Na’vi is the language of the extraterrestrial blue beings that inhabit the planet of Pandora in the movie Avatar. Maria Zijlstra talks to its inventor, Paul Frommer.
Maria Zijlstra: And now, for something out of this world—hello from me, Maria Zijlstra for Lingua franca here on ABC Radio National—talking this time about the huge blockbuster that’s breaking all the records for movie takings and attendances, Avatar; and about the language of the extraterrestrial blue beings who inhabit the distant planet of Pandora—members of the Na’vi tribe, who speak Na’vi, a language invented by Paul Frommer.
Professor Frommer has a doctorate in linguistics but, also, much experience in the real world of business, and teaches in the Center for Management Communication in the School of Business at the University of Southern California.
As a lover of languages though, he was quick to respond to an email from the director of Avatar, James Cameron, looking for someone to invent a language for the movie. Right, Paul?
Paul Frommer: Yeah! This email that you’re referring to was sent from his production company, which is Lightstorm Entertainment, to the linguistics department at USE, asking for someone who might be able to do this. But although I’m no longer a part of the department, I have a good colleague and friend, Ed Finegan, who is a professor in the linguistics department. In fact he was my very first professor when I began studying linguistics back in 1971. And he saw the email and he said to himself, knowing me, he said, ‘This sounds like Paul.’
Maria Zijlstra: ‘It sounds like Paul.’ Can you just expand on that?
Paul Frommer: Well, Ed and I had written a linguistics workbook together. It’s called Looking at Languages, and it presents data from about 30 different languages to students in an elementary linguistics class so that they can practise the theoretical principles they’ve been studying. And, for the book, Ed contributed most of the problems having to do with English—and a few others—and I contributed most of the problems having to do with non-English languages. So he knew that I had this interest in just looking at data from other languages. In fact I had put together a little problem, just a one-page thing, with some made-up data from a fictitious language. It was nowhere near a complete language, it just was some data that illustrated a particular point.
Maria Zijlstra: You’d done this some time before this whole project began, you mean?
Paul Frommer: Yeah, right. And I sent James Cameron a copy of the book and fortunately I was called in for an interview a week or two later and it went well, and at the end of it he stood up and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome aboard.’
Maria Zijlstra: That was the beginning, but the project as it evolved was really a collaboration, I understand, between you and James Cameron and perhaps other people as well. You needed his approval. You didn’t just go away and make it up and then come back and present it to him.
Paul Frommer: Yes and no. In terms of the sound of the language, yes, we did definitely work together. Jim had come up with a few words on his own for the original script. They were mainly character names. A few names of animals. The word Na’vi itself is James Cameron’s, and a few others. So I had a bit of a sense of the sound that he had in mind. But I added quite a bit and I presented to James these things that I called sound palettes. At that point there wasn’t any grammar, there wasn’t any syntax, morphology…I just made up some stuff. Just words that sounded like it might be a language, but that had a sound structure to them.
I played around with things like, for example, tone. Would it be a language that had tone, the way Chinese does? I’m sure you know, in Chinese, the way your voice goes up and down not only determines whether, for example, it’s a question or a statement, but it actually determines the meaning of a word. So the example people give is ‘ma’ [articulates at four different pitches] Those are four totally different words, although they each have M, A as their consonant and vowel. So that was one thing I experimented with. Another thing I experimented with was distinctive vowel length. So, of course there are many languages where, depending upon how long you hold a vowel, you can get a different word.
So I ran some of these things by Jim, just for his approval. He wasn’t particularly interested in tone or in vowel length, but what he did like are these things called ejectives. These kind of clicky sounds—or, at least they strike some people as clicks or pops—but they are actually versions of familiar consonants. There’s a P ejective which sounds kind of like [articulates]. And there’s a T version [articulates] and a K version [articulates]. These ejectives are found in languages in various parts of the world: some in the western hemisphere, some in Africa, some in Central Asia. So, yeah, Jim approved sort of the overall sound.
But then, when it was time to construct the morphology and syntax, that is, the rules for building words and for putting words together in phrases and sentences, that was pretty much up to me.
Maria Zijlstra: Can you talk a bit in it, so that we can hear it. What would be a typical sentence that a Na’vi person might say?
Paul Frommer: Okay, if I were to greet you I would say: Kaltxi. Oel ngati kameie. Tsun oe ngahu niNa’vi pivängkxo a fi’u oeru prrte’ lu. And that means hello, I see you—which is the greeting that’s famous from the movie—how are you? It’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you in Na’vi.
Maria Zijlstra: Do you converse with anyone in it? Do you talk to yourself, or is there someone else who you chat with in it?
Paul Frommer: Well at this point, in terms of oral practice, I really don’t have anyone. However, what’s absolutely extraordinary, and what I find astonishing, is that I am getting people writing me emails in Na’vi. And this is something I never expected. You know, there is a certain amount of information that’s out there, and some of which the studio put out themselves. And I’ve explained a few things in various formats to various journalists and so on. So, given that and also given a book that the studio published which had a small version of the dictionary in it, there are people who have been working like crazy, trying to master the language, and it’s been quite remarkable. Some of them are really good!
Maria Zijlstra: You sound surprised.
Paul Frommer: Well, I mean, I frankly never thought that there would be that much interest in the language, but there is now a website—which I had nothing to do with and the studio had nothing to do with, it was purely created by the fans to help each other learn the language—which, last I checked had something like 58,000 posts. And there are sub-forums on that website in I think about 15 different languages. Really quite amazing!
Maria Zijlstra: Well, yes and no, because it isn’t just sort of weirdo people and professors of linguistics who like language. All of us have this incredible facility for language. I mean, you know, that’s really the benchmark for the human being. And there are of course heaps of invented languages written for make-believe communities of beings: some of them are in books like Tolkien’s Quenya, or Elvish; and in movies, most famously the language used in Star Trek.
Paul Frommer: Klingon, of course!
Maria Zijlstra: Do you know the inventor of that? Marc Okrand?
Paul Frommer: I don’t really know him very well, although both of us were on a BBC radio program six or eight weeks ago. That was really the first time that we met. I would like to get to know Marc better, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better. I’m sure that we have a lot of very interesting stories to exchange.
Maria Zijlstra: Yeah! Are there other people who have invented a language for a movie that’s become such a focus of interest internationally?
Paul Frommer: Yeah. I guess the two of us probably are at this point the most prominent, but there certainly have been others. There was a linguist at UCLA, the University of California Los Angeles, Vicki Fromkin, a very highly-respected, well thought-of linguist who invented a language—I believe it was called Paku—for a TV series. If I’m not mistaken it was Land of the Lost. But I guess that at this point Klingon and Na’vi are the best-known and well-developed languages for movies.
Klingon of course is the gold standard. It’s been around for a long time. It has a following all over the world. There’s now a translation of Hamlet into Klingon. So I don’t know if we’re quite ready for that ready for that yet, in Na’vi. I think we only have about a thousand words.
Maria Zijlstra: Hey, it’s fascinating because, well—if I’m right it’s fascinating—because don’t the three of you then, Marc and you and this Vicki who you’ve mentioned, haven’t you all studied at universities in California, then?
Paul Frommer: Well how interesting…
Maria Zijlstra: You’ve all studied linguistics there; what is it about the air that you breathe or the way you talk to each other?
Paul Frommer: That’s a very good question, I’m not sure. And actually to add to that hypothesis, there is a society, and unfortunately I’m not going to get the name right—I can get back to you on that—but there’s a society of conlangers, people who construct languages, and I think the people who are majorly behind that, most of them seem to have come from Berkeley. So there is actually quite a bit of interest in conlanging.
Maria Zijlstra: What do you call that? What’s that?
Paul Frommer: Conlanger…it comes from constructed language, a conlang. So a conlanger is someone I guess like Marc or like Vicky Fromkin or like myself who actually make up languages. Now there are different purposes in doing this. Sometimes people just do it for the fun of it, for the beauty of it, the aesthetic value. And some of these languages can be extraordinarily interesting and way out. There’s a language constructed by a linguist whose name is Sylvia Sotomayor which doesn’t have verbs. And that apparently is a pretty well developed language. Now that, I haven’t taken a look at, but that must be rather difficult to learn.
Maria Zijlstra: Well, it’s interesting that you use that phrase ‘way out’. It makes me wonder, then, whether people in California, maybe, you’re not really of this world.
Paul Frommer: Well, I guess we have a bit of a reputation for that! But if you came here I think you’d find it relatively down-to-earth. Although if you got inside some people’s heads perhaps that might not quite be so.
Maria Zijlstra: People always say that when you learn another language or when you speak another language—and it’s certainly my experience too: if I speak a different or hear a different language or am surrounded by people speaking another language, I feel like a different person. Do you feel like a different person, and if so what kind of person, when you speak Na’vi?
Paul Frommer: Wow! That is a very interesting question.
Maria Zijlstra: A bit blue, maybe?
Paul Frommer: Yeah, well perhaps a bit blue, but it does conjure up the movie. And I think that’s pretty much the reason; well, I’m positive that that’s the reason that the language has developed the interest that it has. I mean, it seems to me that a lot of people who have gotten into the language are using it as a way to remain connected to this world that James Cameron has created. And, of course, that’s what language does: it connects you to a culture, it connects you to a world view, sometimes it connects you to a place. And a lot of people seem to be focusing on the language as a way of being, or continuing to be, to a certain extent, in this extraordinary world which so many people would love to visit.
Maria Zijlstra: The world of Pandora, in the movie Avatar. And that was the conlanger Professor Paul Frommer, who invented the language spoken there—Na’vi.