University of Rochester

Rochester Review
March–April 2010
Vol. 72, No. 4

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Avatar of LanguagePaul Frommer ’65 is the creator of Na’vi, the native language of the humanoid heroes in director James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar.By Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
frommer: Linguist and USC business professor Frommer says taking part in the making of Avatar was an “absolutely thrilling experience.” (Photo: Blake Little for Rochester Review)

Paul Frommer ’65 has plenty of words to describe his introduction to the world of major motion pictures. It’s been remarkable. It’s been extraordinary. And it’s been total keye’ung.

That’s Na’vi for “insanity.”

Na’vi, the language of the humanoid inhabitants of the planet Pandora, the setting of the blockbuster film Avatar, is Frommer’s brainchild. And like any child, it’s changed his life considerably.

It all started in 2005, as the linguist-turned executive was teaching at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. A friend from the linguistics department, in USC’s college of arts and sciences, forwarded to Frommer an e-mail that he and the more than 20 other members of the department had received from a representative of Lightstorm Entertainment, the production company of director James Cameron. Cameron, the creator of Titanic, at that time the largest grossing film in movie history, was looking for someone to invent a new language, to be spoken by an extraterrestrial people who would be the focus of his next movie, then called Project 880.

The Art of ‘Conlang’

Professor of English Sarah Higley says creating languages is a more common pursuit than many people might suspect. She would know: She’s the inventor of the language Teonaht, a board member of the Language Creation Society, and a member of an online Listserv of more than 500 people—linguists, computer scientists, mathematicians, humanities scholars, and others—who create languages for fun. They call such languages “constructed languages”—or conlangs—and pursue their hobby as an art form that can be enjoyed for its sounds, its script, or, for real aficionados, its grammatical structure.

“More people have done this in the past than we could ever tell,” says Higley. “The reason there seems to be a burst of people doing it is only because the Internet has put us in touch with each other.”

“We’re not nuts,” she adds, alluding to critics who dismiss conlangers as (she says dryly) “people who all live in our grandmothers’ basements and have nothing else to do.” Higley, for example, is a scholar of medieval language, literature, and poetic structure, who teaches courses on these subjects, as well as science fiction and fantasy writing, which can borrow heavily from medieval concepts of magic.

In her latest book, Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Higley explores the invented vocabulary of the 12th-century German nun, placing it in the context of language invention in both the past and present.

Over the past decades, Higley has continued to transform Teonaht into a strikingly original language, both phonetically and structurally.

Not everyone remains focused on a single language for so long. Many conlangers create several languages. “They’re really interested in the structure,” she says. “They have a certain idea. And they get bored with it, and start a new structure.”

“Some people change languages like they change clothes. Others stick with one invention for a lifetime.”

Although he earned a doctorate in linguistics from USC and later published in the field, Frommer pursued a career as a strategic planner for a Los Angeles marketing firm and now teaches courses on business communication.

“When I saw the e-mail, I said ‘whoa!’,” he says. “I jumped on it.”

This spring, as the final product of Cameron’s vision, Avatar, has surpassed Titanic as the highest grossing film of all time, Frommer’s inbox overflows with messages—hundreds, he says—from fans of the movie who want to learn to speak and write in Na’vi. Fans have also launched a Na’vi Web site and a discussion forum, to which there are more than 100,000 posts.

He calls the response both “astonishing and gratifying.”

“People go to the movie, and they’re just swept away,” he says. “It touches people on a very deep level, and they come away wanting to connect with Pandora. One way to do that is through the language.”

At first glance, learning Na’vi might not seem so daunting. Its current vocabulary is small, consisting of a little more than 1,000 words. That’s miniscule compared to the vocabulary of a typical English-speaking adult, which is about 65,000 words, according to Rochester’s Elissa Newport, the George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the chair of the department.

“But the size of the vocabulary isn’t what makes it a language or what makes it interesting,” she adds. “The size of the vocabulary is the least of the characteristics you would look at to decide, ‘Is this really a language?’ ”

Newport, an internationally recognized expert on language acquisition, says all languages have the same basic elements: A set of sounds (or hand signs—Newport studies signed languages as well), and a system of rules for combining those elements into words, and words into sentences.

So to create Na’vi, Frommer started, as a linguist would, by defining its sounds.

“Something that I enjoy doing, and I think many linguists do as well, is just playing around with sounds, just making funny sounds and rolling them around in your mouth, and seeing how it feels,” he says. “You realize you can have some very interesting combinations.”

But there should be some limit to those combinations. “You want to come up with something that has some sort of distinctiveness to it, and one way you do that is by deciding what sounds go into the mix, but just as importantly, what sounds are going to be left out,” Frommer says.

He compares the process to cooking. “When you’re cooking and you open your cabinet and see this array of spices, if you put in everything you have on the shelf, you’re going to get a mess,” he says. “It may be unpalatable, or it may have no particular distinction. But if you’re judicious, and you take certain things, and leave other things on the shelf, then you might get something that has character to it.”

Na’vi, for example, does not have the -b, -d, and hard -g sounds that are common in English. And although some sounds that appear regularly in English, such as the -ng sound, also appear in Na’vi, in Na’vi that sound appears at the beginning of words—words such as ngop (create) or nga (you)—as well as at the end, as in the English word ending -ing.

Among Na’vi’s most distinctive features are the “ejectives,” or “popping sounds” that Frommer says are heard in many Native American languages, as well as in Central Asia. “I put them in because they’re interesting sounds, and I thought they might arouse some interest in the language, kind of like an interesting spice that I was putting in.”

“The reaction I’ve gotten from a number of people who aren’t linguists is, ‘You know, that sounds like a real language,’” he says, with clear delight.

According to Newport, that’s because the listeners are beginning to recognize patterns.

“People start to learn the patterns, even in small doses. They’ll start to recognize the words that recur, and the word orders that recur, and the sounds that recur. In a two-and-a-half-hour movie, people probably are starting to recognize, even without realizing it, the patterns they’ve been exposed to.”

But it’s quite a leap from recognizing patterns to actually speaking the language. For the cast, mastering unfamiliar sound combinations, as well as the ejectives, took practice. Among Frommer’s roles was coaching the actors—Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and others—helping them both on and off the set to master Na’vi pronunciation. He was accompanied by a veteran dialect coach, Carla Meyer, who has worked on more than 40 films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, The Gift, and A River Runs Through It. Meyer and Frommer shared the task of determining the Na’vi accent—the accent that Zoe Saldana, for example, adopted as her Na’vi character, Neytiri, learned to speak English.

“We put our heads together to try to figure out exactly what they might sound like when they spoke English, and that’s not at all an easy question,” Frommer says. “One thing we played around with, is that there’s no -j sound in Na’vi, but of course the main character’s name is Jake. So if Neytiri was trying to say ‘Jake,’ what would she say? The closest sound that they have to -j is -ts, so it might come out ‘tsake.’”

A native of New York City, Frommer came to Rochester in the early 1960s on a Bausch & Lomb scholarship to study not languages, but astrophysics. “From the time I was eight, everybody knew ‘Paul is going to be an astronomer,’” he says.

As it turned out, he earned his degree in mathematics. And while he had studied a bit of French, German, Hebrew, and Latin, it wasn’t until after graduation, when he joined the Peace Corps, that he realized his love for language. He was sent to Malaysia, where he taught math in Malay. “I realized how much fun it was, and that I was pretty good at it,” he says.

In the mid-1970s, while a doctoral student in linguistics at USC, he spent a year in Iran and completed his thesis on an aspect of Persian grammar. When he entered the business world, he maintained a foothold in the field of linguistics, coauthoring Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguistics (Wadsworth) in 1994 with USC linguistics professor Edward Finegan. It was Finegan, in fact, who forwarded Frommer the e-mail from Lightstorm Entertainment, and the book itself that Frommer sent to Cameron in advance of the interview in which he closed the deal.

Now he finds himself a high-profile figure in a small but growing guild of language inventors—people from the fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien to the hundreds of computer scientists, linguists, mathematicians, and others who have invented languages as a hobby and shared them with one another over the Internet.

Frommer’s personal favorite among notable language inventors is Marc Okrand, an expert in Native American languages who created Klingon for the 1984 movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Frommer says Klingon “changed the game” when it came to science fiction filmmaking. In the 1977 movie Star Wars, for example, the language of aliens was “pretty much gibberish,” he says. Klingon, on the other hand, is a “very well-developed, difficult language.” “Ever since then, it’s been understood that that’s the standard. Especially for someone like Cameron, who lavishes this incredible detail on everything he does. He wanted the detail in the language as well.”

Klingon inspired a cult following, as Na’vi appears to be doing now.

As Frommer’s Na’vi reaches a level of renown fast approaching Okrand’s Klingon, Cameron has indicated plans for an Avatar sequel. That’s good news for Frommer, who would like nothing more than to continue to expand on the 1,000-plus word language.

“ ’Ivong Na’vi,” he says. Let Na’vi bloom.