For the love of language

Linguistics expert Dr. Paul Frommer, who created the Na'vi language for the hit film "Avatar," talks about crafting a language from scratch.



(page 2 of 2)

How did you begin to create a full language from scratch?

The first thing was to meet with James Cameron. I had this extraordinary hour-and-a-half meeting with him in late summer 2005. He gave me his vision for the film and for the culture, and something about what he was thinking for the language. I didn’t start from absolute zero because he had come up with about 30 words. These were largely names of characters and place names. There wasn’t any grammar involved. From these few words I had the beginning of a sense of the kind of sound he had in his ear. Some of the words sounded somewhat Polynesian to me. Some of the words could have been Hawaiian; some of the words could have been Maori. I fact, he had recently returned from a diving trip in New Zealand, so I thought maybe he had, had some Maori in his ear. … A few words kind of sounded like words in that language, but the grammar is totally different.

The first step was to construct a sound system. … I first determined the sound of the language, the sounds that would be in Na’vi and the sounds that would not be in Na’vi. I included most but not all the sounds in Jim Cameron’s few words, but then I added some interesting sounds that gave it a little spice. There are these things that have attracted attention called “ejectives.” An ejective sounds like (makes popping noise) — they’re not clicks, but they’re sort of popping sounds. … There are also unique consonant clusters — these are groups of consonants at the beginning of a word.

Dr. Paul Frommer on the set of "Avatar."… Na’vi doesn’t do anything that a human language could not do, so in that sense, it follows human universal language, but the combination of elements is unique. So although you could say, well, this little part of the language looks like something in Hebrew, that little part of the language looks like something in Indonesian, but when you put all those things together, you get something that I think is unique and doesn’t exist anywhere else.

You have rules for word building. The verbs are quite interesting because rather than inflecting them by putting something at the end of the word or at the beginning of the word, in Na’vi you split the root and actually say something in the middle of the word. They’re called “infixes” rather than suffixes or prefixes. This exists in human language but not to a great extent. And in Na’vi that’s the entire way that you converse. Once you get the rules for word building, then you put the words together in sentences, and you have talk about word order and how modifiers fit together …

So essentially it’s first looking at the sounds, then at the word building and finally the syntax and how you put the words together to form phrases and sentences, and at the same time you’re forming vocabulary. And vocabulary was, as you can imagine, driven by the needs of the script. So I had a shooting script, and in the script were a number of lines in English that had to be said in Na’vi.

So you were essentially translating the English script to Na’vi?

Yes. So if there’s a line that said, “These demons are forbidden here,” then I said, well, I have to have a word for “demon” and I have to have a word for “forbidden” and determine how all that fits together.

… I’ve told this story a few times. But what has remained in my memory was the time when they were about to shoot a certain scene and Jim Cameron and Sam Worthington came up to me and said, “We decided that in this scene, Jake (who was Sam’s character) needs to be telling the story to some Na’vi warriors about an encounter he had with one of these flying predators that almost grabbed him on his backside, so how do you say “big blue butt”? … I said, “Well, let’s see. Give me five minutes.” I had “big,” and I had “blue,” but I didn’t have “butt.” I played around with things, and there were some people sitting around me, so I tried it out, and then finally I came up with something and said, “Yeah, that’s good.”

When you saw the movie for the first time, what was your reaction?

I had actually seen a rough cut of the movie maybe a few months before it came out. … But it was a totally different experience to see it in the theater. … The movie came out on Friday; that Tuesday there was a screening in Hollywood at the famous (Grauman’s) Chinese Theater entirely for cast and crew, so that was a memorable event. Every single seat in the theater was taken. Every person in that theater had some connection to that film and made some sort of contribution … And Jim Cameron was there and Jon Landau, the producer, was there and spoke to the group ahead of time. And then movie started and you can imagine the energy in that room. People were seeing the fruits of really five years of work for the first time, and I was blown away. There were even times when I felt myself tearing up. It was so beautiful and some parts were so moving. And then, of course, to hear the language on the screen and say, “Hey!” and then to see my name. I’m a professor, an academic at a university, and I never quite thought that I would be in that position. It was quite wonderful.

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October 2019

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1212 E 45th Place
Tulsa, OK  74105
View map »


Sponsor: Tulsa Ballet
Telephone: 918-749-6006
Contact Name: Dan
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Cost: $1,250

Where:
Southern Hills Country Club
2636 E. 61st St.
Tulsa, OK  74136
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Sponsor: Abersons
Telephone: 918-834-7200
Contact Name: Scarlet Henley
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Website »

More information

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Cost: 0.00

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View map »


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Telephone: 303-6964500
Contact Name: Kelsey Berglund
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More information

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2657 E 2070 Rd
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View map »


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Telephone: 580-317-8470
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Cost: $1,250

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Contact Name: Scarlet Henley
Website »

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Cost: $15

Where:
Studio K (Tulsa) and Zarrow Studio (Broken Arrow(
1212 E 45th Place
Tulsa, OK  74105
View map »


Sponsor: Tulsa Ballet
Telephone: 918-749-6006
Contact Name: Dan
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View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Aquarium
Telephone: 918-528-1507
Contact Name: Liz Medrano
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Cost: 109

Where:
THE DANCE PLACE
3310 WEST 42ND PLACE
TULSA, OK  74107
View map »


Telephone: 918-813-6514
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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Tulsa, OK  74114
View map »


Website »

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Cost: $15-$25

Where:
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Sponsor: Tulsa Project Theatre
Telephone: 918-596-7122
Contact Name: Amber Whitlatch
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Cost: 0.00

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Tulsa State Fairgrounds
4145 E 21st St,
Tulsa, OK  74114
View map »


Sponsor: Arabian Horse Association
Telephone: 303-6964500
Contact Name: Kelsey Berglund
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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Cost: Free

Where:
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Sponsor: OSU Medicine

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 Harvest Hayday!  October 26, from 11am - 2pm.  Come celebrate the arrival of fall!  With hayrides, games, trunk or treating, emergency vehicles, a petting zoo, and more, ...

Cost: Free, except food items for purchase from Food Trucks

Where:
Asbury UMC
6767 S. Mingo Rd
Tulsa, OK  74133
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Sponsor: Asbury UMC
Telephone: 918-392-1165
Contact Name: Kim Broadhurst
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Hello, Friends!   Fall is in the air! We are excited to present the 5th Annual Hugo Pumpkin Festival, a fun-filled event featuring a variety of entertaining activities for the whole family....

Cost: $ 6 - $ 20

Where:
Endangered Ark Foundation
2657 E 2070 Rd
Hugo, OK  74743
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Sponsor: Endangered Ark Foundation
Telephone: 580-317-8470
Contact Name: Emily
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Outdoor All Day Family Friendly Halloween Event 

Cost: $0-$10.00

Where:
Downtown Wagoner
Main Street
Wagoner
Wagoner, OK  74467
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Sponsor: Wagoner Main Street
Telephone: 918-577-1772
Contact Name: Samantha Call
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Buy a Care Card and save up to 20% at more than 200 local stores and restaurants October 25 – November 3, 2018. With Care Card, you’re saving more than money – you’re saving lives....

Cost: $60

Where:
Tulsa, OK


Sponsor: Family & Children's Services
Telephone: 918-560-1115
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Abersons presents Pink Ribbon -- an exclusive, high-fashion fundraiser featuring a runway show by one of the world's hottest designers. Cocktails 6 p.m. | Dinner & Live Auction 7...

Cost: $1,250

Where:
Southern Hills Country Club
2636 E. 61st St.
Tulsa, OK  74136
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Sponsor: Abersons
Telephone: 918-834-7200
Contact Name: Scarlet Henley
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Go into the woods and experience the return of this fantastic family production with performances in both Tulsa and Broken Arrow. Tulsa Ballet's Hardesty Family Foundation Children's...

Cost: $15

Where:
Studio K (Tulsa) and Zarrow Studio (Broken Arrow(
1212 E 45th Place
Tulsa, OK  74105
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Sponsor: Tulsa Ballet
Telephone: 918-749-6006
Contact Name: Dan
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America’s LARGEST interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa Broken Arrow! At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: 59.95

Where:
Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa- Broken Arrow
420 W Albany St.
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Telephone: 866-496-0535
Contact Name: The Dinner Detective
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Mummies of all ages! Bring your goblins, witches, and super heroes to our fun and food filled Halloween Dance! Saturday, October 26th, 2019 6-9 pm $5 per person (check or cash)  

Cost: $5 per person

Where:
Bixby Community Center
211 N Cabaniss Ave
Bixby , OK  74008
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Sponsor: Bixby Community Center
Telephone: 918-366-4841
Contact Name: Victoria Smith

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For the first time, the Oklahoma Aquarium will host seven nights of indoor trick-or-treating for kids of all ages from Friday, October 25 to Thursday, October 31! Guests can follow the...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Oklahoma Aquarium
300 Aquarium Drive
Jenks, OK  74107
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Aquarium
Telephone: 918-528-1507
Contact Name: Liz Medrano
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Originally from West Africa, Kizomba is a partner dance that is a sexy addition to any Latin dance party. It is the fastest Latin growing dance in the U.S. Come and learn the basics plus a few more...

Cost: 109

Where:
THE DANCE PLACE
3310 WEST 42ND PLACE
TULSA, OK  74107
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Telephone: 918-813-6514
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Tulsa Metro Sound Chorus presents: "As Seen on TMS". A comedic review which will keep you in stitches, including music of Iconic Women of Song . Come enjoy the music of Karen Carpenter,...

Cost: 15.00

Where:
Memorial High School
5840 S Hudson Ave,
Tulsa, OK  74135
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Sponsor: Tulsa Metro Sound
Telephone: 918-352-6091
Contact Name: Marlys Fallen
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Choral Music from North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Down Under

Cost: $20

Where:
Cascia Hall
2520 S Yorktown Ave
Tulsa, OK  74114
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Sponsor: Tulsa Chorale
Telephone: 918-625-1527
Contact Name: Anastasia Howard
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Are you looking for a night of Halloween hilarity, ghoulish guffaws, and spooky silliness? Then come and see the spirited stylings of Laughing Matter… Oklahoma’s longest-running...

Cost: $8.00 ($4.00 for children under 12)

Where:
pH Community House
306 S Phoenix Ave
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Sponsor: Laughing Matter Improv
Contact Name: Jerry Henderson
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Luchadores go head to head in the ring to see who really is The Great Pumpkin!

Cost: Free

Where:
Elote Cafe & Catering
514 S Boston Ave
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Elote Cafe & Catering
Telephone: 918-582-1403
Contact Name: Elote Cafe & Catering
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Seymour, a nerdy worker at a run-down florist is romantically pining for a seemingly unattainable beauty named Audrey, when he discovers an unusual plant that only thrives when it is fed human...

Cost: $15-$25

Where:
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 East Second Street
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Tulsa Project Theatre
Telephone: 918-596-7122
Contact Name: Amber Whitlatch
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No tricks, just treats! Gathering Place is casting a spell for all not-so-scary ghosts and ghouls to make their way to the park for sweets and treats. Meet us on Spooky Street for a kid-friendly,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gathering Place
2650 S. John Williams Way E.
Tulsa, OK  74114
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What's New


Oklahoma's Best-Sellers: Oct. 20

Based on total number of book sales at Magic City Books, Best of Books in Edmond, Brace Books and More in Ponca City, and Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.

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3.06: Representing District 73 - Regina Goodwin

A conversation with the state representative about issues in her district, plus what it's like being a Democrat in the state legislature. Plus Tulsa Architect Foundation's Amanda DeCort on the Blue Dome District and new music from Count Tutu.

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Oklahoma's Best-Sellers: Oct. 13

Based on total number of book sales at Magic City Books, Best of Books in Edmond, Brace Books and More in Ponca City, and Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.

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CLIFFDIVER on mental health, Tulsa and their new music

A Q&A with the Tulsa band that describes its sound as "Elevator Emo Pop"

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Oklahoma Best-Sellers: Oct. 6

Based on total number of book sales at Magic City Books, Best of Books in Edmond, Brace Books and More in Ponca City, and Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.

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