The Linguist Behind Avatar

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The language spoken by the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar is the most buzzworthy alien dialect since Star Trek‘s Klingon, and the man behind it is     University of Southern California’s Paul R. Frommer. Long before Avatar became the world’s highest-grossing film, Frommer was toiling away on the words and sounds moviegoers now attribute to the film’s giant, blue creatures. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Andrea Fuller spoke with Frommer to discuss the language’s origins and inspiration. Here’s an excerpt:

Q. What was so appealing about the project to you as a linguist?

Doing this kind of work as an academic is not going to advance your research reputation. It’s not going to result in publications in peer-reviewed journals. But it just may push the world forward in the way it’s turning on young people to the wonders of language.

Q. How did you go about creating the Na’vi language?

The first thing is to try to nail down the sound system or, to be more technical, the phonetics and the phonology. You want to determine what sounds are in the language, and just as importantly what sounds are not in the language. … I also included some interesting combinations of sounds. You could have a word that begins with “fng.” I excluded certain familiar sounds. There’s no “b,” “d,” or “g” sound. There’s no “sh” sound. I think I came up with a pretty interesting collection of sounds. Then you start talking about pronunciation rules. How does one sound change into another under certain circumstances? Once that’s determined, then you can be thinking about how to build the words, morphology, and how to put them together in phrases and sentences, which is syntax.

Q. Did you model this on any language?

Not on any particular language, no. I’ve studied bits and pieces of maybe 15 or 16 languages. If you look at Na’vi, you may see this  particular structure reminds you of something in Persian, or something in Chinese, or something in Hebrew. 

To read the rest of the interview, you will have to subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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