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.
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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.
… 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.