Nautilus

Cracking Avatar’s Language Codes

One hot Thursday in July, I met a gangly young man at Washington D.C.’s Union Station. Energetic and slightly nervous, he politely shook my hand and ushered me to a silver sedan where his girlfriend, Sarah, was at the wheel. Although he introduced himself as Ian Riley, for the next five days I would know him as Ftiafpi. Ftiafpi, meaning “for the sake of studying,” is his name in Na’vi, a language specially created for James Cameron’s 2009 epic 3-D film, Avatar.

Ian and Sarah were taking me to AvatarMeet, an annual gathering of fans and Na’vi speakers to be held amid the sweeping forests of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. As we drove towards the gathering, the land became greener, with eagles replacing city pigeons, and road signs pointing to waterfalls and farms instead of expressways. Nearing our destination, Sarah’s exasperation with the traffic grew while Riley fidgeted in the front seat with anticipation. Riley’s custom white T-shirt read “Oeru syaw fko Ftiafpi,” Na’vi for “My name is Ftiafpi.” This was his first Meet in two years, he said, reaching across to touch Sarah’s shoulder. “It is Sarah’s first time, too,” he said, beaming, as Sarah patiently removed his hand and concentrated on the road ahead.

Over the course of the next five days I would discover a community defined by a language that did not exist five years ago. The vanguard of the community was the code-breaker: Like many other fan bases revolving around an invented language, many, if not most

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