How To Speak Na’vi

By Jordan Hoffman

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.

Na’vi talk down Klingon as the last word in alien-speak


Chris Ayres in Los Angeles

Klingon-speakers, prepare for war. From this weekend, science-fiction aficionados across the globe will have a new make-believe extraterrestrial language to learn and digest, thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar.

With its headache-inducing syntax, violently pronounced “ejectives” and 1,000-word vocabulary, the Na’vi language — created by a Los Angeles university professor — is Hollywood’s first serious attempt to usurp Klingon since the Star Trek villains’ tongue was introduced in 1984.

Not that Paul Frommer, 65, the former linguist hired to create the alien vocabulary — including the names of 50 fictional plant species on the moon of Pandora — sees it quite that way. “I have nothing but tremendous respect for Klingon. It’s the gold standard of extraterrestrial languages,” Professor Frommer told The Times. “But I think Na’vi goes in a very different direction.”

He has been working on Na’vi for about four years, ever since a colleague at the University of Southern California took a call from the production company of James Cameron, the film’s director. When Cameron’s producer explained that he was looking for someone to invent an alien tongue, Professor Frommer was put on the line. “At this age, I never thought I’d find a new career,” said the academic whose day job involves teaching business communication.

“The response has been quite remarkable and totally unexpected. I never thought there’d be this level of interest. But I really don’t think of Na’vi as a competitor to Klingon. If it does develop a following, that would be quite wonderful.”

Cameron, whose 1997 film Titanic took $1.8 billion at the box office, making it the highest-earning film of all time — is not quite as diplomatic as his linguist-in-chief, going so far as to boast that his intention was to “out-Klingon Klingon”.

This will be no mean feat, given that Klingon’s acceptance in popular culture has led to a Klingon iPhone translator, a Klingon Language Institute, of which there are 2,500 members in 50 countries, and a Klingon version of Hamlet.

For students of such memorable Klingon phrases as Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam (“Today is a good day to die”), the emergence of a rival system of alien communication is without doubt a “hargh” (“major confrontation”).

Avatar will be inescapable over coming weeks, thanks to a global promotional budget of $150 million, in addition to its record-breaking $300 million-plus production budget. The 3-D film about a US Marine sent to live on a moon populated by blue humanoid creatures known as the Na’vi had its premiere in London on Thursday and goes on general release next week.

Critics have been taken aback by the attention to detail. Even Star Wars did not feature proper alien languages: the voice of Chewbacca, for example, was a collection of overdubbed animal noises, including that of a black bear at the Happy Hollow Zoo in San José.

Nevertheless, science-fiction languages on the screen date back to the 1970s, when the prominent linguist Victoria Fromkin was hired as a consultant on Land of the Lost.

A decade later, another linguist, Marc Okrand, was taken on by the makers of Star Trek and Klingon began to take shape.

Professor Frommer says that the only rule he had to follow was creating a language that was not beyond the capability of human vocal cords. The film’s actors are no doubt glad of this, although they struggled.

“It was so hard,” Zoe Saldana, who plays the leading Na’vi, said in a recent interview. “All the actors worked together. It was the only way.”

Useful Na’vi phrases

It’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you in Na’vi

Tsun oe ngahu nìNa’vi pivängkxo a fì’u oeru prrte’ lu

I apologise for this moron

Fìskxawngìri tsap’alute sengi oe

These demons are forbidden here

Fayvrrtep fìtsenge lu kxanì

Your alien smell fills my nose

Oeri ta ngeyä fahew akewong ontu teya längu

Useful Klingon phrases

Yes, certainly

HIja HISlaH, bej

Your mother has a smooth forehead!

Hab Sosli!

Pardon me, where is the loo?

nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa ‘e’? buy’ ngop

Revenge is a dish best served cold

bortaS bir jablu’DI’reh QaQqu’nay

Sources:, Paul Frommer, Times database

Brushing up on Na’vi, the Language of Avatar

December 1, 2009, 10:45 AM
Most languages evolved organically over the course of millennia. But James Cameron wanted a new one within a couple of years; a tall order, even from one of the most demanding directors in Hollywood. Still, the Na’vi—the race of 10-foot smurfs who inhabit the distant planet Pandora in Cameron’s upcoming, $400 million science fiction epic, Avatar—had to speak something. So the filmmaker called on linguist Paul Frommer, a professor of clinical management communication at U.S.C., to create the Na’vi language from scratch. Frommer hopes his extensive efforts won’t be wasted, and that his language will have a life beyond Avatar. Just like Cameron’s career, that depends largely on whether the fanboys embrace the film.

Engineered languages—even theoretically perfect ones—have a tough time catching on, especially when there is no homogenous culture or community to speak them. Just witness the phenomenal failure of Esperanto, whose universalist aspirations were reduced to a punchline. It’s a different story, however, with science-fiction languages. Frommer is holding out hope that Na’vi will follow the example of Klingon, which he calls the “gold standard for this alien language niche.”

Frommer spoke to me—mostly in English—about the challenges of creating an entirely alien language.

Julian Sancton: Before we get started, how would you greet someone who called you on the phone in Na’vi, if there were such things as phones on Pandora?

Paul Frommer: I would say, “Kaltxì. Ngaru lu fpom srak?” Which is kind of, “Hello, how are you?”


[In a subsequent email, Frommer elaborates: ‘Note the accented “i” in the first word—it represents the vowel in “sit” rather than the one in “seat.” (English doesn’t allow that vowel sound at the end of a word.) Also, the “tx” represents the ejective t-sound. The literal translation would be something like, “Greetings. Do you have a sense of well-being?”’]

How developed is this language?

It’s got a perfectly consistent sound system, and grammar, orthography, syntax, and at this point it probably has about a thousand words. That’s not a huge vocabulary, but it’s certainly something that could be developed further into something that hopefully you could use every day for conversation.

Something like Klingon, to compare it to another language that was developed for science fiction?

Yeah. Klingon is a gold standard for this alien-language niche, if you want to call it that. And that’s much more developed. At this point, it’s been around a long time. I have a translation of Hamlet, on my bookshelf, into Klingon.


Yes. This exists. You can actually buy it on Amazon. People have really jumped into that and developed it probably beyond the vision of the original creator, who was Marc Okrand. If Na’vi ever developed into something like that, that’d be quite a thrill.

Would fans help develop it? Is that how it works?

You know, I’m not quite sure how it happened with Klingon. I’m pretty sure it was developed by people beyond the originator. If this ever took off and it got to that point where other people began developing it, that would be great, as long as they did it correctly, within the guidelines of the grammar, of course.

What’s the structure of the Na’vi language? Is it based on the grammar of any human language?

No. It could be a human language in that all the components in the language are found somewhere in other languages. But it’s very eclectic, so it has a grammatical system which is found in some languages, and it has certain sound elements that are found in other languages, but it does not follow any one particular language.

And is there anything particularly alien about it? If I understand correctly, Noam Chomsky says that there is an almost instinctive capacity in people to understand the structure of grammar. Does Na’vi follow that same universal human grammar?

It does, and there are certain reasons for it. I could have come up with rules for this language which are not followed by any human language. The reason that wasn’t an option is that part of the [Avatar] story is that human beings have learned this language, and can speak it. And if a human is going to learn the language, then it has to be something within that capacity that Chomsky was talking about. So there are some elements in the Na’vi language that I think are pretty rare in human language, but nothing that couldn’t be found somewhere in some other language

How would you describe this language? What differentiates it? What are the characteristics of it?

Well, let’s see. We can talk about various aspects. In terms of phonology, you can talk about sounds that it does have, and sounds that it doesn’t have. There’s a whole class of sounds that it doesn’t have—it doesn’t have what we call voiced stops. So, it doesn’t have a “b,” a “d,” or hard “g” sound. What it does have is sounds that are kind of interesting, which I added in to add a little spice to the language: they’re called “ejectives.”

Which are?

They sound like, “tx-ooo,” “tx-aaa”

Like a clicking almost?

It’s not technically a click, but these sort of popping sounds that are produced with something called the glottalic mechanism. Ejectives are produced not with air from the lungs but with air trapped in the glottis, and so, if you say a “k” sound, for example, without breathing, and then add a vowel after that, you can get something like “kx-a.” So I transcribe those as “kx,” “px,” and “tx,” and they add a little interest to the language. So that’s in terms of the sound system. There’s also a major phonological rule called lenition, which changes certain sounds to other sounds in certain parts of the grammar.

Are verbs conjugated?

They are, but they’re not conjugated for a number and a person. So there are no endings that correspond to I, you, he, she, or anything. But they are conjugated for tense and aspect. The conjugation, I think, is interesting because rather than relying on prefixes or suffixes I relied exclusively on infixes. These are found in certain languages, for example, of the Philippines, where rather than tacking something on to the beginning or end of a verb, you kind of take the root and cleave it in the middle, and shove something in the middle of it. So, for example, the root for “hunt” is taron, but to say hunted you say tolaron, so the –ol goes in the middle, right after the t.

There would be no difference from the audience perspective—we wouldn’t know all this—so I’m assuming you did for yourself, to have fun with the language.

Yes, and thinking ahead, that if it ever took off, like Klingon, that that would be something that learners would have fun with as well. It has a very free word order, and that’s something which is radically different, from Klingon for example. It has a a case system, so that by looking at the form of a noun, for example, you can tell if it’s a subject, an object, a subject of a transitive verb, or a subject of an intransitive verb, which means that the word order is almost totally free. You can arrange a lot of elements in a sentence in many different ways and still have it mean the same thing.

And if there are any inefficiencies in the language, nobody would be able to point it out yet, right? You could just fix it without anyone knowing?

Well, I try to be consistent to the rules that I’ve constructed for us. At this point, nothing is—I don’t think anything is published yet on the language, which means that if I want to make a change, I can make a change. This inevitably happens when you’re using it with real people and actors that are trying to learn the lines. There are times when something didn’t come out exactly as I had intended, but if in fact what came out was consistent with the sound system of the language and the rules of grammar, then I said, “Guess what? That’s a word.”

Have you written all the rules out of this language? Do you have a compendium?

I’m working on it. I don’t have it yet. That is something that I’m going to turn in to Fox soon, because that’s sort of going to be the capstone of my work on it. I’ve been working on it since 2005, really.

How did James Cameron approach you?

His production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, contacted the linguistics department at U.S.C. asking for someone who could develop a language for a movie he was working on. At that point it wasn’t even called Avatar; it was called Project 880. Although I’m no longer part of the linguistics department, I have some friends there, so someone saw this and said, “This sounds like Paul.”

Why did your name come to mind? Are you a big science-fiction fan?

The person who forwarded me the email is my co-author on a book called Looking at Languages. It’s a workbook in elementary linguistics in which we had put together data from 30 different languages. So he knew that I loved to play around with data from languages and I had a little artificial language, which didn’t really have any development at all but was just something that I constructed for an exercise.

What is your background as a linguist?

I have a doctorate in linguistics from U.S.C. To backtrack beyond that, I was originally a math major as an undergraduate. I went into the Peace Corps after that. I spent two years in Malaysia, where I was teaching English and math. I taught in the Malay language, which was an interesting experience, and I realized that my real love was in the area of languages. Prior to that I had studied a number of foreign languages. I had studied Hebrew, French, Latin, a little German. So when I went to grad school, I decided to do it in linguistics. During that time I spent a year in Iran, so I learned Persian. And I wound up finishing a dissertation on a certain aspect of Persian grammar. So I had, at that point a somewhat extensive background in languages—not that I spoke all these languages fluently, by any means.

How many do you speak fluently?

One. But I have various competencies in other languages. Probably Persian is my best, although it’s a little rusty at this point. I was in Iran in the mid ’70s, so it was a long time ago.

Of the actors in Avatar, who would you say had a knack for picking up the language you invented?

They were all pretty good. I was quite surprised with the facility that people had. There were seven actors altogether who were speaking the language.

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and then …

Wes Studi, C.C. Pounder, Joel David Moore, and Laz Alonso. Of those seven, four were supposed to be native speakers and three were humans who had learned the language.

Is there any difference, in terms of accents, between the humans who had learned it, and the native speakers?

Yeah, well, some of the humans seemed to have more English-y accents than the others, which is good. Also, just in terms of the actual grammar that came out, there were some small grammatical errors that the humans made, which is entirely natural.

And was that intentional?

Not entirely, but some things came out, and I said, “You know, that’d be totally appropriate. That’s exactly what a second-language learner would probably do at this stage.”

What human language would you say it’s most similar to, if you had to choose one?

I really couldn’t. And that’s good, because I don’t want it to be identified with any particular language. You know, I didn’t start from absolute ground zero, because James Cameron had come up with, in the early script, maybe 30 words. Most of them were character names, but there were a couple of names of animals. So at that point I had a sense of some of the sounds that he had in his ear and it reminded me a little bit of some Polynesian languages.

I read in that New Yorker profile that he had gone scuba diving around there.

Yeah, he had spent some time in New Zealand and maybe had some Maori in his ear. But I expanded it considerably beyond that. And of course in terms of the orthography and the syntax and all that, I came up with that entirely on my own. So, I don’t think it can be compared in any aspect to any particular human language.

Avatar: Full Scene Clip & Speaking the Na’vi Language



The LA Times brings us a report about one of the more honored aspects of any sci-fi universe – the fake languages of its alien races!

Apparently, James Cameron has been so meticulous in his creation of the Na’vi culture in Avatar that he even reached out to a renowned linguist to create a 1,000 word vocabulary for the “Blue Cat-Smurfs.” Here’s what USC Professor Paul R. Frommer had to say about taking Cameron’s initial dozen-word vocab and expanding it into a legitimate language:

“I’m still working and I hope that the language will have a life of its own…For one thing, I’m hoping there will be prequels and sequels to the film, which means more language will be needed…The constraint, of course, is that the language I created had to be spoken by humans…I could have let my imagination run wild and come up with all sorts of weird sounds, but I was limited by what a human actor could actually do.”

“I was surprised [the actors] all did very well, and it gave me hope, too, that other people will try to learn it and speak it…I’m excited because there is going be a Pandora-pedia online and a lot of material for people to learn more about the planet. There’s this incredible devotion to detail. It’s been fascinating to me. It’s almost academic in its approach.”

Photo courtesy of the LA Times

Of course, teaching the language to the actors was an equally daunting job – so Cameron and Co. reached out to dialect coach Carla Meyer, who has worked on such films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Erin Brockovich and Angels & Demons. If Frommer’s praise is to be taken at face value, Meyer did her job well.

Check out the full article HERE to see what Frommer thinks about speaking Na’vi vs. speaking Klingon, and what it’s like to be the only guy to understand a faux language.

USC professor creates an entire alien language for ‘Avatar’



James Cameron has big aspirations for “Avatar,” and here at Hero Complex we’re stepping up with some epic coverage plans: a 30-day countdown. Today’s topic: The USC professor who found himself on an unexpected Hollywood adventure when he was hired to create the language spoken by aliens on Cameron’s distant planet of Pandora.

This modern era of moviemaking has plenty of peculiar challenges for actors — on green-screen sets, for instance, they have to watch a ping-pong ball hanging from a string and convince the camera that they actually staring down some magical beastie — but for the actors auditioning for “Avatar” the biggest challenge may have been reading a sheet of paper with words invented by a USC professor named Paul R. Frommer.

Frommer, a linguistics specialist, was brought in by “Avatar” writer-director James Cameron to create an entire functioning language for the tribe of 10-foot-tall blue aliens who inhabit Pandora, the setting for the film’s conflict. Frommer tackled the project with glee — “How often do you get an opportunity like this?” — but the actors who had bend their tongues around the invented vocabulary and syntax were slightly less charmed by the experience.

“Oh, it was so hard and I was really concerned about it,” said Zoe Saldaña, who portrays an alien named Neytiri in the sci-fi adventure that opens in theaters Dec. 18. “I didn’t think I could get through it. I’m not good with languages. All the actors, we worked together. It was the only way.”

Frommer has spent four years laboring on the language of the Na’vi tribe and his work will not end on the day of the film’s release. He plans to keep expanding the language until he’s, well, blue in the face.

“I’m still working and I hope that the language will have a life of its own,” the professor said. “For one thing, I’m hoping there will be prequels and sequels to the film, which means more language will be needed. I spent three weeks in May, too, working on the video game for Ubisoft, which is the name of a French company. That’s not a French word, though, I don’t know where they got Ubisoft.”

Frommer is clearly delighted by his unexpected excursion into the Hollywood dream factory, which has the buttoned-down academic working side-by-side with movie stars and hobnobbing with an Oscar-winning director of Cameron’s stature. Sitting on a concrete bench near the bustling center of USC campus, he recounted his Tinseltown labors with verve; the only time a hint of disappointment crept into his voice was when he explained that his alien language was limited by the terran larynxes of Sam Worthingon, Saldaña, CCH Pounder and other cast members who spoke the Na’vi language.

“The constraint, of course, is that the language I created had to be spoken by humans,” Frommer said. “I could have let my imagination run wild and come up with all sorts of weird sounds, but I was limited by what a human actor could actually do.”

Between the scripts for the film and the video game, Frommer has a bit more than 1,000 words in the Na’vi language, as well as all the rules and structure of the language itself. “I’m adding to that all the time,” said Frommer, who says he would like to see the new tongue catch on in the way that Klingon has become a studied language among especially, um, engaged fans of “Star Trek.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of Klingon,” Frommer said the way a sports coach might analyze a rival with a long winning tradition. “It was created by a linguist [named Marc Okrand] and it is very, very well put together. I actually once developed a problem for students in analysis using data from Klingon. When I started working on this, though, I deliberately did not look at Klingon so I wouldn’t be unconsciously influenced by it.”

Frommer’s fondest wish is that the language takes off and that fans of the film use the Internet and conventions to spread the sound of Pandora. “It’s definitely doable for people, and so many people have learned Klingon, so there could be an interest,” he said. To some ears, Klingon sounds like a cross between Russian and crawfish, but the Na’vi language is far more gentle on the ear. “Cameron wanted something melodious and musical, something that would sound strange and alien but smooth and appealing.”

Frommer is a linguist by trade and got his PhD at USC, but after he finished his doctorate he left acadmeia for the business world. ”I really wanted to teach, though, and came back.” He ended up on the faculty of the Center for Management Communication at the Marshall School of Business and teaching in the area of clinical management communication – but he concedes that, deep down, his true love is still for language and pure linguistics.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on Avatar

When “Avatar” producer Jon Landau and his company, Lightstorm, approached the linguistics department at USC with Cameron’s proposition about creating an extraterrestrial tongue, the request quickly found its way to Frommer, who had once collaborated on a workbook that collected data from 30 languages.

“The e-mail that came my way that said they were looking for someone who could create an alien language for a major motion picture directed by James Cameron, but the name of the project at that time was Project 880,” Frommer said. “As soon as I saw that e-mail I pounced on it.”

Frommer didn’t start completely from scratch; Cameron had come up with about three dozen words of the Na’vi language at that point in his project document, which was like a quasi-script or a long treatment (“They called it a scriptment,” Frommer said, “and that was a new word to me”) but most of the words were character names.

“It gave me a sense of the sound that he was looking for and then I expanded it. Given these sounds and the possible combinations, what further structure could I bring to the sound to make it interesting,” Frommer said. “That was the starting point. Probably the most exotic thing I added were ejectives, which are these sorts of popping sounds that are found in different languages from around the world. It’s found in Native American languages and in parts of Africa and in Central Asia, the Caucasus. “

Frommer prepared three “sound palettes,” which were collections of words and phrases that did not have meaning but did have the cadence and feel of languages. Cameron mulled over the sound files and picked the third as the best fit for the world he wanted to hear. He did not want tonal differences and variations in vowel length, for instance, but he loved the ejectives.

Then came the heavy lifting — nailing down the sound system, word construction, the rule of syntax — and Frommer immersed himself in the thousands of decisions required, many of them deciding what goes in and what goes out. The Na’vi language, for instance, does not have the sounds buh, duh, guh, chu, shu, and by restricting the sounds, Frommer said, a characteristic shape of the language begins to distinguish itself.

James Cameron on avatar set

“If you allow everything and the kitchen sink, you get a mishmash, it sounds like gibberish,” Frommer said. “An analogy is cooking and deciding how you are going to spice up a certain dish. If you put everything you have on the shelf, you get a mess. If you are judicious you get something good. In language, sometimes things are defined by the absences.”

The finished product sounds, to some ears, vaguely Polynesian, while others hear the rhythms of African languages in it. “Someone said it sounded German to them, someone else told me Japanese, and I think that’s good. If everyone were saying one single language then it would be bad,” Frommer said.

Frommer worked with the actors at the studios of dialect coach Carla Meyer, whose credits include all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “Angels & Demons” and ”Erin Brockovich” as well as “Air Force One,” in which she helped Gary Oldman shape his hijacker’s Eastern European accent. Frommer was impressed with the actors’ intensity of focus.

“I was surprised they all did very well, and it gave me hope, too, that other people will try to learn it and speak it,” Frommer said. “I’m excited because there is going be a Pandora-pedia online and a lot of material for people to learn more about the planet. There’s this incredible devotion to detail. It’s been fascinating to me. It’s almost academic in its approach.”

Frommer finds himself walking the campus sidewalks and talking to himself in the language. He has attempted to write poetry, too. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of his couplets were forlorn — it’s lonely being the only person speaking a language. “I just wish,” he said, “that I had someone to talk to.”

– Geoff Boucher