Dr. Paul Frommer
Published: January 27th, 2015
Dr. Paul Frommer is a professor at the University of Southern California and linguistic consultant. Frommer created the Na'vi alien language for the critically acclaimed James Cameron film Avatar and his three sequels.
Howl: Learning a language is incredibly challenging, how did you successfully create your own language?
Frommer: I could probably write a book-length answer to this question! But let me just point out the major steps I went through.
I didn’t quite start from zero, since James Cameron had devised 30 or 40 words of his own for the original script—some character names, place names, names of animals, etc. That gave me a bit of a sense of what kinds of sounds he had in mind.
The next step was to develop the phonetics and phonology—the sounds that would and would not appear in the language, along with the rules for combining sounds into syllables and words and the pronunciation rules that might in certain circumstances change one sound into another. The major constraint, of course, was that although Na’vi is an alien language, it has to be spoken by human actors, and so the sounds it included had to be ones that the actors would be able to reproduce.
To create some interest, I included a group of sounds not often found in western languages—“ejectives,” which are popping-like sounds that I notated as kx, px, and tx. I also needed to determine what other elements in the language would be “distinctive”—that is, would be able to differentiate words: for example, stress (the eventual answer was yes), vowel length (no) and tone (no). I presented Cameron with three different “sound palettes” or possibilities for the overall sonic impression of the language—he chose one, and we were off!
The next step was to decide on the morphology and syntax. For those, I was on my own. Since this was an alien language spoken on another world, I wanted to include structures and processes that were relatively rare in human languages but that could be acquired by humans, since according to the plot of the movie, a number of humans had learned to speak the language. The verbal morphology is achieved exclusively through infixes, which are less common than prefixes and suffixes. And the nouns have a system of case marking, known as a “tripartite” system, that’s possible but quite rare in human languages.
A bit more about the structure of the language:
Na’vi word order is unusually flexible: subject, object, and verb can appear in all possible orders. For example, take the sentence “Eytukanìl Neytiriti tse’a,” which means “Eytukan sees Neytiri.” Because of the case endings on the two names, all six permutations of the three words in the sentence form perfectly grammatical sentences in Na’vi, and they all mean the same thing—very much unlike what happens in English:
1. Eytukanìl Neytiriti tse’a.
2. Eytukanìl tse’a Neytiriti.
3. Neytiriti Eytukanìl tse’a.
4. Neytiriti tse’a Eytukanìl.
5. Tse’a Eytukanìl Neytiriti.
6. Tse’a Neytiriti Eytukanìl.
Also, adjectives and modifying clauses can either proceed or follow their heads—so, for example, you can say the equivalent of either “dangerous animal” or “animal dangerous,” and both orders are OK; adpositions (similar in function to prepositions in English and postpositions in Japanese) can precede or follow nouns—so you can say the equivalent of either “at home” or “home at.”
Verbs are marked for tense, aspect, and certain speaker attitudes, not by prefixes or suffixes but by infixes—again, something possible but relatively rare on earth. There are five tenses: present, immediate past, general past, immediate future, general future. We have ways of expressing all of that in English—for example, “I just now saw him”—but not with one word, as it’s done in Na’vi. There’s also a subjunctive mood, and two aspects—perfective and imperfective.
As I mentioned, all of the inflectional morphology on verbs is achieved via infixes. Some of them are “attitudinals,” allowing speakers to express how they feel about what they’re saying: whether they’re happy, unhappy, or uncertain.
Here’s a model verb paradigm:
tìmaron ‘just now hunted’
tìyaron ‘is about to hunt’
tayaron ‘will hunt’
teraron ‘be hunting’
tolaron ‘have hunted’
Both tense and aspect:
teraron ‘is hunting’
tìrmaron ‘was just now hunting’
tarmaron ‘was hunting’
tìryaron ‘is about to be hunting’
taryaron ‘will be hunting’
tolaron ‘has hunted’
tìlmaron ‘has just now hunted’
talmaron ‘had hunted’
tìlyaron ‘is about to have hunted’
talyaron ‘will have hunted’
tivaron ‘may hunt’
tirvaron ‘may be hunting’
tilvaron ‘may have hunted’
timvaron ‘might have hunted’
tìyevaron ‘may be about to hunt’
MORE COMPLEX FORMS
tìrmareion ‘was just now hunting (and the speaker feels positive about it)’
tayarängon ‘will hunt (and the speaker feels negative about it)’
täpolaratson ‘has hunted oneself (and the speaker is uncertain or has indirect knowledge)
teykìyevaron ‘may make (someone) be about to hunt’
Of course there’s a lot more to think about beyond nouns and verbs and word order, for example the whole very important question of the relationship between language and culture. I’ll talk about that below.
Howl: While in USCs doctoral program in linguistics you taught English in Iran. What methods did you use to best teach such a difficult language so easily taken for granted when it is your own?
Frommer: You’re right—we tend to take our own language for granted, not always realizing how tricky it is for others to learn it as adults.
I taught in Iran for a year prior to the revolution, 1975-76, in a traditional classroom situation, in a USC-sponsored program for employees of National Iranian Radio and Television. My teaching at the time was pretty traditional. We used textbooks; we did grammar drills; we tried to cover all four aspects of language learning—speaking, listening, reading, and writing. I used English as much as possible in the classroom, but since I had a group of students who all spoke the same language, Persian (sometimes known as Farsi), and since I was studying that language intensely on my own, I didn’t hesitate to use Persian as a shortcut in the classroom to help students quickly understand the meaning of a word or phrase. (Not all ESL teachers agree that’s a good idea; some feel a teacher should never use anything but English in the classroom. Of course if you’re teaching a class of heterogeneous students who speak twelve different language, you have no choice! But with a group of monolingual speakers, using their native language on occasion can save a lot of time.)
If I were to do this again today, I think I’d try to concentrate more on conversation and comprehension rather than on teaching grammatical rules. Students have different learning styles. For some, rules and lists and charts and paradigms are helpful; for others, they get in the way. But in all cases, when you use a language for genuine communication in real situations, it tends to be absorbed and become natural, which is what we’re really after.
Howl: How did you feel when James Cameron chose you to create the Na'vi language?
Frommer: As you might imagine, I felt extremely excited and also extraordinarily fortunate. Here I was, a professor in a business school with no connection whatsoever to the film industry, and I was about to begin working on a major project with some of the most famous people in Hollywood. It was quite a thrill.
So much of success, I’ve since realized, amounts to good fortune. I’m not saying hard work and determination and talent don’t count—of course they do. And I’m proud of the work I did. But I also know that if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find out about the job opening and to be at the right place at the right time, it never would have happened for me. I am, as I said, very fortunate.
Howl: Every language belongs to a particular culture and is unique to it such as the many names for snow for Inuit people. How did you create a language that belonged to a fictional culture?
Frommer: Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was to understand enough of the world of Pandora so that the language of the Na’vi would appropriately reflect their environment and culture. Every language reflects the environment and culture of its speakers; this is no less true for a fictional world than for a real one.
Let me give you some examples of the interplay between language and culture in Na’vi.
Na’vi vocabulary contains words that relate to concepts important to the Na’vi, like meoauniaea, which means ‘living at one with the natural world.’ There is also an honorific register in Na’vi used for ceremonial purposes—for example, while the ordinary word for ‘you’ is nga, in ceremonies a special honorific form for the word is used: ngenga.
The Na’vi language also reflects Na’vi physiology. There are words relating to body parts the Na’vi have that humans don’t—for example, kxetse, meaning ‘tail.’ And since the Na’vi have 4 digits on each hand, their counting system is based on 8, not 10.
There are also proverbs and sayings that reflect Na’vi culture. An example is:
Kxetse sì mikyun kop plltxe.
‘The tail and ears also speak.’
That is to say, don’t just listen to the words, but look at the body language.
Howl: Every language has within it variations based on geographic location and generation such as a Boston accent or slang. Does the Na'vi language have any of these variations?
Frommer: In the first Avatar movie, we heard about Na’vi clans other than the Omaticaya—the Ikran People of the Eastern Sea, for example. It’s plausible, then, that different clans living in different areas of Pandora would speak somewhat different forms of Na’vi, just as there are regional differences to be found among all Earth languages. It remains to be seen whether or not we’ll learn more about these other dialects of Na’vi in the three sequels that have been announced.
Howl: What real languages inspired the Na'vi language?
Frommer: I think it’s inevitable that the languages a conlanger (language constructor) is most familiar with tend to inspire aspects of his or her constructed languages. For me, these were largely Malay/Indonesian, Persian, Hebrew, and Chinese. That’s not to say that anything in Na’vi was directly taken from these languages—far from it. But certain corners of the grammar or sound system are reminiscent of things that occur in one of these languages. To give an example, in Na’vi there’s no word for “have.” To say, “I have a brother,” you say in effect, “There is to me a brother.” That’s very similar to what happens in Modern Hebrew. Also, there are things about Na’vi phonology that are similar to things in Polynesian languages, reflecting some of James Cameron’s original words.
Other aspects of Na’vi, however, are as far as I know unique and not found in natural languages. In any event, one thing is certain: Whether or not a particular structure or process in Na’vi can be traced back to some Earth language, the combination of structures and processes in Na’vi is beyond question unique.
Howl: Is it a hard language to learn and how did you teach it to the actors?
Frommer: I’m not sure whether Na’vi is more difficult to learn than, say, Indonesian or French or Arabic or Chinese. I think it probably stands in the middle—not the easiest but also not the hardest. It does take effort and determination, however. The biggest drawback, as you might imagine, is the fact that there aren’t a lot of native speakers around to rely on for examples of natural language use!
The actors learned to pronounce their Na’vi lines convincingly, but they didn’t learn the language in the sense of being able to construct their own sentences. I supplied them with written materials—their lines in standard Na’vi spelling and also in an Englishy kind of phonetic transcription that they found helpful. I also created mp3 files they could download and listen to for practice. And of course I met with them one-on-one for coaching. During filming, I was on set to monitor how they were doing and offer advice, if needed, between takes.
Howl: How is the language evolving, as most languages do?
Frommer: You’re right—all natural living languages evolve. In the case of Na’vi, however, I would say the language is developing more than evolving. I continue to add to the vocabulary through my blog and also expand on the grammatical structures when needs arise that haven’t yet been met. In doing this, I now have a team of language experts out there who offer me advice and suggestions. Some members of the Na’vi community use the language for genuine communication more than I do myself, and many of them do so with remarkable grace and skill. I remain the “gate-keeper”: I’m the only one who determines what becomes an official part of the language and what doesn’t. But it’s really nice to have others contribute ideas and suggestions so that developing the language is no longer such an isolated activity.
Howl: Do you think there is Na'vi poetry and literature out there in the bloggosphere being written?
Frommer: I know there is! Take a look at the Dec. 31, 2014 post in my blog, where I announce the winners of the most recent Na’vi writing contest:
Howl: What attracts you, in particular, to language? What do you find so fascinating and beautiful?
Frommer: More than anything else, language is what makes us human. Other animals have fascinating systems of communication, but nothing in the animal world compares to the amazing flexibility and richness of human languages, where with finite means we can create an infinity of messages. Language is cool!