Paul Frommer has a varied resume. He taught English and math in Malaysia with the Peace Corps, is an American communications professor at the University of Southern California and the former Director of the Center for Management Communication at the USC Marshall School of Business. Most intriguing, however, is his designation as “alien language creator” on the James Cameron film Avatar. As the originator of the Na’vi language used by the fictional indigenous race in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Frommer is responsible for the most popular alien lingo since Klingon.
“Klingon is the gold standard for constructed alien languages,” says Frommer. “It is an extremely complex language. Of course, that language has been around for twenty five or more years and I think it is fair to say it took Klingon years to get to the point that Na’vi seems to be right now. Of course the reason is the internet, and the fact that a community can develop almost overnight and attract very many people who are interacting, and sharing material and supporting one another. I think in practical terms that’s why the language has gotten to the point it is now.”
Frommer was contacted in 2005 by Cameron’s people about creating a language for Pandora’s giant blue people. “I had a ball talking to him about language in general and about his vision for the film,” says the linguist. He left the meeting with a copy of the script and a mandate to create a unique language with “real rules, grammar and vocabulary.”
“[Cameron] wanted it to sound good; to be pleasant sounding. He wanted it to reflect the culture of the Na’vi on Pandora. I didn’t start from absolute zero. He had come up with a few words on his own, about thirty vocabulary words, the names of characters and the names of some animals and so on. So I had a bit of a sense pof the sound he had in mind. It sounded kind of Hawaiian to me, or maybe Maori, kind of Polynesian. Then I added some sounds that I thought would be kind of fun and the grammar was mine.”
The language in place, the next step was to teach the actors not only how to speak the language but to sound fluent.
“There were times when I was on set for twelve and thirteen hours,” says Frommer. “I couldn’t be there all the time because I have a day job but whenever I could and whenever the language was being used I was on set. I met with each of the actors ahead of time, maybe a couple of weeks before they would shoot a scene where they had to speak Na’vi. I gave them transcriptions of what they had to say and also I gave them an Mp3 filer so they could download them onto their i-pods or whatever and practice.”
Prep is one thing, but on a James Cameron production Frommer says you have to be on your toes.
“On the set there were a few times when the lines changed,” he says. “I thought for a film of this scope everything would be totally determined before they walked on set, but, in fact, I discovered there is a lot of creativity that happen on the spur of the moment. There were moments of panic when people came up to me and said, ‘Paul we need this line. We need to know how to say that.’ If I had the words and had the grammatical rules that was fine, but there were times when I had to say, ‘Give me a few minutes,” and I sometimes had to coin a few words. I can give you my most memorable example of that.
“There was a time when Sam Worthington and James Cameron came up to me and said, ‘Paul we’ve decided that Jake is going to be telling a story at this point in Na’vi and it is about a predator animal that almost bit him on his big blue ass. How do you say big blue butt in Na’vi?
“Well, I had the word for big and I had the word for blue, but I did not have the word for butt. I said, ‘Give me a few minutes.’ I tried to come up with something good and I tried it out on some people who were around and some people liked one word, some people liked another, but we decided the word was ‘Txìm’ so my big blue butt became ‘Tsawl ean txìm.’” (Na’vi spelling courtesy of Navilator.com.)
Since then the language has continued to thrive and grow.
“It’s remarkable how many people are interested in the language,” says Frommer. “For some people it is a way of holding on to the world of Pandora. It is a world a lot of people find extremely attractive. Then are there people who are very much into language. I’m pleased they find this language interesting, intriguing and challenging and want to be able to speak it. I would like to see it develop further and whatever I can do to help I certainly will, but interestingly it is kind of no longer entirely mine and that is a good feeling.”