Posted on Monday, November 23rd, 2009 by Russ Fischer
James Cameron is a seriously detail-oriented guy. Every major profile of the filmmaker written since Avatar has hit the promo trail has pointed that out, whether via anecdotes about making minor tweaks to technology designs, foliage coloration or the physics of CGI breasts. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cameron hired a linguist to create an actual alien language for the giant blue Na’vi. The result is as close to a real working language as any newly-minted fake sound system is likely to get. And the guy behind it all hopes that his creation will live on after the film.
The LA Times reports that USC professor Paul R. Frommer is the man behind the 1000-word vocabulary and grammar structure of the Na’vi language. Cameron came to him with a few dozen words, and Frommer worked out from there.
There were a few core concerns. One was the authenticity of the language; step one to achieving that was hiring Frommer. The linguist’s further steps towards creating a vocabulary and syntax that seemed real was to limit himself. He allowed ejectives, “these sorts of popping sounds that are found in different languages from around the world,” but cut out certain syllables so that the Na’vi language wouldn’t sound like a total all-in mess.
If you allow everything and the kitchen sink, you get a mishmash, it sounds like gibberish. An analogy is cooking and deciding how you are going to spice up a certain dish. If you put everything you have on the shelf, you get a mess. If you are judicious you get something good. In language, sometimes things are defined by the absences.
The other concern was that the sounds all had to be replicable by the actors. All had to be able to wrap their heads and tongues around not only the individual words, but the language as a whole. Thanks in part to the efforts of dialogue coach Carla Meyer, that was achieved.
Now Frommer has been working on the video game, for which he created words that go beyond the film’s vocabulary, and hopes that the language will be embraced by fans. “I was surprised [the actors] all did very well,” says Frommer, “and it gave me hope, too, that other people will try to learn it and speak it.” Speaking his language is “definitely doable for people, and so many people have learned Klingon, so there could be an interest.”