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The Science of Language (Na'vi, That Is)

From harmony (meoauniaea) to brainworm (eltungawng), Paul Frommer Ph.D. ’81 creates a brand new language for the film Avatar.

USC College alumnus Paul Frommer created a language for the film <em>Avatar</em>. Photo by Max S. Gerber
USC College alumnus Paul Frommer created a language for the film Avatar. Photo by Max S. Gerber

"Stars are fascinating," Paul Frommer enthused. "I recall many a New York night when as a child I stood out in a vacant lot bundled up against the cold, holding a star map and a flashlight covered in red cellophane [red light interferes less with night vision], trying to pick out the constellations in the sky. And I could rattle off the names of the 20 brightest stars from memory: Sirius, Canopus, Alpha Centauri, Vega, Arcturus, Capella, Rigel, and so on.”

From age 8 until a junior in college, Frommer thought astronomy was his destiny. But he changed his path from astrophysics to math as an undergraduate and then to linguistics as a graduate student.

“Linguistics can be quite technical and analytic, and mathematical to an extent,” he said. There is often a correlation between quantitative and linguistic ability.”

Now a professor of clinical management communication in USC Marshall School of Business, Frommer earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from USC College in 1981, with the internationally renowned linguist Bernard Comrie as his dissertation adviser. In the mid-’70s, Frommer taught English in Iran for a year while intensively studying Persian, which heavily influenced his dissertation topic: “Post-verbal Phenomena in Colloquial Persian Syntax.”

In a remarkable turn of fate, Frommer’s lifelong love of astronomy coalesced with his passion for linguistics in the realm of space. He had received an e-mail forwarded to him by Professor of Linguistics Ed Finegan about Lightstorm Entertainment’s search for an expert to develop a new language for what would become James Cameron’s $400 million science fiction epic film, Avatar. Frommer answered the call, and the rest is Na’vi.

Listening to the actors speak Na’vi, the audience probably doesn’t give a second thought to the imagination, training and hard work that went into its development. According to Frommer, it started with phonetics and phonology. “The sound system has to be all nailed down first, so that there is consistency in the language,” he explained. Early on he provided Cameron with three “sound palettes” for Na’vi. “Cameron passed on the first two, but liked the third very much,” he said.

Na’vi is composed of 20 consonants, seven vowels and four diphthongs. If Na’vi sounds to the listener as if it was derived from no particular language family, then Frommer is pleased. His goal was for this language to sound utterly new. He admits that there are Persian influences in the grammar from the year he spent teaching in Iran. There may also be some words reminiscent of Bahasa Malaysia from a year in Malaysia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

 “When you create a language, you experience the joy of rolling sounds around in your mouth, hearing unusual sounds, playing with the sounds and structural properties of language — it’s a process that took about six months for the basics,” he said. His linguistic passion and enthusiasm is undeniable as he describes the nuts and bolts of developing Na’vi.

Cameron developed 30 of the first words of the language, including the word Na’vi. Most of the words he created were names of characters and places. According to Frommer, Camer-on had just returned from New Zealand, which may be a reason there are several words that may sound Polynesian in origin.

In addition to sound and vocabulary, languages require morphological and syntactic rules. In English, for example, the word order in a sentence is typically subject, verb and object. In Na’vi, there exists a very free word order by virtue of a case system that allows those elements to permute in six ways. Also, adjectives may precede or follow a noun without a change in meaning.

Na’vi contains some suffixes and prefixes, but mainly infixes to inflect verbs, which take a root and shove meaningful elements in the middle. There is no agreement for person and number, unlike English and many other languages. As far as tense goes, Frommer said that Na’vi has five points on a timeline — general past, proximate past, present, proximate future, and general future.

Frommer hopes Avatar generates an interest in language throughout the world. “It would be wonderful if Na’vi raised awareness of real endangered languages. When a language dies, a whole way of viewing the world dies,” he said.

Frommer met with the actors, four who played native Na’vi speakers and three who played humans who learn it as a second language, for one-on-one tutorials. “I created MP3s and broke the language down by sentence, then by phrase, and then by words — similar to a language learning tape,” Frommer said.

The voices of the 10-foot blue creatures from the planet Pandora who speak Na’vi were not electronically altered in post-production to reflect their larger sized jaws, tongues or air tubes. Frommer explained that Cameron’s desire was to have the Na’vi people possess human-sounding voices.

During the five years that Frommer has worked with Cameron, he has found him to be “extremely engaging, cordial, supportive and very in tune to what is happening with Na’vi.”

Since Avatar’s 2009 release, Frommer has received droves of e-mails from people around the world who want to know more about Na’vi and how they can learn it. Only time will tell if it takes on a life of its own like Star Trek’s Klingon, the gold standard in sci-fi languages.

The lexicon of Na’vi currently stands at approximately 1,000 words. The vocabulary will expand in the future to meet not only the needs of potential prequels or sequels but also of the growing community of Na’vi enthusiasts. In the interim, Frommer has developed new words to emulate rough conversations among army privates and to identify varying types of armor worn for the Avatar video games.

A big challenge for Frommer was keeping the Na’vi lines roughly the same length as their English equivalents. “English is a very concise and compact language with a large number of one syllable words. Though it is a crafted language, Na’vi is similar to many other natural languages in that it is 30 to 40 percent wordier than English,” he said. However, he noted that the constraint of time in a movie often requires language translations to be similar in syllable count.

Another challenge for Frommer was responding on short notice to Cameron’s need for new words on 12- to 13-hour days on the set.

To coin a phrase, literally, about his Avatar experience, Frommer said: “Lu skxom asìltsan frato mì sìrey!” (It’s the opportunity of a lifetime!)

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.