Creator of Avatar language Paul Frommer speaks about blockbuster film, linguistics, success
Published: Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Updated: Friday, October 29, 2010 13:10
Guest speaker Paul Frommer spoke in Tishman Commons on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 21, and addressed the audience in a foreign language. "Hello my friends, I see you all. It's a great pleasure to be here speaking about the Na'vi language," Frommer said—entirely in Na'vi, the artificial language he created for the blockbuster film "Avatar." The diverse crowd of professors, students and fans who attended filled the room to its capacity.
"Avatar," the 2009 film directed and written by James Cameron, is the highest-grossing film in cinematic history. Nominated for nine Academy Awards and winner of three, "Avatar" earned a staggering $2.7 billion worldwide.
"This movie has changed people's lives," Frommer said. "People want to live on Pandora. We can't go there, but we can keep the connection by speaking the language."
Pandora is the moon where "Avatar" is set, and Frommer made this statement in the context of explaining why the Na'vi language has become so wildly popular. On "learnnavi.org," a website that deconstructs and teaches the Na'vi language, there are currently over 321,000 posts in nineteen different languages. Although Frommer invented the language, he readily admits that there are now "Avatar" fans that can speak and write the language much more fluently than he can.
When Cameron's production team contacted Frommer in 2005, however, the movie was only an ambitious eighty-page script with about thirty alien words such as taron (hunt) and kaltxí (hello). Using such words as a baseline, Frommer was asked to develop a functional language.
"One of the most amazing ninety minutes of my life was in James Cameron's studio in Santa Monica in California," Frommer said. Cameron's words to Frommer—"Welcome on board"—changed his life. "The rest, as they said, is history."
Although Frommer was a department head at the University of Southern California when Cameron contacted him, his background lent him the necessary qualifications for the role of developing the Na'vi language. After obtaining a B.A. in mathematics, Frommer completed his Ph.D. in linguistics after discovering his aptitude for languages during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. He became a vice-president for Bentley Industries before re-entering the world of academia in 1996, where he was eventually "discovered" by Cameron.
Thus began a life-changing project– inventing a language for a nonexistent race of giant blue humanoid aliens. Cameron stressed that there was to be absolutely no electronic manipulation of the actors' voices. "Everything had to come from the human vocal mechanism," Frommer said. Armed with this limitation, the thirty Na'vi words from the script and a basic knowledge of the Na'vi culture, Frommer began to construct a language that would become world-famous.
"Language and culture intersect," Frommer said. "Every language exists within a context." For example, the Na'vi only have four fingers on each hand, compared to the five that we have. Therefore, while humans count with base ten, the Na'vi count with base eight. Ceremonies are important to the Na'vi, so their language has an ceremonial vernacular, with a separate structure and set of mannerisms.
The popularity of the Na'vi language has in part served to inspire the creation of a new 300-level linguistics seminar at Wellesley called "Invented Languages: From Wilkins' Real Character to Avatar's Na'vi." Throughout the course students learn about the history of invented languages and create their own language. Some of the invented languages includeas Esperanto, which was created to foster "peace and international understanding," and Klingon, the fully-realized alien language from "Star Trek."
"It's a really interesting class," Kristine Bundschuh '12 said. Bundschuh, who is currently enrolled in "Invented Languages," is constructing a language based off C. S. Lewis's "Narnia" books. Like Frommer, she is faced with the challenges of deciding which facets of the "Narnia" culture would be most likely to shape a distinctive language. "It's definitely a challenge," Bundschuh said.
"‘Invented Languages' is one of only two courses of its kind in the United States," Professor Angela Carpenter of the Department of Cognitive and Linguistics Sciences said. Her students must develop phonemic structure, verbs, tenses—and more!—for their own languages. "It really gives you a deeper understanding of language and its complexities," she said.
Carpenter herself is currently experimenting with invented languages at Wellesley to determine if there are any facets of language that are truly innate to human beings.
For all undergraduate students, not necessarily those focusing in linguistics, Frommer has three pieces of advice: Get to know your professors, enroll in interesting new courses and, most importantly, learn how to think.
"Critical thinking is everything," Frommer said. "Everybody is trying to make you think and act in a certain way. For me the most important thing you can ask is five words, ‘How do you know that?'"
Frommer is currently working on developing a language for Disney's "John Carter of Mars." Carpenter's "Invented Languages" class is open to all students who have taken at least one 200-level course in a related subfield.