this section indicate only when people began studying the Na'vi language, but cannot comment on intensity of studying during that length of time. In sum, 41 percent of participants had been studying Na'vi for between 13 and 18 months, 22 percent between 7 and 12 months, and 37 percent for 6 months or less. In comparing proficiency rates, fan status, and length of time studying, I was able to determine that some of the biggest fans of the movie Avatar were also those who had been studying the longest and who had reached the highest levels of proficiency in the Na'vi language. These are the individuals who seem to be the founding members of the Learn Na'vi community.

[4.11] Question 8: Proficiency levels. I was curious about the proficiency level of Na'vi speakers. Wahlgren (2004) specifically interviewed only advanced speakers of Klingon. However, because Na'vi had only been available for 18 months at the time of my survey, I wanted to include all speakers of Na'vi; I was unsure how many proficient or advanced speakers existed in 2011. The majority of respondents (45 percent) self-identified as very low-level or beginner speakers. However, 30 percent of respondents identified themselves as either intermediate (19 percent) or advanced (11 percent). Surprisingly, 3 percent of respondents stated that they did not know any of the Na'vi language. Often this was because such respondents were such new members of the Learn Na'vi community that they hadn't learned any of the language—but they still considered themselves to be part of the community. In this community, as well as other online communities, interested individuals tend to lurk before trying to learn Na'vi or posting for the first time. In fact, when asked about whether or not there is a Na'vi culture, one respondent stated, "I tend to lurk, so [I'm] not visibly part of it." The moderators of the Learn Na'vi forum are sensitive to lurking, however, and the forum page greets new visitors and encourages them to join the Na'vi community, stating "Kaltxì, Guest! Why don't you join our community?"

[4.12] To summarize, according to my survey results, average Na'vi speakers are generally between 15 and 24 years of age, are male, are attending either high school or university, are from the United States, have no previous knowledge of the field of linguistics, are fans of the movie Avatar, have been studying Na'vi for between 13 and 18 months, and are beginner speakers of the language (note 11). However, my study also showed the complex diversity of the Na'vi speaker community, including variations in age, gender, nationality, proficiency levels, and length of time studying the language. Because there is a range of diversity in this community, it can be seen to model the population demographics of natural language communities, but with an emphasis on American male youth as the largest population section. The focus on youth in particular is interesting for the connections created language communities may have with endangered language communities, because teaching youth their indigenous heritage languages is often a focus of language revitalization efforts (Wyman, McCarty, and Nicholas 2014). Because the Na'vi speaking community is diverse, the impact of the large number of youth community members, who may have more technological skills than others in their community as potential "digital natives" (Prensky 2001), could also be important for examining how this digital fandom is developing. In the next section, therefore, I move on from who Na'vi speakers are to how and why they are learning Na'vi, and what this means in terms of digital fandoms.

5. Online communities and Na'vi digital fandom

[5.1] The responses to the next two questions in the survey address how people are learning Na'vi and why they are interested in learning the language. Both of these sections are tied to the role of online communities and digital fandoms for language learning.

[5.2] Question 9: How do respondents learn? I was particularly interested in investigating how Na'vi speakers were learning the language because, as I have noted previously (Schreyer 2011), created language communities, such as the community of Na'vi speakers, could be role models for endangered language communities—those communities, often indigenous or minority communities, that are losing their ancestral languages. Some created language communities, particularly those involved in fandoms, have excelled at acquisition language planning; they have been able to acquire speakers quite quickly even though the languages are no one's mother tongue. Because participants were learning Na'vi through a variety of methods, answers to this section were often multilayered. Here is an example answer from one of the participants to the question, "What methods have you used for learning Na'vi?"

[5.3] Mostly the website, including one and a half sessions in Project NgayNume and an unofficial email conversation group. I have also watched YouTube videos and listened to fan-created Na'vi songs, both downloaded and on Tirea Radio. I very much like the Na'vi–English dictionary at [] and the reference grammar (it's amazing!)

[5.4] Online language learning was key for many, and the online methods of language learning that had more than five responses are outlined in table 3. Respondents tended to list many different ways they had learned Na'vi in their answers, but the Learn Na'vi Web site was mentioned the most often (196 times). As a result, I also recorded the pieces of the Learn Na'vi Web site that people mentioned most frequently as tools for their language learning (table 4). The answer that is most tied to the digital fandom of the Na'vi speech community is the Forum Interactions section, which had 52 responses.

Table 3. Online methods of learning Na'vi

Method of LearningNo. of Responses (
Na' ( (Paul Frommer's blog)23
Avatar Italia (Italian Avatar Web sites)7
Tirea Radio (Na'vi radio Web sites)5
Tree of Voices (language learning Web sites)5 (Russian LearnNavi Web sites)5

Table 4. Learn Na'vi tools

Methods and Tools from LearnNavi.orgNo. of Responses
Dictionaries 70
Forum Interactions52
Na'vi in a Nutshell (practical grammar)42
NgayNume/TeamSpeak 25
The Reference Grammar22
Fan-made workbook21
Neytiri Project5

[5.5] Participants learned Na'vi in other ways as well: spoken conversations (in person at meet-ups, and over Skype) (30 responses); watching the movie Avatar (21 responses); using flashcards (17 responses); written conversations (e-mail or chat) (16 responses); self-directed study (13 responses); translating stories, songs, and so on (13 responses); using audio recordings (11 responses); and using the Learn Na'vi app (6 responses). In conclusion, the wide range of methods shows how innovative the Na'vi speakers have been with their language learning; it is this innovation that speakers of endangered languages may be able to model in their language learning efforts.

[5.6] Question 10: Why are people learning Na'vi? As mentioned earlier, the obvious assumption people tend to have when thinking about why anyone would learn Na'vi is that they must be Avatar fanatics. Certainly this is how the media tends to portray Na'vi learners. However, the answers I received to the question "Why do you study Na'vi?" received a diverse set of responses that indicates the diverse set of people who are included in the Na'vi speech community. The top seven reported motivations for studying Na'vi are listed in table 5.

Table 5. Motivations for learning Na'vi

Motivation for LearningNo. of Responses
The fascinating or "cool" factor118
Part of being a fan of the movie Avatar93
Part of my linguistic affinities*77
For fun/hobby65
Because of how Na'vi sounds40
Because of the welcoming community34
To have a learning challenge20

*This includes previous or new exposure/interest in the study of linguistics or language learning, as well as general interest in created languages (including other conlangs).

[5.7] It is particularly interesting to note that the number 1 cited reason for learning Na'vi is not that people are fans of the movie (the number 2 reason) but that the language itself is "fascinating" or "cool." This community is first and foremost a Na'vi language fan–based community and secondarily an Avatar fan–based community. In addition, a number of respondents mentioned the welcoming community of speakers as a factor in their language learning motivations. Because much of this interaction occurs online, this factor has significance in the world of digital communities and digital fandoms, and helps to address the question of whether or not online groups are communities (Pearson 2010).

[5.8] What follow are a few quotations from respondents to illustrate in more detail why people are learning Na'vi, and in particular the importance of community to Na'vi speakers.

[5.9] I was deeply impressed by the movie. I wanted to do something that would bring me nearer to Pandora. When I "found" the language, I started learning it, the community was great and I found a lot of new friends with whom I feel connected, even though I never saw most of them in person. So, I started learning because of being a fan and am still learning because the community keeps me at it. Also the language sounds ingenious and it's not that difficult, really, so that you get results quickly ;) :)

[5.10] I don't learn the language just because it's fun to talk with others in it but also to keep the connection to the movie and the Na'vi—with this language you feel a bit closer to Pandora. Other than that the LearnNa'vi-community is just incredible. In comparison with other communities, I noticed most of all that they treat each other much more tolerant here.

[5.11] First of all I love the movie very much so it's naturally interesting for me to learn the language of that beautiful world. Also, the language has some beautiful concepts in it. Also, the grammar is quite weird sometimes and this makes the language challenging and interesting. The words have a nice sound. In addition, the people in the forum are supportive and fun to talk with and it helps you learn and want to keep learning.

[5.12] Because I love languages, and studying them is like a hobby for me. I also found so many friends and people with similar interests on the learnnavi-forums, and it was that community that made me stay and truly learn this language.

[5.13] These comments illustrate that the community is one aspect that truly keeps individuals continuing to learn the language. Outsiders to created language communities and/or fan studies often ask, "Can a group of speakers of a fake language truly be considered a community?" In fact, created language researchers often ask the question themselves in their writing so that they are able to answer it and therefore establish that, yes, created language communities do exist. For example, Okrand et al. write, "Can the group of Klingon users surveyed be considered a sociolinguistic group?…We can conclude that if there is a Klingon speech community, it is very small indeed" (2011, 131). Okrent (2009) writes of Esperanto speakers, "Can the thing that Esperantists share with each other really be called a culture?" (116) before she asserts, "The Esperantists worked to create a community and a culture" (117). The Na'vi speakers have also developed this sense of community through their shared language practices, aided by digital technologies. As Booth writes, "Fans use digital technology not only to create, to change, to appropriate, to poach, or to write, but also to share, to experience together, to become alive with community" (2010, 39).

[5.14] Next, I turn to the divergent perspectives the Na'vi speakers themselves have on what exactly constitutes their community, whether or not that community has a culture, and how digital technologies play a role in both.

6. Na'vi culture or community?

[6.1] As can be seen through the comments of the Na'vi learners I quote here, as well as from the descriptions of how people learn the Na'vi language, it is clear that much of the interaction between Na'vi speakers is happening online. In fact, in his book A Dictionary of Made-up Languages, Rogers writes the following of Na'vi: "Being a language born during the Internet age, Na'vi has better online representation than most other made-up languages" (2011, 155). Na'vi speakers, like many others, are adapting to the world we live in where online worlds are growing and developing every day.

[6.2] To understand whether Na'vi speakers thought that they shared customs, beliefs, communicative practices—in other words, culture—the survey asked, "Do you feel that there is a Na'vi culture and, if so, are you a part of it?" The answers, not surprisingly, were multiple and contradictory. One individual's response seems to cover many of the key issues, so I include it as an example to build on:

[6.3] There is the (1) theoretical (fictional) culture of the Na'vi in the film…There is also a (2) pragmatic culture within the community based on members' communication styles, decorum, spirit of mutual support, etc…this is a human culture that I feel aspires to extract out of and maintain the best in people. It seems to be that a part of this "community culture" must be influenced somehow or other by the "wholesome" Na'vi ideals that are presented in the film. This "culture of good people" is very appealing to me and I am very much a part of that. Finally, there are those who (3) enjoy pretending to be Na'vi (the cos-play contingent). While, I also find these folks pleasant and interesting and am pleased to have them as friends, I do not personally relate to their core interests or motivations. I will never paint my own body blue or don a tail or assume a fictitious Na'vi persona.

[6.4] From this response, we can see that this respondent thinks that there are at least three types of Na'vi culture: the "fictional culture," the "community culture," and the "cosplay contingent." Although all three are considered in the answer, other respondents had definitive views on only one of these three or even alternatives to these three. I next describe each of these response groupings.

7. Fictional culture

[7.1] The fictional culture is the culture of the Na'vi people created for the movie Avatar. People who replied that the Na'vi culture was the one seen in the film did not think that they could be a part of the culture because it does not exist in real life. One individual responded, "No [there is no Na'vi culture]. It's a film." Another said, "The only Na'vi culture there is currently is the virtual Na'vi culture that is on this virtual planet called Pandora." Others were sad that they could not be Na'vi as seen in the film, such as a respondent who said, "I am defining Na'vi culture as the culture of the creatures in the film. I am a human being, not a Na'vi (sadly)" (note 12).

[7.2] However, more respondents thought that the ideals and customs of the Na'vi people in the film—their connection to nature and respect for their ecosystem—is something that Na'vi speakers on earth are trying to emulate. Therefore, they thought that the fictional Na'vi culture is also becoming real to some extent. As one individual stated, "Yes, there is a Na'vi culture (both in the film itself and outside it)…It's a beautiful culture and one that is needed in our world today." Another participant explained this in more detail:

[7.3] There are, I would say, two Na'vi cultures. There is the fictional culture of the movie, which, of course, I am not a part of, and then there is the new, greater awareness of nature, making meoauniaea (the balance of all things within nature) a bigger part of one's daily life…I am definitely a part of that "Na'vi culture."

[7.4] Last, one respondent thought that the fictional and real ways of being in the world could be blended: "I think that the 'Na'vi culture' is a way of thinking/feeling/living/ that follows the way of the Na'vi in the movie to better our connection with and behavior on earth as humans." Other participants responded to this question with more of a focus on the community of speakers with whom they were involved.

8. Community and/or culture?

[8.1] Some people seemed comfortable describing a culture of the Na'vi speech community, but others thought a culture (the social customs and beliefs of the group) had not yet developed sufficiently to be fully labeled as such. One respondent wrote, "I would consider there to be a 'community,' existing in its infancy, but not something necessarily so coherent as to be identified as a 'culture.'" Another replied, "There's certainly a Na'vi speakers-and-learners community, and that community has some shared characteristics and experiences, but I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as a 'culture.'" However, others strongly argued that there was a culture associated with the community. One individual wrote:

[8.2] Absolutely there is a Na'vi culture, and it is incredibly welcoming…There is a social structure (different titles for different levels), there is even a place for people to ask for help or advice with personal issues…they have meetings, group trips, and are even thinking about starting a physical community.

[8.3] Social customs, including differences in communicative competence (for example, whom do you address, and with which title?), are included here, and this response describes the community's interpersonal relations. However, this is not yet a physical community but instead a digital one. Other responses focus on the online community and culture as well, particularly the interactions that occur on the Learn Na'vi forums. I list several responses that indicate the prominence of the Learn Na'vi Web site as the central digital locale for this community:

[8.4] If any "Na'vi culture" existed it would be those on Learnnavi itself.

[8.5] I do feel that there is certainly a "language culture" per se that has developed on Learn Na'vi through the interactions of Learnnavi members.

[8.6] The closest thing to a Na'vi culture would probably be the forums at

[8.7] In sum, the majority of individuals agreed there is a Na'vi community, and possibly a Na'vi culture, and that both are primarily online. To return to Okrent's comments about Esperanto, she argues that speakers of Esperanto have developed both a community and a culture: "Yes, they did this somewhat artificially and self-consciously, but it did work (forced tradition + time = real tradition), and it turned out that many people who may not have been inspired to learn a language to use it for something would learn a language in order to participate in something" (2009, 117).

[8.9] It is the digital tools of social media, such as the Learn Na'vi forums, that have made it easier to participate in the Na'vi speech community.

9. Participating in the Na'vi speech community

[9.1] Use versus participation, as Okrent (2009) writes for Esperanto, is relevant to the second part of the original survey question, "Do you feel that there is a Na'vi culture and, if so, are you a part of it?" For the people who answered that they did not feel as if they were a part of the community or culture, the ability to communicate in the Na'vi language was the main exclusion criterion. One respondent said, "No, [I don't feel like I'm a part of it] because I'm not fluent in [Na'vi]." Quite a few individuals had similar comments:

[9.2] I am definitely part of the conlanging culture, but I probably haven't spent enough time immersed in the language to be part of the nascent true Na'vi community yet.

[9.3] I am not a part of it due to too small investment in learning the language and visiting the Na'vi-related websites.

[9.4] There definitely is a Na'vi culture but I'm not an active enough learner to be a part of it.

[9.5] Those who can speak Na'vi "fluently" seem to have a sense of community.

[9.6] The reliance on communicative ability as a defining feature of the Na'vi language community illustrates that to some extent Na'vi community members, as well as those who strive to be community members, see communication as one of the key features to the "imagined community." Anderson's original work in imagined communities stressed the importance of a shared national language "because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (1983, 6). Shared language is key for this newly formed imagined community as well—the online digital Na'vi language fandom. Thus, is there a Na'vi community and/or culture? The simple answer is that there are many (note 13). To expand this, the majority of respondents agreed that there is a Na'vi community. This community is also a speech community because the community is based around a language and different ways of speaking. As Rogers writes, "Over time, we bond with others who share our language—to the point where we will consider those who speak a different shared language as outsiders. We identify ourselves by our language" (2011, v). Debate still exists as to whether culture has developed within this community, but most survey respondents agreed that whatever the community is, it is found online at the Learn Na'vi forum.

10. Conclusions

[10.1] What can this study add to the range of research projects on digital ethnographies and digital fandoms? Pearson, in her 2010 article on digital fandoms, questioned (1) whether fandoms need a sense of community and (2) whether virtual fandoms constitute a community. She suggested that anthropological perspectives might help find answers to these points of contention. My survey of Na'vi speakers helps answer these questions by addressing who the speakers are (they are diverse, like many real-world communities) and how they have developed as a community (by learning the language online). I used anthropological perspectives to conduct the survey because I participated in the online community and engaged the Na'vi community members in how best to conduct the research. The survey asked people why they were learning Na'vi and found that, contrary to popular belief, it is a fandom of both the movie and, more importantly, of the language. I say "more importantly" here because respondents most often cited the fact that the language was "fascinating" or "cool" as their reason for learning the language.

[10.2] The welcoming nature of the community is also important, and my research showed that gift culture exists in the Na'vi community as it does in other fandoms. Relating Mauss's ideas of the gift to online fan communities, Hellekson writes that "fan communities as they are currently comprised, require gift exchanges" (2009, 114). Many of these gifts are what Erika Pearson calls "effort gifts" (2007) or what Hellekson calls "gifts of time and skill" (2009, 115). Hellekson writes that these and other online gifts in fandoms are exchanged "with the goal of creating and maintaining social solidarity" (116). This is true within the Na'vi community as well, where fans have shared their own knowledge, skills, and time to develop dictionaries in numerous languages, practical and academic reference grammars, workbooks, and radio programs, to name only a few. The gift culture of the Na'vi community also enabled me to more successfully conduct my research, as I was provided the gifts of advice and translation efforts for both the survey itself and the answers to the surveys. Digital fan gift culture mimics the gifts that are often exchanged during other traditional forms of ethnographic fieldwork (Dobrin 2006). Booth also includes the production of materials in his definition of a fan community or fandom. For him, a fandom is "a loose knit, but allied group of people who all produce or create original documents based on extant media objects" (2010, 40). In this case, while Na'vi speakers are producing documents to help each other learn the language, they are also producing language—a different product of the community.

[10.3] In the introduction to the edited volume Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology, Whitehead and Wesch describe how anthropologists need to rethink fieldwork in the digital age. Reflecting on the works in the book, they ask, "How do ethnographic practices and the ethnographer evolve in the online context? How are they revolutionized? What constitutes the field?" (2012, 7). My survey of Na'vi speakers is therefore an example of revised digital ethnographic practices. Whitehead and Wesch also discuss community formation: "As humans become more digitally connected, we must recognize that the sociality that emerges from such connections might not always be immediately analogous to traditional social formations" (2012, 9).

[10.4] The Na'vi community is a digitally meditated fandom, but in 2011, its members could not agree on how they should be viewed. Were they members of a community, did they have a culture, and what were the defining inclusion criteria? Many answered that knowledge of the Na'vi language, the main focus of the fandom, was what held the group together even though the movie Avatar might have brought them online in the first place. Created language communities are alternative digital fandoms and so provide a new lens into the developing complex digital world as well as a new type of fandom to consider.

[10.5] Created language communities, as new speech communities, can also be examined for clues to a wide range of linguistic and anthropological questions. For instance, because created language communities are new speech communities, researchers could examine how social norms develop and what this might tell us about how the social norms and cultural values of natural languages originated. Because the Na'vi speech community is spread out across the globe and communicates mostly online via writing, they may also be an interesting case study of how spoken dialectical variation develops over time because the first language of the speakers may influence their pronunciation of Na'vi. Finally, as I have mentioned throughout, researchers and community members who are interested in language revitalization of minority languages can look to created language communities as models of innovation in language learning techniques and how to develop linguistic survivance or to persevere in the face of difficulty.

[10.6] As producers of pop culture media, such as movies and television series, continue to embrace created languages as being important to world building and context (note 14), we may see more digital language fandoms develop. It will be interesting to compare these new groups to the Na'vi speech community (one of the earliest online-dependent fan language communities) and even to the Klingon speech community (which developed before the existence of the Internet, but whose members have been online since the Klingon Language Institute [] was begun in 1992). Digital fandoms are changing and developing, and language fandoms are just one type that will evolve as humans continue to expand their digital practices in alternative digital locales.

11. Notes

1. Within this paper I use the term created languages, but the terms constructed languages (or conlangs) and invented languages are also in use.

2. For an example of a mockumentary on Avatar fanaticism, including Na'vi language learning, see Some articles that characterize Na'vi speaking individuals as fanatics are the following:;, which states that the Learn Na'vi Web site is another "bizarre Avatar spin-off"; and, which labels Na'vi learners as "obsessive Avatar fans."

3. For a history of created languages, see Adams (2011) and Okrent (2009).

4. A preliminary analysis of this data is posted online (

5. Judith Hendriks-Hermans also conducted a sociolinguistic survey of Klingon speakers in 1999, where she asked respondents to provide "personal information,…their relationship to Klingon, and…their attitudes toward the language" (Okrand et al. 2011, 129).

6. The survey was available in eight languages in total—English, Na'vi, Hungarian, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Ukrainian—but no one responded in Ukrainian.

7. All quotes from participants appear as originally written. I have not corrected spelling, punctuation, or grammar.

8. Interestingly, in the Russian surveys, 35 percent of individuals responded that they were not fans of the movie Avatar despite having a strong interest in the Na'vi language. In personal communications since the survey has been completed, it has come to my attention that the subtitles in the Russian release of the movie Avatar were not clear, and many Russian speakers began to learn Na'vi to better understand the movie's details.

9. In the preliminary analysis of the data found online, there is a breakdown of "fan" (63 percent) and "huge fan" (26 percent), based on style of response.

10. For more information on types of Avatar fans and audience members, see Michelle, Davis, and Vladica (2012) and Loshitzky (2012).

11. After the analysis of my Na'vi survey results, I hired an undergraduate research assistant, Elizabeth Cadieux, to analyze the data provided in a section of the Learn Na'vi forum called "Na'vi of the Week" (NoW). In this section, Learn Na'vi community members answered a set series of questions about who they were and why they were learning Na'vi. The results of Cadieux's analysis showed that the NoW data generally matched the survey data I received in the categories of age, gender, education, nationality, and fan status.

12. Both Loshitzky (2012) and Michelle, Davis, and Vladica (2012) in their articles on Avatar fans describe how moviegoers were saddened when they finished viewing the movie because they cannot go to the planet of Pandora; some of my respondents also commented on this.

13. Other responses for types of Na'vi culture that survey participants thought existed included the culture of the massive multiplayer online game of Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) as well as the Na'vi culture as a subculture that is tied to the Internet, and finally, that Na'vi culture is a "nerdy" culture.

14. Linguist David Peterson created languages for the television series Game of Thrones (2011–), Defiance (2013–), and Star-Crossed (2014), as well as the move Thor: The Dark World (2013). I was hired to create the Kryptonian language for the movie Man of Steel (2013).

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