Speaking Na'vi - A Discussion With Dr. Paul Frommer

by Donald and Bonnie Fink, contributing writer

As we move around our everyday lives, we tend to take a great many things for granted, believing that they represent a constant in the world, always here, and always having been here. A walk through Pandora at Disney's Animal Kingdom can put the brakes on that kind of thinking and get you started wondering just how you'd work things out if you suddenly found yourself 4.3 lightyears from home. No more hot dogs or hamburgers, no more freeways, and no more Starbucks.

But how about understanding the language of a people who have been on a completely different planet since eternity? You might wonder about speaking to people who had no reference to your culture, or you theirs.

Not long ago we had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Paul Frommer. He was tasked with the job of actually creating the language used by the Na'vi for the first Avatar movie. It was an interesting experience.

Dr. Frommer holds a PhD in linguistics, so he's the guy for the job, but you still have to marvel at the idea of building a completely new language from scratch. Most languages, as you might know, have evolved over time from other dialects, and that's probably true of the Na'vi language as well. It's just that it didn't evolve from an Earth language. So that was Dr. Frommer's advantage, and maybe his challenge at the same time; creating a completely new language that makes sense, has consistent grammar rules, and specific syntax from basically nothing.

The Na'vi language didn't stop with the one Avatar movie. It continued to grow and today has a surprising following. There are even web sites dedicated to the development of Na'vi including comprehensive dictionaries. One site that is of particular interest is naviteri.org. This is the more or less "official" language site where Dr. Frommer continues to develop the language with suggestions from the community.

We visited the site and quickly found a poem recently written by one of the followers of the language. We were surprised to hear how musical and pleasant the language is, even if we didn't understand a word. You can hear the poem here, and read it along with its English translation.

We were happy to have been able to spend some time with Dr. Frommer and hear his insights into the Na'vi and how the language has developed over the years. And considering that there are four more Avatar movies in the works, it's clear that Na'vi will be around for quite some time.

We've compiled some highlights of our visit in the video below. Have a look. It's worth seeing what Dr. Frommer has to say.

Dr. Paul Frommer meets with cast members and the media to discuss his role in creating the Na'vi language, used in the film "Avatar." He provides some interesting insight into how a language might be developed. Video by Donald Fink.