Avatar's Na'vi Language Left An Unexpected Amount Of Room For Improv

Teeming with historic technological firsts and advanced never-before-seen cinematic visuals, James Cameron's "Avatar" is historic in both its scope and success. It's the most successful movie in the world for a reason — and it's coming back with a sequel — and will hopefully pave the way for a film franchise of its own.

Cameron wrote and directed the film, which takes place in the 22nd century when the world is suffering from a major energy crisis, and Pandora, an alien moon home to a highly-valuable natural resource, is the only way humanity can save itself. The lush jungle moon of Pandora is home to an indigenous population, a race of sapient, extraterrestrial humanoids called the Na'vi, who have their own culture and traditions, their own set of beliefs, and naturally, their own language. While some Na'vi people can fluently converse in English, others resort to communicating in their language, which we continue to see snippets of throughout the epic science fiction film. Na'vi is not an actual language though — it was constructed for the film.

Originally based on James Cameron's initial list of words, the language was then constructed by linguist Dr. Paul Frommer, who commenced on working on Na'vi with three simple words that were designed to convey what an alien language sounded like. Speaking a fictional language (with difficult pronunciation, might I add) isn't always easy — and it gets more complex when a performer wants to improvise. Fortunately, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, and the rest of the "Avatar" cast could freely improvise within the fictional Na'vi language, as long as they stuck by specific linguistic rules and ensured that it all sounded the same.

Na'vi was constructed from Polynesian and Indonesian sounds

Na'vi is one of the most famous fictional languages of all time — next to Elvish ("The Lord of The Rings") and Dothraki, High Valyrian ("Game of Thrones") and Klingon ("Star Trek"), among others. While it doesn't consist of as many words as the others do (Dothraki has 4,000 words!), Na'vi is constantly developing, and with a second film on the way, there's more to come.

It's tough to make up a language — but harder to create a grammatically sound one. As per filmmaker James Cameron, Dr. Paul Frommer, the head of the linguistics department at USC back then, created the language for the movie. Frommer didn't construct the language from scratch entirely; he did translations for dialogues demanded by the script (via NPR). 

"Well, that's where the linguist, Dr. Paul Frommer, came in. And he was the head of the linguistics department at USC at the time, and he did more than help. He actually created the language. Or more properly, he created the translations of the lines that we needed for the script. I don't think he didn't create, like, a full language with a vocabulary of 20,000 words, but I think we now have a vocabulary of about 1,200 or 1,300 words."

Frommer helped actors improvise

The linguistics expert accompanied Cameron on set so he could guide the actors whenever they wanted to improvise — which often had him creating words on the spot. There weren't many rules, just one: to be consistent with the sound system.

"And I actually had him on set with me so that if the actors wanted to improvise, they could go over to him, and say how would I say this, how would I say that? Sometimes he had to create words right on the spot, but they had to be words that were consistent with the kind of sound system that we were using for the language."

Cameron explained that while he based some of the character and location names on Polynesian and Indonesian sounds, Frommer stepped in and brought "African sounds" that worked as "ejective consonants." The Na'vi language was engineered to resemble the sentence structure used by German speakers.

"And I guess I sort of set it in motion when I created character names and place names and based them on some, you know, kind of Polynesian sounds and some Indonesian sounds. And he riffed on that, and he brought in some African sounds that were ejective consonants and things like that, kind of clicks and pops, and he sprinkled those in. And he came up with a syntax and a typical sentence structure, which I think has the verb at the end, kind of in the German sentence structure, you know, I to the store go. It's noun, object, verb. So I think that's how Na'vi is structured."

Pronunciation is key

All actors had to stand by a standard, distinct pronunciation, which ensured that the Na'vi language sounded the same when spoken by multiple performers. It was the most critical rule of improvisation on set.

"So it follows linguistic rules, and that's why it sounds correct. And all the actors had to adhere to a standard of pronunciation so that it didn't sound like everybody was making up their own gobbledygook, which I think over and a two-and-a-half-hour movie you would have felt you were being had if we had done it that way."

Frommer spent six months developing the Na'vi language and worked on its morphology, syntax, and an initial vocabulary that he could use. He translated song lyrics Cameron wrote into English and helped actors and vocalists during their on-screen performances and the "Avatar" score recording. There were approximately 1,000 Na'vi words when the film was released in December 2009, and Frommer has since continued working on it. He also has a blog where he publishes additions to the lexicon and makes clarifications on Na'vi grammar. Pretty cool, right?