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Paul Frommer Sounds Off on Avatar Language

From the age of 8 until he was a junior in college, Paul Frommer thought astronomy was his destiny. But he changed his path from astrophysics to math as an undergraduate and then to linguistics as a graduate student.

“Linguistics can be quite technical and analytic, and mathematical to an extent,” he said. “There is often a correlation between quantitative and linguistic ability.”

Now a professor of clinical management communication at the USC Marshall School of Business, Frommer earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from USC College in 1981, with the internationally renowned linguist Bernard Comrie as his dissertation adviser. In the mid-1970s, Frommer lived and taught English in Iran for a year while intensively studying Persian that heavily influenced his dissertation topic: “Post-verbal Phenomena in Colloquial Persian Syntax.”

In a coincidental and remarkable turn of fate, Frommer’s lifelong love of astronomy coalesced with his passion for linguistics in the realm of space. He had received an e-mail forwarded to him by linguistics professor Ed Finegan about Lightstorm Entertainment’s search for an expert to develop a new language for what would become James Cameron’s $400-million science fiction epic Avatar. Frommer answered the call, and the rest is Na’vi.

Listening to the actors speak Na’vi, the audience probably doesn’t give a second thought as to the imagination, training and hard work that constitute its development. According to Frommer, it started with phonetics and phonology. “The sound system has to be all nailed down first, so that there is consistency in the language,” he explained. Early on, he provided Cameron with three “sound palettes” for Na’vi. “Cameron passed on the first two but liked the third very much,” he said.

“When you create a language, you experience the joy of rolling sounds around in your mouth, hearing unusual sounds, playing with the sounds and structural properties of language — it’s a process that took about six months for the basics,” he said. His linguistic passion and enthusiasm is undeniable as he described the nuts and bolts of developing Na’vi.

A big challenge for Frommer was keeping the Na’vi lines roughly the same length as their English equivalents. “English is a very concise and compact language with a large number of one-syllable words. Though it is a crafted language, Na’vi is similar to many other natural languages in that it is 30 to 40 percent wordier than English,” he said. However, he noted that the constraint of time in a movie often requires language translations to be similar in syllable count.

Frommer met with the actors, four who played native Na’vi speakers and three humans who learn it as a second language, for one-on-one tutorials. “I created MP3s and broke the language down by sentence, then by phrase, and then by words — similar to a language-learning tape,” Frommer said.

The voices of the 10-foot blue creatures from the planet Pandora who speak Na’vi were not electronically altered in post-production to reflect their larger-sized jaws, tongues, jaws or air tubes. Frommer explained that Cameron’s desire was to have the Na’vi people possess human-sounding voices.

Ever since Avatar’s 2009 release, Frommer has received droves of e-mails from people around the world who want to know more about Na’vi and how they can achieve fluency in the language. Only time will tell if it takes on a life of its own like Klingon from Star Trek, the gold standard in sci-fi languages.

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