USC professor creates an entire alien language for ‘Avatar’

Nov. 21, 2009 | 1:15 a.m.

“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 29 DAYS

Paul-frommer1

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

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Photos: Top, USC professor Paul Frommer (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times). Middle, James Cameron and Sam Worthington at work on “Avatar” (Twentieth Century Fox). Bottom, Cameron on the set (Twentieth Century Fox).

Comments


33 Responses to USC professor creates an entire alien language for ‘Avatar’

  1. The Bell says:

    "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."
    After all the hype coming from a "buttoned-down academic" one finds this remarkably humiliating. Not only did he have three weeks to ask, but also:
    ubi = latin: "where"
    ergo Ubisoft: "where, soft"
    as in, Softwhere …
    Starting to sound familiar, Professor?

  2. Robert Gift Denver, says:

    Fascinating.
    Great to get someone brilliant to do this.
    When shall we see a Na'vi dictionary?

  3. PMB says:

    @Al @The Bell you guys are so smart, it's a shame cameron didn't ask you to develop a language for his movie.
    There is nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there?

    • Mikhail Kurchatov says:

      PMB, this is not a matter of pointing someone else's shortcomings. If someone is supposed to be an expert in something, that person is expected to know the basics of that something. For a linguist not to know Latin, it's like an economist not to know algebra. In this case it is much more egregious since it is an easy word like "ubi", that even people who are not trained in linguistics usually know. Why, we even have words in English that start with that Latin word "ubi", such as "ubicate" (to locate or place at a determinate location) and "ubication" (location or situation). I expect so-called "experts" to know the tools of their trades like the palms of their hands. For him not to know the origin of the word "ubi" is inexcusable.

  4. Judith says:

    Where can I hear a sample of this language?

  5. Jb says:

    Hello,
    Ubi in fact comes from Ubiquity in the case of Ubisoft.
    Ubiquity is the fact to be everywhere at the same time because when the company was created by 5 brothers, they wanted it to be big. :)

  6. Hmmm. This sounds an AWFUL LOT like the language ** I ** created about 24 years ago (called Rotarian in English, Elvahnin in the 'native' tongue => Elvahnin – Na'vi…sounds somewhat similar-ish). What little I saw of "his language" even includes a Tx-letter combination like mine did (only my Tx was pronounced ch, as in church) – not that letter combinations are trademarked or anything, but it is an odd coincidence. Of course, it doesn't help that I was unable to trademark/copyright (insofar as I know) all my written work on my language before I lost it due to an expensive cross-country move. What further bothers me, in its own weird way, is how I know EXACTLY how he feels about the possibilities of having been asked to make up a language (for money or otherwise). I doubt I could prove plagiarism or anything like that, but this is going to tarnish my enjoyment of what looks like a really fantastic movie. I'd really like to get in touch with Frommer about how he REALLY came about making up this language. Just sayin'.

  7. VStormfire says:

    This is interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the language.
    I wish that someone more connected to the greater conlanging community had gotten the gig, for the sake of spreading the awareness that there is a whole community online (and 'IRL') engaged in building languages. And we don't even get paid for it.
    Anyone who uses |x| for /S/ is very likely to have the digraph |tx| for /tS/. That's hardly original. And one of my languages starts with 'N', has a 'v', and even ends in 'i'… Oh, noes! I must have telepathically plagiarized this Na'vi and by extenstion Elvahnin without ever having heard of either at the time!

  8. bizzle says:

    LOL. I had this dude as a teacher. Figures he would create a language.

  9. Kelly says:

    Now if they could only do something about the dismal proofreading on these articles…

  10. Billy says:

    $400 million for a 3D video game? I wonder how much Mr. USC Professor was paid to come up with a fake language that – hopefully – no one will ever hear. With people on the streets of America dying of starvation, spending this much money on Cameron's boated childhood wet dream is simply obscene.

  11. Daniel Rodriguez says:

    Hollywood always promotes stupidity,
    Instead of creating a new language, how about using an existing language in danger to dissappear?

    • Laurie says:

      why would they do that when the setting of the movie is on ANOTHER planet? That's like wanting aliens in most movies to speak English, regardless of the fact that they are from some far away planet.

  12. Brian Barker says:

    And before "Avatar" and "Star Trek" there was Bill Shatner speaking Esperanto, in the film called "Incubus".
    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F77k6SQX7iQ&fe
    As an Esperanto speaker I found it terrifying! His Esperanto pronunciation that is, not the film.
    Your readers may be interested in http://www.lernu.net :)

  13. U.S.O. Project meets Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar:
    http://bit.ly/7JHvq5

  14. Andrew says:

    @Billy: I can just see the executives at the movie company thinking, "We've got $400 million. Shall we spend it making a revolutionary new movie, or spend it on America's homeless?"

  15. Miss Kriss says:

    I'd like to hear more about Jodie Holt, a botanist from UC Riverside. You mention a story in the San Bernardino Sun but I know there is more to tell about creating the backstory for the plant life…
    http://newsroom.ucr.edu/news_item.html?action=pag

  16. woody says:

    Why would it be Hollywood's job to feed the planet's hungry?

  17. Susie says:

    Lighten up, Billy.
    Otherwise, you should be first in line to give your money to the hungry. Oh wait, you're just complaining on the internet, ultimately ineffective at anything.

  18. Bryan B. says:

    So Professor Frommer is walking around the USC campus babbling in a language no one understands but him.
    Can anyone blame Steven Sample for resigning?

  19. Richard 4106 says:

    To those of you complaining about Jim spending all this money on his movie instead of "feeding the hungry" or helping the "homeless", let's compare your financial statements with Mr. Cameron's and see who spends what on what. Unless you are "walking the walk" -not just "talking the talk", I would suggest you keep your comments to yourselves. ~~Just my .02

  20. Dede says:

    I am so stoaked about this new language, I really want to learn it. I loved the movie, I actually went to a midnight showing on the first day it came out, I knew it would be awesome!!!! I love the feel of it and can't wait to see the sequel, I hope it is just as good or better. :)

  21. mitz says:

    :)) loved that last part: "I just wish," he said, "that I had someone to talk to."
    brilliant article
    cheers

  22. Jack T. says:

    Geoff Boucher,
    I read your article “Science diction” in the Calendar section. Paul Frommer seems like a really nice and good natured guy. However do you really think that his Na’vi language deserves accolades?
    There are people who take language technology seriously. This language you write about might be good for the movies but it does not pass the stress test of modern day artificial language quality control specifications.
    Here's a test to see if this guy is a pudknocker, a term made famous in the movie The Right Stuff. Take a simple sentence about fruits followed by a simple question. Translate this sentence found on this web page into Navi: http://lingvo.jtusz.com/arch/L5.htm "In the room you will find apples and oranges or bananas." Then ask the question, if I go into the room will I be absolutely positively certain to find apples? If you can't formulate this sentence using Navi alone, no parenthesis, then Frommer is not for real:)
    By the way in today's LA Times there is an article by Lori Kozlowski about Avatar and scientific language, "Her work was out of this world". I understand that this is a movie and all which makes for an exotic topic but I get the impression that the LA Times journalists are treating the field of artificial language as if it were some sort of a joke or freak show. Granted, it's a paper tiger. I caution however that the equation e=mc2 was meaningless babble before alamogordo. Language is the fabric of our society. You monkey with the connecting tissue and who knows what might happen. Go on and play with your ideas about plant signal transduction. It's very cute and playful. Meanwhile in the laboratories some of us are trying to work.
    Jack T.

  23. hey, there is a site where over 500 words from the Na'vi language are put into a dictionary. its called learnnavi.org. i dont know if im allowed to put that since most places you can comment on dont allow the input of URLs, but i hope its okay. if you ever want to see how the language is doing and maybe learn the language for yourself, just check out the site. it has gotten popular ever since the movie came out and many people on youtube are making video lessons on learning the language. just thougth i would share this with whoever is interested

  24. I really want to learn to speak this language!!! Can someone post it on the internet???

  25. Jennie DePlacito says:

    I LOVE linguistics and was very pleased to read of the shared interest and love of languages that the creator of the Na'vi language also has. What a interesting column! Many things I have read online about Avatar have been about it's booming success and also negative articles. I LOVED the movie personally, thought it one of the very best I have ever seen! I am inpressed with the careful detail shown to each scene, and character, and most importantly the culture and language of the Na'vi. I hope to learn the laguage myself, and look forward to more movies, and websites teaching Na'vi language.
    What a difficult and exciting task to invent a language!!! I hope to be a linguist myself. And it was encouraging to see the a different avenue in such a field. Although I wouldn't dream of such a task being my own, it opens my mind to ponder other ways a linguist can use their talent for language.
    Thanks for a Wonderful Article!!!
    Sincerely, Jennie DePlacito

  26. HAHA says:

    HAHAHEHEHOHOLOLROFLLMAOLMFAO :)

  27. Liz in CA says:

    OH PLEASE! Osiyo in Cherokee (pronounced oh-see-yo or i-see-you depending which band), means…HELLO! He's invented nothing, just ripped off the Indians. Again.

  28. Hilary says:

    Creating a language — the idea is oh so very cool. The last line was a very good way to end an article such as this.

    But what this article also got me thinking about, as many others up there have said, James Cameron talked about how this turned into an environmental statement and now he's sort of doing his civil duty or whatever (now that he has to) — but Avatar spent more money than like, anything else that's playing in the box offices now or that will be playing until, of course, the next Avatar comes out. The irony is just way too obvious. He's talking about helping the environment, well, I'm honestly not one of those people that recycles, or attempts to do so (call me the ignorant/selfish human) but how many resources did they use making this movie??!!!

    So does the environmental statement have any value if he goes and violates it more horrendously than the average human on earth by making a movie? And continuing to do so perhaps even repeatedly? It really make you think about the hypocrisy of human beings, eh?

  29. ruozhen says:

    thanks to sharing!

  30. Nicholas says:

    I hope to learn this language and actually speak it with people who love it the much I do. I'm loving it now more and more. Na'vi is made for the "rest of us" who love weird adventures like learning alien languages.

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