Dr Paul Frommer is currently an associate producer for a documentary about language constructors, find out more at: www.conlangingfilm.com
For our readers, could you give us a brief overview of your career up until Cameron asked you to create the Na’vi language?
As an undergraduate, I first majored in astrophysics but wound up with a degree in mathematics. After graduation I became a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and taught both English as a Second Language and high-school mathematics in rural Malaysia. Prior to that I had studied Hebrew, Latin, French, German, and a bit of Arabic, but teaching math in Malay made me realize where my true academic passion lay: in language. So I studied linguistics in grad school and completed my PhD in 1981, writing a dissertation on an aspect of Persian syntax. (This was after I had spent a year in Iran.) After a 10-year sojourn in the business world, where I became vice president of a Los Angeles-based corporation, I re-entered the academic world as a faculty member of the Center for Management Communication within USC’s Marshall School of Business. When I landed the assignment to create Na’vi in 2005, I had become Chair of the Center.
How did you feel when James Cameron first approached you with the proposal to create the Na’vi language? Had you ever created a language like this before?
What actually happened is that I got wind of the fact that Cameron was looking for a linguist who could develop an alien language for a science fiction film, and I applied for the job. I sent him a copy of the elementary linguistics workbook I had co-authored, Looking at Languages, and expressed my great enthusiasm for the project. A week or so later I was called in to his office for a one-on-one interview. It went well, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For Looking at Languages, I had invented some artificial language data from the fictional “Spiiktumi” family for students to use in a problem on comparative reconstruction. But that was just a small word list, nothing like a complete language. The first functioning language I created was Na’vi.
Although you aimed to make it lack resemblance to a human language, did any specific languages influence you in creating the words or the grammar? Or did you create it based off how you wanted Na’vi to sound?
First let me clarify something: Although Na’vi as a whole does not resemble any particular human language, it is nonetheless a human-like language. That was a deliberate decision based on aspects of the Avatar story. According to the screenplay, some human beings have learned to speak Na’vi. For a linguist, this indicates that the language must share certain crucial properties of human languages—for example, the fact that syntactic rules refer not to words but to phrases. If this were not the case, humans could not learn the language. So that was a major constraint in how the language was put together.
As for the influence of specific languages, I think it’s inevitable that the languages a conlanger is most familiar with tend to inspire aspects of his or her constructed languages. For me, these were largely Malay/Indonesian, Persian, Hebrew, and Chinese. That’s not to say that anything in Na’vi was directly taken from these languages—far from it. But certain little corners of the grammar or sound system are reminiscent of things that occur in one of these languages. To give an example, in Na’vi there’s no word for “have.” To say, “I have a brother,” you say in effect, “There is to me a brother.” That’s very similar to what happens in Modern Hebrew. Also, there are things about Na’vi phonology that are similar to things in Polynesian languages, reflecting some of the handful of original words James Cameron had come up with himself.
Other aspects of Na’vi, however, are as far as I know unique and not found in natural languages. In any event, one thing is certain: Whether or not a particular structure or process in Na’vi can be traced back to some Earth language, the combination of structures and processes in Na’vi is beyond question unique.
Did the fact that the actors had to be able to easily pronounce the language restrict you in creating the words? Is there anything you would have changed if it were not made for a film?
Well, the language couldn’t sound too alien, for two reasons: First, the assumption was that the Na’vi speech-production mechanism was very similar to that of humans, so that the sounds they produced could be produced by humans as well. Second, the sounds had to be ones the actors would be able to reproduce themselves, since Cameron did not want any electronic manipulation of the voices. That placed a limit on how “alien” the language could sound.
To create some interest in the sound of Na’vi, I included a group of consonants not often found in western languages—“ejectives,” which are popping-like sounds that I notated as kx, px, and tx. I also incorporated unfamiliar combinations of sounds—i.e., unusual consonant clusters. You can see some of these in words like fngap ‘metal,’ fpxäkìm ‘enter,’ skxom ‘chance,’ stxeli ‘gift,’ tskxe ‘stone,’ tsngawvìk ‘weep,’ and atxkxe ‘land.’
I’m quite pleased with how the sound of the language has turned out, and how easy or difficult it is to pronounce. I wanted to avoid two extremes—a language everyone could pronounce with ease that would be boring and mundane, and an “exotic”-sounding language so difficult to pronounce that actors would throw up their hands. I think Na’vi achieves a nice balance between those extremes. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t present challenges to speakers. But the actors I’ve dealt with all worked hard to meet the challenges.
How has Na’vi changed your perspectives on languages? Has it opened your eyes to anything new?
One thing working on Na’vi has made me realize is how much attention has to be given to every item in the lexicon to determine its semantic range. For example, suppose you come up with a word for ‘long.’ What exactly does it refer to? Physical length, probably, but can you also extend it metaphorically to non-physical domains, like “a long time,” as we do in English? And can it double as the word for ‘tall,’ or should that be a separate word? What about your word for ‘intelligent’? Does it refer only to people and animals, or can it be used for non-animates, as in “an intelligent remark”? If you’ve come up with a word for ‘sharp,’ does it refer both to the sharpness of a knifeblade and the sharpness of a needle? (Na’vi has separate words for these two aspects of ‘sharp.’) Such considerations make the construction of the vocabulary more involved than it might otherwise appear, but they’re crucial if people are going to use the language for real communication.
We discovered the website learnnavi.org, were you aware that the film was going to be such a success and spread the global learning of the Na’vi language with it?
Learnnavi.org was entirely fan-created. It now has more than 600,000 posts to its forums and sub-forums, in 19 languages. That Na’vi has taken off as it has is something I never expected. Needless to say I’m delighted, and also humbled. It’s a great honor for me that a language that came out of my head is being used by people around the world for genuine communication.
The vocabulary continues to expand slowly but steadily, with the Na’vi community offering suggestions for new words and usages. I remain the gatekeeper, however; only I determine what innovations become an official part of the language. I announce new vocabulary and explain grammatical structures to the Na’vi community on my blog.
Do you believe created languages such as Na’vi play an important role in encouraging people to take up foreign languages?
Yes, I do. For a variety of reasons, learning a constructed language like Na’vi, especially one tied to a world as magical as Pandora, appeals to many people who may not have had positive experiences with language learning in the past. I know of people whose study of Na’vi has spilled over into an interest in learning natural languages like German and Japanese.
How would you encourage children to take up language learning?
For kids, language learning is not an intellectual activity. It’s a way of communicating with people they want to talk to. The best way to have children learn a language is to put them in an environment where they can talk to and interact with other children who speak the target language—and preferably, only that language. They’ll pick it up naturally, as children do.