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Pandora’s Voice-Box

18 Apr, 2010 By: John Latchem

Though James Cameron’s Avatar and its dazzling tour of the alien world of Pandora exists as a paragon of visual effects wizardry, an equally important component of the illusion is undoubtedly the Na’vi language created by linguist Paul Frommer.

With 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment sending Avatar to DVD ($29.98) and Blu-ray Disc ($39.99) April 22, Frommer took the opportunity to reflect on his enormous contribution to the film.

Frommer became involved with Avatar in the summer of 2005, responding to an e-mail from Cameron’s production company in search of a linguist. Though Frommer teaches clinical management communications at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, he holds a doctorate in linguistics and had co-authored a book on the subject titled Looking at Languages.

“I had a stimulating hour-and-a-half meeting with Jim in Santa Monica, and at the end he shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome aboard,’” Frommer recalls.

Frommer, whose own love of languages dates back to Hebrew school at age 7, said he has studied about 15 languages during his career and is most familiar with Persian and Malay. Na’vi, he said, draws from not only those languages, but also Chinese, Hebrew and others.

“The trickiest thing is coming up with something that isn’t subconsciously biased by your own language,” Frommer said. “I didn’t start from absolute zero. Jim had created about 30 words, for characters and animal names. That gave me an idea of the type of sound he wanted.”

Frommer also had to work with the actors to make sure the language sounded natural, so he provided them with transcriptions and MP3 files to help them learn the proper intonations.

“Jim didn’t want voices to be electronically manipulated,” Frommer said. “So what you hear in the film are the actual voices of the actors.”

Frommer said the Na’vi language is complete in terms of its rules of syntax, but lacks a fully developed vocabulary.

“There’s a project to expand it,” Frommer said. “At this point, Na’vi has about 1,000 words. The average person knows maybe 40,000 words, and the English language has something like 250,000 words in it.”

Another challenge, Frommer said, was avoiding comparisons to what has become the gold standard of Hollywood’s alien languages, Klingon, which was developed for “Star Trek” by linguist Marc Okrand and has since taken on a life of its own.

“You cannot get away with dialogue that just sounds alien,” Frommer said. “Ever since Klingon, alien languages have become real languages. Marc Okrand set the bar really high. But I think there’s room for more than one alien language.”

Avatar went on to become the top-grossing film of all time, earning more than $740 million domestically and $2.7 billion worldwide.

“We all knew it would be a big film, since it was Jim’s first since Titanic,” Frommer said. “We didn’t know it would be this big. I think it’s an extraordinary film.”

Though the initial Avatar discs won’t include extras, Frommer said he was interviewed on the set and expects the footage to be included with future deluxe editions of the film. And though he hasn’t been asked to put together any sort of language guide for a potential DVD extra, Frommer said he is interested in writing a book about how to speak Na’vi, akin to the Klingon Dictionary.

“I’m really astonished at the interest people have in the language,” Frommer said. “There’s a lot of material by the fans. There’s a Web site, LearnNavi.org, and people are plunging into it. I even get e-mails in Na’vi.”

He also hopes to participate in the film’s sequel, though he has not yet signed on to do so.

“I love languages, and it’s a privilege to have been asked to do this,” Frommer said. “I’m having a ball.”

Paul Frommer


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