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Artificial Language: Na’vi, Elvish & More

By Nicole at Accredited Language
Updated on Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Category: Etymology, Etymology, Films, Films, Languages, Languages, Literature, Television

The release of James Cameron’s cinematic juggernaut Avatar in December 2009, focused attention on fictional languages – specifically on Na’vi, the artificial language created for the film.

Dozens of fictional languages have appeared in literature and movies, but only a handful of these artificial languages are developed enough to be spoken day-to-day. Unsurprisingly, these languages were created by trained linguists who collaborated with authors – or happened to be authors themselves.

Na’vi is among a select few fictional languages that has a fully-realized grammatical and syntactical structure. Created by linguist Paul Frommer at the University of Southern California, it has 7 vowels, 20 consonants, and an unusual system of “infixes” – suffixes placed in the middle of the word.

Frommer has said that he was inspired by Xhosa, Bantu, and Japanese – but he might have also taken a hint from these two famous artificial languages that have also attracted thousands of speakers:


Although its first few words and general sound were created for Star Trek by James Doohan, who played Scotty on the series and in the early films, Klingon was developed into a fully realized artificial language by linguist Marc Okrand for future installments.

Spoken by an enemy alien race of the same name on the TV series, Klingon features a diverse array of consonants and phonemes that gives the artificial language its otherworldly sound. It is also unusual in its object-verb-subject construction; “I am eating french fries” would be “French fries are eating I.”


Developed by J. R. R. Tolkien for the Lord of the Rings series, Sindarin (often called Elven) is the language of the Elvish people of Middle-earth. Tolkien developed the phonology and grammar from a mix of Welsh, Icelandic, Old English and Old Norse.

Tolkien even outlined a series of dialects of the artificial language, and traced their development and shared roots in other languages. Although Sindarin is usually written in the Latin alphabet by contemporary speakers, some have mastered the original script, known as Cirth or Tengwar.

Other Popular Artificial Languages

Dothraki & High Valyrian

When George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire was adapted into a television series, the producers hired an expert to bring the language of the Dothraki people to life. Developed by David Peterson, the Dothraki language reflects the lifestyle of those who use it: as a nomadic people in an unforgiving environment, they have an extensive vocabulary relating to the horses they rely on for mobility, but no word for “thank you.”

As the series has progressed, Peterson has also been tapped to create a language called “High Valyrian,” which serves as a sort of lingua franca for several nations. Using a handful of words and phrases from Martin’s novels, Peterson fleshed out High Valyrian into a commanding, lyrical tongue.


H. P. Lovecraft introduced this artificial language in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu.” The story revolves around an otherworldly cult that repeatedly chants in R’lyehian. Although Lovecraft didn’t specify a grammar for this fictional language, you can learn one classic phrase: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” Need a translation? In English, that’s: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.”

City Speak

The futuristic language in Blade Runner, City Speak is described as “a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” In a post-apocalyptic world, the movie imagines a time when all spoken languages will be combined into one common language.


Another imagining of language in the future, Newspeak comes from George Orwell’s novel 1984. Orwell published an essay that described the artificial language in greater detail: it features short words and a marked lack of synonyms. Fewer words meant fewer alternative thoughts – Newspeak limited characters’ abilities to deviate from the norm.


Readers of the sci-fi classic Dune might recognize a few words in this language, created by author Frank Herbert. Herbert designed this artificial language of the Fremen, a population that lives on a harsh desert planet, as a distant relative of Arabic.


Although it’s never heard as spoken dialogue, 2013’s Superman movie Man of Steel created a language from the doomed planet of Krypton. Linguist Christine Schreyer worked with graphic designer Kirsten Franson to construct vocabulary and syntax, as well as a written script for the language, based on the writing system used by the Cree.

This writing can be seen throughout the scenes that take place on Krypton, lending some authenticity to the fictional planet. And with this new script, the symbol on Superman’s chest isn’t just the English letter S – it’s also the Kryptonian symbol for “Hope.”

3 Responses to “Artificial Language: Na’vi, Elvish & More”

  1. Jess Says:

    Great post!

    I’ve often noticed that science fiction and fantasy are genres which often use language in unique and creative ways.

    Joss Whedon’s show “Firefly” for example dealt with cursing in an interesting way. Characters on “Firefly”, a show set in the future, curse in Mandarin. The thought process behind this was that in the future the two dominant languages might be English and Chinese. As there is no way that the characters in the show wouldn’t swear like sailors, cursing in Chinese was the best way Whedon saw for his characters to be allowed to curse on basic cable in the U.S. (Although I don’t think they were ever actually curse words – just extremely rude things English translated into rude Mandarin and made to sound like swearing.) Apparently the translators for that show had a lot of fun trying to translate the impolite English phrases into impolite Mandarin phrases.

    The show “Battlestar Galactica” also gets pasts the T.V. censors by using non-English words (in this case, made up ones) as curses (“frak” is the substitute for a word that I won’t type here…)

    Finally, the British T.V. show “Doctor Who” deals with translation in a fun way (although not with cursing). In “Doctor Who”, The Doctor travels through time and space with friends (also called companions). Obviously not everyone would be speaking English, however it wouldn’t really be feasible to use the sheer number of languages (both real and invented) that the show would require. The solution to this is that The Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, translates languages for the characters (and audience) in the characters heads. The writers have some moments of fun with this, notably when The Doctor and his companion Donna travel to Pompeii in 79 CE. The Doctor explains to Donna that the TARDIS is translating everything she says into Latin, but she still hears it as English. Then the following exchange between Donna, The Doctor, and a merchant at a market takes place:
    Donne: What if I said something in actual Latin? Like, “Veni, vidi, vici”? My dad said that when he came back from football. If I said, “Veni, vidi, vici,” to that lot, what would it sound like?
    The Doctor: I’m not sure. You have to think up difficult questions, don’t you?
    Donna: [excited] I’m gonna try it!
    Stallholder: A’ernoon, sweetheart. What can I get ya, my love?
    Donna: Um, “Veni, vidi, vici.”
    Stallholder: Huh? Sorry? [slowly and loudly] Me no a-speak Celtic. No can do, missy.
    Donna: [sarcastically] Yeah! [to The Doctor] How’s he mean, Celtic?
    The Doctor: Welsh. You sound Welsh. There we are. Learnt something.

    Anyway – SciFi/Fantasy writers sure have fun with languages!

  2. Bill Chapman Says:

    I would like to to see more attention paid to Esperanto as the international language. It is an artificial or planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

    Take a look at

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years.
    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

  3. Brian Barker Says:

    And before “Avatar” and “Star Trek” there was Bill Shatner speaking Esperanto, in the horror film called “Incubus”.


    As an Esperanto speaker I found it terrifying! His Esperanto pronunciation that is, not the film.

    Your readers may be interested in 🙂

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