We’ve made no secret of our love for Avatar and l’essence du Cameron these past few days. Much of this respect stems from his devotion to creating a completely one of a kind experience with this film.
“Have you heard he even hired some dude to create a fake language?”
Some dared scoff at James Cameron for this, but from the get go we said, “awesome.”
We had the good fortune to speak with the USC linguistics professor Paul Frommer about the Na’vi language, working with James Cameron and, of course, how to curse if you are a ten foot tall blue space creature.
Jordan Hoffman: Firstly, how do you say “good morning” in Na’vi?
Paul Frommer: They don’t actually say “good morning” on Pandora, but what they do say is “Kaltxi” which means “hello” or “Oel ngati kameie” which means “I see you.”
Jordan Hoffman: And “I see you” means much more than to regard visually, it means “to understand your soul,” right?
Paul Frommer: Exactly. And in the script the “s” in “See” is capitalized.
Jordan Hoffman: You said something interesting. I said “how do you say this in Na’vi” and you said, “on Pandora one says. . .” Does this mean Na’vi is the only language on Pandora?
Paul Frommer: It is. Now, that may be developed further, but you would have to speak to James Cameron about that. Still, there is one language, but there might be different dialects.
Jordan Hoffman: Well, yes, because we see different tribes.
Paul Frommer: That may be developed down the road, yes.
Jordan Hoffman: If you have a sharp ear for linguistics, will you hear different dialects in the current film?
Paul Frommer: Actually, you might.
Jordan Hoffman: Is this a language truly created out of whole cloth?
Paul Frommer: It is virtually impossible to say you’ve created something that is wholly unique, in the sense that no other language on Earth doesn’t do it this way. I mean, there are roughly 3000 languages in the world. What I can guarantee is that the particular combinations of elements in Na’vi is unique. It has a grammatical property here and you may say “that is reminiscent of Persian” or “this sounds Indonesian,” but the particular combination of elements, of sounds and of word-building rules, and rules of putting words into phrases, that is unique.
Jordan Hoffman: Are there quirks in Na’vi we need to know about to continue our studies? In Klingon, for example, it is well known that there is no exact translation of the verb “to be.”
Paul Frommer: Na’vi has “to be!” (chuckles) I am a huge admirer of Klingon. When I got this gig, though, I made a conscious decision not to look too much at other constructed languages.
Jordan Hoffman: Even Esperanto?
Paul Frommer: I haven’t looked to closely at that either. I have some experience with Esperanto, as a linguist you pick lots of things up over the years. I am not fluent in Esperanto though. But to get back to your question – quirks of Na’vi. All the verbs have in-fixes, not suffixes or prefixes. Also, there is a system that the order of major elements in a sentence doesn’t matter.
Jordan Hoffman: Gimme a f’rinstance.
Paul Frommer: Well, there’s a root called “taron” (pronounced “gad’on”) which means “hunt.” If you want to modify that to mean “hunting has been completed,” to add a past tense or future tense or imperfect aspect, rather than putting something at the beginning or end, you put something right after the “t” – so various forms appear: “tovaron, telaron, tusaron, tairon” – that is relatively rare in human language. And that was really fun to do.
Jordan Hoffman: Okay – what are some Na’vi cursewords? Let’s say you are carrying a big block of unobtainium and you drop it on your foot. You shout out “Oh ____”
Paul Frommer: Well, one word that had gotten some play is “skxawng” [the “x” is a click.] This means “moron.”
Jordan Hoffman: Sure, that’s in the movie.
Paul Frommer: Another way – and this is in the video game – which is “pxasik” [sounds like “puh –(lip smack) askik.]
Jordan Hoffman: Woah, say that again!
Paul Frommer: Pxasik!
Jordan Hoffman: And this means?
Paul Frommer: It means “screw that!” It’s pretty vulgar.
Jordan Hoffman: There’s a moment in the film where Princess Neytiri and Jake Sully share an “intimate” moment and, since it is a PG-13 film, the lights fade. Were the lights to stay on and if we were to describe that act in a lewd, vulgar term, what would we say?
Paul Frommer: I don’t have a word for that yet. Even at this point, this is an ongoing project. The vocabulary is roughly at 1000 words, not too big, but enough of a springboard.
Jordan Hoffman: I have a hunch there will be Avatar comics and expansion novels – I’m sure the Alan Dean Fosters of the world have some work ahead of them – is this something where you will consult with the expansion of the language?
Paul Frommer: I have not yet been approached about anything, and I don’t know what the plans are, but I would love to continue to be involved.
Jordan Hoffman: Is Mr. Cameron as fluent in the language as you?
Paul Frommer: Probably not – I think I’m the best versed out there right now?
Jordan Hoffman: With all his money he can’t get a private tutor?
Paul Frommer: I think he had other things on his mind.
Jordan Hoffman: Of all of the created languages, which one has Na’vi vanquished? Is it Elvish, Huttese, Klingon or what the Gelflings speak in Dark Crystal?
Paul Frommer: I don’t like to think of vanquishing. I like to think of living side by side.
Jordan Hoffman: That’s a very Na’vi way of thinking.
Paul Frommer: I like to think so. But, heck, if Na’vi can achieve even a percentage of what Klingon has achieved that would be fantastic.
Jordan Hoffman: Well, this leads to an actual question – the Na’vi philosophy is a very natural, holistic way of life. Those blue suckers are very green. Did this in any way inform the construction of the language?
Paul Frommer: No. Only with certain concepts that I knew needed to be in there like “Tree of Souls” or “Hometree” and some of the religious concepts of Eowah. Otherwise, no, I just wanted exotic sounds to the Western ear – the ejectives the [proceeds clicking and making beat box sounds] and something fun for the audience. There is really no connection between the grammatical structure or aural quality of a language with the culture of a people.
Jordan Hoffman: Can you translate the following phrase?
Paul Frommer: Wait, wait, wait!
Jordan Hoffman: “All of this imperialism has left me feeling blue.”
Paul Frommer: Okay, the answer is “no.” “Imperialism” is a word I’d have to come up with. But this was one of the challenges on the set. I would be approached with “we’re adding a line and we need to say XYZ.” Sometimes I had the words right there, but sometimes I needed to go and create them.
Jordan Hoffman: Is there a Na’vi word for Unobtainium?
Paul Frommer: Not yet. Hasn’t come up in the script yet. The vocabulary developed by looking at the script and translating from what was needed. If the word hasn’t been required yet, most of the time it hasn’t been created yet.
Jordan Hoffman: Were you on the set a lot?
Paul Frommer: On the days when there was a lot of spoke Na’vi I was on set. I had a few 13 hour days on set in the Na’vi village, for example.
Jordan Hoffman: Had you been on a film set before?
Paul Frommer: Never. And I spoke to people saying, “don’t think this is a typical film set.” Walking onto the stage was like being at NASA. Banks of computers.
Jordan Hoffman: Did you witness classic Jim Cameron barking 25 orders at once?
Paul Frommer: He was definitely an intense presence on the set. It is clear this is an extremely creative individual who knows exactly what he wants and he gets exactly what he wants.
Jordan Hoffman: If I send you this transcript, will you translate it into Na’vi.
Paul Frommer: I would love to – but I can’t give you an ETA on that. . .may take a while.