Malaysia RPCV Dr. Paul Frommer Created the Na’vi language for “Avatar”

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Here’s an interesting story about Dr. Paul Frommer, professor emeritus of clinical management communications at the University of Southern California, that shows some of the interesting things that RPCVs are doing today and also highlights how service in the Peace Corps can set volunteers on a life course that takes them places they certainly would not have gone otherwise.  Frommer, who earned a doctorate in linguistics after developing a passion for languages in the Peace Corps and later co-authored a book “Looking at Languages,” was approached by James Cameron  to create a spoken language for the Na’vi for the movie ‘Avatar’. “Life often has surprises, and sometimes those surprises are good,” says Frommer. “It was the most amazing 90 minutes of my life, meeting James Cameron in his office with memorabilia from his films around us.”

Cameron told Frommer he wanted a language that didn’t sound like any single human language. Cameron had already developed around 30 words for the language. Frommer believed they sounded Polynesian and so drew heavily from Polynesian dialects to help develop the language. Frommer also developed a number system based on eights as the Na’vi only have four digits (although according to him, the human’s avatars have five as a result of their human DNA).

“What really drove the development of the language was the script,” says Frommer. As an example, he said that if they needed a word for hunting, he created a word for hunting but didn’t create an un-needed word like sewing.

“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, for example, 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.”

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Frommer taught math and English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia

Frommer’s passion for language began when he taught math and English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia in the 1960s. “Although I had studied foreign languages prior to that (Hebrew, French, Latin, German), it was during my time in Malaysia that I really fell in love with languages,” says Frommer. “I spent two years in Malaysia, where I was teaching English and math. I taught in the Malay language, which was an interesting experience, and I realized that my real love was in the area of languages. Prior to that I had studied a number of foreign languages. I had studied Hebrew, French, Latin, a little German. So when I went to grad school, I decided to do it in linguistics. During that time I spent a year in Iran, so I learned Persian. And I wound up finishing a dissertation on a certain aspect of Persian grammar. So I had, at that point a somewhat extensive background in languages—not that I spoke all these languages fluently, by any means. ”

Frommer developed the language for Avatar using a blend of Polynesian and African dialects. Frommer was heavily involved in helping with developing the language for all things Avatar-related, including video games, songs and the script. “It’s got a perfectly consistent sound system, and grammar, orthography, syntax, and at this point it probably has about a thousand words. That’s not a huge vocabulary, but it’s certainly something that could be developed further into something that hopefully you could use every day for conversation. ”

Frommer taught the language to seven actors including Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana whose inter-species love affair drives the plot. “They were all pretty good. I was quite surprised with the facility that people had. There were seven actors altogether who were speaking the language.”

Frommer said many fans continue to add to the language, perfecting structure and creating new words. “In most respects, this to me is the most extraordinary thing of all,” says Frommer. “A community developed online that took off, and it grew to what I think are quite incredible proportions.”

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.

“This movie has changed people’s lives,” Frommer says. “People want to live on Pandora. We can’t go there, but we can keep the connection by speaking the language.”


References:

An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar” Unidentified Sound Object. November, 2009.

“Creator of Avatar language Paul Frommer speaks about blockbuster film, linguistics, success” Wellesley News. October 27, 2010.

“Brushing up on Na’vi, the Language of Avatar” by Julian Sancton. Vanity Fair. December 1, 2009.

“Developer of Na’vi language speaks at ISU” Iowa State Daily. February 4, 2011.