How to speak Na'vi: An interview with the creator of the alien tongue in "Avatar"

Dr. Paul Frommer is a linguistics consultant, a professor at USC — and creator of the alien language in "Avatar"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 11, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Avatar: The Way Of Water (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
Avatar: The Way Of Water (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Though Americans have a reputation for being averse to foreign-language movies and television, that appears to be changing: consider South Korea's recent successes with "Parasite," which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020, and "Squid Game," the megahit Netflix series.

Now, Americans are headed out in droves to see a movie that has numerous scenes filmed in a foreign tongue — albeit one that has no native speakers.

The film I refer to, of course, is "Avatar: The Way of Water"; the foreign language in question is Na'vi, the native tongue of the fictional aliens on the planet of Pandora. Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguistics consultant and communications professor from the University of Southern California, was hired to create the alien language spoken in the film series, and that puts him in the unique position of being able to critique actors' performances of the novel tongue.

"Zoë [Saldaña] brings tremendous passion and conviction to her Na'vi," Frommer opined. Frommer was particularly impressed with the star's hit rendition of the song "The Songcord," co-written and produced by composer Simon Franglen, in which her character sings the Na'vi language at emotional moments in the movie. "She makes you feel it's really her native language."

Millions of people have seen one or both of the "Avatar" movies, which include 2009's "Avatar" and the newly-released "Avatar: The Way of Water." The latter is still on top of the global box office a month after its premiere, with both movies ranking among the 10 highest grossing films ever made. While numerous young children and aspiring philologists alike have engaged in the hobby of inventing languages, Frommer is in the unique position of having his heard by millions of people around the world.

"Since the Na'vi only have four digits on each hand rather than five, it occurred to me that they would probably have an octal rather than a decimal counting system. So I mentioned that to [director and writer] James Cameron and he said, 'Yeah, absolutely!'"

Using the term "gatekeeper" when describing his role choosing which proposed words are deemed official in the Na'vi lexicon, Frommer is clearly proud of his conlang ("constructed language"), and he has very good reason. Despite existing for a fictional world, Na'vi sounds real because it is real — so much so that it has bustling fan communities devoted to speaking it. There are even Na'vi dialects, with Frommer singling out actor Robert Okumu (who plays the chief of the Ta'unui sea clan in "Avatar: The Way of Water") for having "nailed his dialog in Reef Na'vi with great accuracy."

Regardless of one's opinion on the film's other elements, the presence of an authentic Na'vi language throughout "Avatar: The Way of Water" makes the movie vivid and memorable in at least one way that is not true for most blockbusters. It gives the film an additional layer through which it can be processed and enjoyed. For this tifkifpamrelsiyu (my attempt to create a Na'vi neologism for "science writer"; etymology is explained in the interview transcript), trying to parse through the Na'vi dialects in the movie was a fun project to undertake while diving into "Avatar: The Way of Water." The Na'vi language is actually something any human can learn, and many have — some Na'vi language hobbyists even write to Frommer in the invented tongue. "They're an intelligent, warm, and supportive group of people from all walks of life, and some of them have become my close personal friends," Frommer declared.

I asked Frommer what he thought of a comment from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who loved the 2009 "Avatar" movie but in his review scoffed at the notion that any human could speak Na'vi:

"As for Na'vi not being able to be spoken by humans, well, the last time I checked, the people who have embraced the language and use it for genuine communication — not only for day-to-day oral and written conversation but also for composing wonderful stories and poetry — are distinctly human."

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Salon spoke to Frommer about how to create a convincing constructed language, the fan community of Na'vi speakers, and how he came up with idioms and metaphors for a fictional culture. Our interview has been edited for clarity and content.

What are your thoughts on the attitudes conveyed in "Avatar: The Way of Water" toward a common human problem — namely, struggling to learn a language?

Probably the best example from "The Way of Water" comes at the very beginning, when the film makes the transition from Na'vi to English. Jake says something like — I can't quote exactly, but along the lines of that he had heard and used the Na'vi language so much that it became as natural to him as English. At that point, you hear the Na'vi switch to English: The presumption is that they're actually speaking Na'vi, but we hear it as English. Of course, this avoids having the entire movie in subtitles, yet I think this is also a subtle reminder that the best way to learn the language is to be in the environment and to be exposed to the language. When you actually use the language for genuine communication, that's when it seems to sink in.

"There are a lot of supportive people out there who will mentor beginners who want to learn the language."

There are different language learning styles. There are some people who you could characterize as analytical. They like to study charts and diagrams and learn grammar rules and so on. There are other people who don't enjoy that kind of stuff. That doesn't mean that they can't learn the language. I've become interested in the work of a linguist, who actually is a close friend of mine, Dr. Stephen Krashen [emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California]. He argues that the best way to learn the language is to be in the environment, to be exposed to the language and actually use the language for genuine communication. That is when it seems to sink in. He also distinguishes between "language learning" and "language acquisition." Learning is what people typically do in a classroom. You're presented with grammatical rules, you have listed a vocabulary, and so on and so forth. "Translate these sentences."

Acquisition refers to the natural process that every normal human being goes through when they're growing up in some linguistic environment, and they seemingly absorb the language by osmosis. No one sits down with a three-year-old kid and says, "Okay, now we're going to go over the past tense and notice that in English the regular past tense has three different pronunciations." By being in the environment, hearing the language and most important, understanding the language, somehow or other something kicks in in the brain called the LAD — the language acquisition device. Traditionally it has been hypothesized that this device somehow or other turns off around the age of puberty. So prior to the age of puberty, there is a neurological device for picking up languages. If as a child you grew up in Beijing, then you will speak Mandarin that is totally indistinguishable from someone who was born there. Stephen Krashen's hypothesis is that acquisition can take place long after puberty. In fact, adults can acquire a language at any age. So he makes a distinction between "learning" and "acquisition."

Based on my research into the "Avatar" fan community, it seems there is a lot of acquisition-style learning in action. It seems like this language, because of the popularity of the films and the language itself, has developed a life of its own through that process.

A wonderful thing about the Na'vi language community, which has brought me personally tremendous satisfaction, is that there are a lot of supportive people out there who will mentor beginners who want to learn the language. A lot of them! In fact I made a presentation a couple years ago about this very subject — acquisition versus learning — and a lot of them are trying to incorporate those ideas into their language teaching, which of course is totally voluntary and totally uncompensated for. They do it just for the love of it. They're coming up with little stories, simple stories in simple language that beginners can understand. They're coming up with little dialogues, which are simple and which relate to real communication situations. And so that's been very useful as opposed to the kind of learning where you say, "Okay, let's look at this verb paradigm right now." Which is not to say that you shouldn't do that as a supplement, but the primary methodology that people are beginning to look at now is [linguist Stephen] Krashen's key idea of comprehensible input. You have to be in a situation where you're hearing messages and understanding them. It's then, the contention is, that language acquisition can take place.

As I re-watched "Avatar" and watched "Avatar: The Way of Water" for this article, I kept thinking of how analogies, idioms and metaphors creep into language, and pose a translation problem. For instance, if I said "like the serpent tempted Adam and Eve" to an alien, they wouldn't know that I was referring to a story from the Book of Genesis even after I translated the phrase for them. Does any of that factor into how you developed the Na'vi language?

"One of the things that I've enjoyed the most about developing the language is coming up with idioms and proverbs and similes and metaphors, which would naturally develop based on their environment, based on their social structure. "

You know, if you were communicating with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon rainforest and you said, "like the serpent tempted Adam and Eve," they would have no idea what you're talking about in the exact same way, right? I agree that these cultural references are extremely important. What is interesting about the Na'vi is that they are really very humanlike, right? If you compare them as extraterrestrials to, for example, the aliens from [the 2016 science fiction movie] "Arrival," you have a very, very different situation there. You have some truly alien beings, and we don't know what their thought processes are. We don't know what their environment is like. We don't know what's important for them. But it's not the case for the Na'vi because they are very human-like. They have presumably the same emotions that we do: Love, hate, fear, jealousy, that's all there. Their environment is different, but in certain ways similar. Their social structure is not all that different. Their families are very important to them. So what I'm saying is that, although the cultures are obviously different, they're not crucially different.

That being said, there are certainly things in their culture and in their environment which influence the language. One of the things that I've enjoyed the most about developing the language is coming up with idioms and proverbs and similes and metaphors, which would naturally develop based on their environment, based on their social structure. For example, there is one idiom, Po keynven sìn ketse, which means "He steps on tails." Now what does "He steps on tails" mean? It means that this is a person who is socially awkward. There was a scene in the first movie where Jake is being introduced to the clan members and he's very awkwardly moving around. And in fact I think he steps on some tails. There is also an analogy, Na kenten mì kumpay, which literally means "like a fan lizard in gel." Now, if you remember from the first movie, there are these extraordinary animals that are called fan lizards. They're these lizard-like creatures who, if they're disturbed, will spread this beautiful magenta fan, which spans about a meter and just swirls around like a helicopter so it floats up into the air and escapes. So a fan lizard in gel would not be able to do what's natural to it, right? It wouldn't be able to spread its wings like the helicopter and twirl off. That refers to being in a situation where you're prevented from doing your best, from acting naturally.

I'm trying to imagine creating a language as analogous to cooking a dish. What ingredients do you need and is there a specific order in which you have to put things together?

I've kind of used that analogy myself. There are other ways of doing this, but I think most conlangers will begin with the phonetics and phonology, which is to say, let's determine what sounds are going to be in the language — and just as importantly, what sounds are not going to be in the language. It's a little bit like going to your spice rack and saying, "Okay, for this particular dish, what's a general palette that I want? What spices am I going to use? What spices am I not going to use?" If you take everything in your spice cabinet and throw it into the pot, you're going to have a mess. So the first thing I did was determine what sounds are in the language, what sounds are not in the language. 

"Once you have the word-building rules, then you want to think about, 'Okay, how do I put words together into phrases and sentences?'"

The assumption was that the Na'vi vocal mechanism is very similar to humans, and so the sounds that humans could produce are essentially the same sounds that the Na'vi produce. So I came up with a sound chart, so to speak, what the consonants are, what the vowels are. But you're still not finished with that module, so to speak, the phonetics-phonology module, because then you have to think about, "Okay, where do these sounds occur in a word? Can all these sounds occur at the end of the word, and when not?" The answer is no, only certain sounds, say only certain consonants, can occur at the end of the word. What sort of consonant clusters are allowable? Are there situations where one sound can change or must change into another? 

The answer is yes. So you have to go through all of those rules. That's the phonetics and phonology part. Then you typically move up to the next module, which is what linguists called morphology, which is word building. How do you put little meaningful bits and pieces together with root words to get your verbs? Are the verbs going to be inflected for tense, for number, for affect, all that stuff? You have to figure that out. What is the mechanism for, say, changing one part of speech into another? How do you change your verbs into nouns, for example?

Once you have the word-building rules, then you want to think about, "Okay, how do I put words together into phrases and sentences?" That can be pretty complex and very interesting. Then at that point, you can actually begin building your vocabulary and coming up with what is called the lexicon, which is the actual words in the language. Once you have that mechanism in place, then you think about the cultural aspect — you know, how does a language relate to the environment and the culture in which it's spoken. One example I've used very often is the fact that since the Na'vi only have four digits on each hand rather than five, it occurred to me that they would probably have an octal rather than a decimal counting system. So I mentioned that to [director and writer] James Cameron and he said, "Yeah, absolutely!"

Which means that for the Na'vi, the equivalent of a century would be 64 years.

You got it. And the word for that is zam, which means 64. But it's sort of parallel to the way we use 100.

I'm down to my last question, so I will throw in this frivolous personal one: What would the Na'vi word be for someone with my job, a "science journalist"?

Oh boy! We do have a word for "science"—tìftia kifkeyä, which literally means, "the study of the physical world." We also have a word for "writer"—pamrelsiyu. See, given the fact that in Na'vi culture I don't think there's anything like a journalist, we'd have to come up with something which would involve sort of reporting and writing.

How about one who records events and spreads information about them across far distances?

That would be a possibility. Then those are the sort of base elements we have. But then, of course, you want to come up with something a little more concise than that. And so it's very possible that you might take those elements and put them together and maybe lop off an ending here and lop off a beginning there and get something that doesn't have, you know, 17 syllables. That is something we're doing all the time. We're constantly expanding the vocabulary.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Avatar: The Way Of Water Interview James Cameron Language Linguistics Na'vi Paul Frommer