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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On Oct. 7, Dr. Paul Frommer will visit Philbrook Museum of Art as the featured speaker for the 2010 “Oklahoma Conversation in the Humanities.” A professor of clinical management communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Frommer also developed the Na’vi language for the hit film “Avatar.” The noted linguistics expert recently talked with TulsaPeople by phone about creating a language from scratch, the film’s passionate fans and working with director James Cameron. For more information about Frommer’s presentation, “Avatar and the Culture of Language,” which is free and open to the public, visit www.okhumanitiescouncil.org.

TulsaPeople: Have you been doing lots of speaking engagements about this particular topic, or is this a rare occurrence?

Paul Frommer: As a matter of fact, I have been doing some speaking and I’m about to begin quite a little series of talks. I actually leave Sept. 1 for Europe, and I’m speaking in Stockholm at the Bonnier Convention. … And then in October there’s going to be something in the area of San Francisco and then Tulsa and Rochester for my 45th college reunion, class of 1965, and the alumni association has asked me to speak. And then later in October I may be speaking at a little school in Rockport, Mass., and then in November we’re going to Australia and New Zealand and I’m speaking at three places in Australia. I have been teaching at USC in the Marshall School of Business. I just became emeritus and I’m going to see what the life of a retired gentleman is like.

You don’t sound very retired.

I’m definitely not relegating myself to a rocking chair. I had spoken to a group of foreign language teachers. It’s been extremely interesting. I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the interest in the language — it’s been wonderful — and the fact that that there is now a really viable language community that is really using the language as a medium of communication.

Tell me more about that.

Dr. Paul FrommerAs you know, “Avatar” came out Dec. 18, and soon after that people began asking about the language, about the structure of the language and so on and so forth. And a group of fans totally on their own formed a website that’s still very viable, www.learnnavi.org. The last time I checked, they were pushing 300,000 posts to their various fora. And since then, a community of enthusiasts has developed who are helping me expand the language. This is quite apart from anything that was in the film, and by the end of the film, we probably had about 500 words and certain rules of grammar. … At this point the vocabulary is doubled, it’s getting close to tripled, and the grammar has become more detailed and refined. But the most amazing thing is, I’m receiving long e-mails written entirely in the language. People are using it as a genuine means of communications. There are people in this community who correspond with each other entirely in Na’vi.

When you get those e-mails, is there anything unfamiliar to you? Do you have to take a minute to translate even though you created it (the language)?

I take more than a minute. And to be quite candid, at this point, their facility far exceeds mine, and that’s an interesting development. But what’s really quite wonderful is that it is now a real community and there is tremendous input, which helps me, from these people who are … using the language. I am still the decider, the arbiter, but I am getting lots and lots of suggestions run by me. There are a few leaders of the community who have emerged. Some of these people are extraordinarily sophisticated, and that’s quite wonderful. … They’re helping me see where the vocabulary needs to be expanded. … I have started a blog, www.naviteri.org, about Na’vi, and you can also get to it by www.naviforall.org.

What do you think it is about this language that struck such a nerve with people? What draws them to it?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself actually. I think it’s a number of things. … People have been amazingly moved by “Avatar.” People want to live on Pandora. It’s an exciting, beautiful, idyllic place, and they want to maintain a connection to it. I’ve spoken to people who have seen the movie, and this is even prior to the DVD coming out, they’ve seen the movie two dozen times. … Even though we can’t go to Pandora, we can’t live in that culture, one thing we can do it speak the language, which is a connection to the planet and a connection to the culture, the people. So that’s something that has intrigued a lot of people. There’s also just the intellectual pleasure of speaking a language that no one else has spoken — it has the flexibility to express a lot of the thoughts in your head. It’s sort of the joy of using a code that few outsiders will understand.

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