USC professor creates an entire alien language for ‘Avatar’



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