The basis of the Na'vi language is James Cameron's 2005 scriptment for Avatar. Cameron felt the need for a complete, consistent language for the alien characters of the film, so that their speech would feel realistic for the audience. His production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, contacted the linguistics department at the University of Southern California; Edward Finegan, a professor of linguistics at USC, thought that the project would appeal to Paul Frommer, with whom he had co-authored a linguistics textbook, and so forwarded Lightstorm's inquiry to him at the Marshall School of Business at USC. Frommer and Cameron met to discuss the director's vision for the language and its use in the film, and Cameron took Frommer aboard.
Cameron's Na'vi words
Cameron created some three dozen cultural words and personal, plant, and animal names in his scriptment. He had been to New Zealand a few years before, and says that he had the sound of the Māori language in mind when he came up with the names; Frommer also noticed a "Polynesian flavor". Cameron's words are:[note 1]
Frommer's Na'vi language
The language project was subject to three significant constraints. First, Cameron wanted the language to sound alien but, unlike Klingon, to sound pleasant and appeal to the audience. Second, since the storyline included humans who had learned to speak the language, it had to be a language that humans could plausibly learn to speak. Last, the actors would have to be able to pronounce their Na’vi dialogue without unreasonable difficulty.
Following the model of Cameron's existing vocabulary, Frommer developed three sets of meaningless test words and phrases that conveyed a sense of what the language might sound like: one using contrasting tones, one using varying vowel length, and one using ejective consonants. Cameron didn't care for the first two, but liked the sound of the ejectives. This choice, along with names like Ckaha that Cameron had created, laid the foundation for the phonology that Frommer would use in developing the rest of the Na'vi language, its morphology, syntax, and an initial vocabulary; a task that took six months. He also translated into Na'vi four songs Cameron had written in English. The language in its final form contained several elements which were uncommon in human languages, such as verbal inflection using infixes, but all elements are found in one human language or another, even if the combination is unique to Na’vi.
By the time casting for Avatar began, the language was sufficiently developed that actors were required to present Na'vi dialogue during their auditions. During shooting Frommer worked with the cast on their pronunciation and intonation, both for film dialogue and during the recording of James Horner's Avatar score. The bulk of the vocabulary was created by Frommer at this time, as needed for the evolving script. Cameron also coined a few additional words, such as atán "light" and Eywa’éveng "Pandora" (the Na'vi world; lit. "child of Eywa"). Actors would occasionally make mistakes in speaking Na'vi; in some cases, these were accepted as natural learner's errors made by their human characters; in others, they were incorporated into the language. The latter include páte "to arrive" from Zoe Saldaña, who played Neytiri; latsí "to keep up" from Laz Alonso, who played Tsu’tey; and snumìna "dim-witted" from CCH Pounder, who played Mo’at.
Frommer expanded the vocabulary further in May 2009 when he worked on the Avatar video game, which required words that had not been needed for the film. A few grammatical elements such as the intentional mood were added at this time, and so do not occur in the film. At the time of the film's release on December 18, 2009, the Na'vi vocabulary consisted of approximately 1000 words.
The language acquired a public following, including an internet forum dedicated to learning it, within weeks of release. Frommer expressed hopes that the language would "have a life of its own". He accepted several new words suggested by members of the forum, such as prrwll "moss", and phrases coined for non-Na'vi concepts such as eltu lefngap "metallic brain" for "computer". In March 2010 he asked the forum for a list of needed vocabulary as the basis for doubling the size of the language.
- Words are listed in the order in which they appear in the scriptment; followed in italics by Frommer's adaptations. Acute accents indicate where Cameron had indicated stress.
- Mo’at-’ite is the source of ’ite "daughter", and Ckaha (Tskaha) is apparently the impetus for consonant clusters such as tsk.
- Potentially the source of the positive affect infix ‹ei›
- source of ’itan "son"
- Avatar script, ca. 2007
- "Avatar's Na'vi language based on Maori", 3news.co.nz, 2010 Jan 21
- Milani, Matteo (November 24, 2009). "An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar". Unidentified Sound Object. http://usoproject.blogspot.com/2009/11/interview-with-paul-frommer-alien.html. Retrieved January 9, 2010.
- Boucher, Geoff (November 20, 2009). "USC professor creates an entire alien language for 'Avatar'". Los Angeles Times. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2009/11/usc-professor-creates-alien-language-for-avatar.html. Retrieved January 16, 2010.