Do You Speak Na'vi? Giving Voice To 'Avatar' Aliens

Neytiri and Jake i i

hide captionNa'vi native Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and the Na'vi avatar for the human Jake (Sam Worthington) are among those who speak a language that currently has roughly 1,000 words — though linguist Paul Frommer has said he hopes it will continue to grow as the Avatar universe does.

Twentieth Century Fox
Neytiri and Jake

Na'vi native Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana) and the Na'vi avatar for the human Jake (Sam Worthington) are among those who speak a language that currently has roughly 1,000 words — though linguist Paul Frommer has said he hopes it will continue to grow as the Avatar universe does.

Twentieth Century Fox

Avatar, James Cameron's first movie since Titanic, opens Dec. 18, and for it, he's created a new world known as Pandora — and a race of tall blue aliens, too. The expensive visual effects, many of them using technology developed by Cameron specifically for Avatar, have gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks.

But the director also commissioned an entire language for the Na'vi. Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California, is the linguist who built it for him — and he says the bar Cameron set was pretty high.

"He wanted a complete language, with a totally consistent sound system, morphology, syntax," Frommer says. And "he wanted it to sound good — he wanted it to be pleasant, he wanted it to be appealing to the audience."

Paul Frommer i i

hide captionPaul Frommer has studied languages as varied as Mandarin and Hebrew — and wrote a linguistics workbook that includes an exercise in deciphering Klingon.

John Brinkley
Paul Frommer

Paul Frommer has studied languages as varied as Mandarin and Hebrew — and wrote a linguistics workbook that includes an exercise in deciphering Klingon.

John Brinkley

Frommer spent years working on the Na'vi language, eventually teaching it to all of the principal actors who have to speak it, and making recordings for them to listen to on their iPods.

Later, he worked on the set during shooting, coaching actors on pronunciation between takes, and even writing the occasional extra line when Cameron decided a scene needed tweaking.

And though he invented the language, says Frommer, that last part wasn't always a snap.

"Sometimes I could come up with it right away, and sometimes I'd have to say, 'Give me five minutes, OK?' "

He recalls one memorable example: "Jim Cameron and Sam Worthington came up to me and said, 'We've decided that the character Jake is going to be recounting an incident he had where he was bitten in his big blue butt — so how do you say 'big blue butt?' ... I had 'big' and I had 'blue,' but I didn't have 'butt.' "

A Language Of His Own, And No One To Speak It With

The actors in Avatar worked hard to learn the dialogue on the page, but none of them actually mastered the Na'vi language, with all its internally consistent rules of grammar and syntax.

'Hi, How Are You?' (Or Words To That Effect)

Frommer coaches Renee Montagne through a simple greeting:

"At this point, I'm pretty much the only one who knows the grammar," Frommer admits. "Maybe that'll change as time goes on. ... Who knows?"

See It, Believe It

You know your alien language has taken off when a German guy translates rap songs into it:

In fact, Frommer says, he's been "pleased to see that there's some interest" from fans who've expressed curiosity about how and where to learn the language, even before the film's release.

It wouldn't be the first time.

"Klingon is an incredible language," Frommer says, pointing to the dense and complicated tongue invented by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek movies.

"It's really taken on a life of its own," Frommer says admiringly, with fans participating in everything from Klingon karaoke to full-on, dead-serious Klingon opera.

"There's a translation of Hamlet into Klingon," says Frommer. "So if Na'vi ever achieved anything close to that, I'd be absolutely delighted."

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