Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar

by Matteo Milani, U.S.O. Project - Unidentified Sound Object, November 2009

U.S.O. Project meets Paul Frommer, linguist and developer for the long-awaited film Avatar with James Cameron of the whole language and culture for the fictional indigenous race of Pandora called Na’vi.

Fictional languages are by far the largest group of artistic languages. Fictional languages are intended to be the languages of a fictional world, and are often designd with the intent of giving more depth and an appearance of plausibility to the fictional worlds with which they are associated, and to have their characters communicate in a fashion which is both alien and dislocated.


[Paul R. Frommer - marshallapps.usc.edu]

Matteo Milani: Can you describe your background activities and your previous experiences at USC before working with James Cameron?

Paul Frommer: My undergraduate degree, from the University of Rochester in New York, is in Mathematics. Soon after graduating, I spent two years in Terengganu, Malaysia as a United States Peace Corps volunteer, where I taught English as a Second Language and also mathematics, the latter in the Malay language. Although I had studied foreign languages prior to that (Hebrew, French, Latin, German), it was during my time in Malaysia that I really fell in love with languages. I decided to do my graduate work in linguistics and entered the doctoral program at USC.
While I was a graduate student, I had the opportunity to teach for a year in Iran, which was a wonderful experience. Returning to USC, I completed my dissertation on a topic in Persian grammar. Then, after several more years of teaching, I switched careers and entered the business world, becoming a strategic planner and business writer for a Los Angeles corporation.

My return to academia led me in a new direction: business communication. I joined USC’s Marshall School of Business as a full-time faculty member in 1996, teaching in the department now known as the Center for Management Communication. I became chair of that department in 2005 and served in that capacity until 2008.


MM: Traveling back to 2005, how and when did you meet the director?

PF: During the summer of 2005, Lightstorm Entertainment, James Cameron’s production company, sent an e-mail to the USC linguistics department inquiring about a linguist who might be able to develop an alien language for a new movie. That e-mail was forwarded to me, and I jumped on it. I expressed my strong interest in the project and sent Cameron a copy of the linguistics workbook I had co-authored — Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguistics. A week or two later I was called in for an interview. I spent a very stimulating 90 minutes with Cameron in his offices in Santa Monica, where we discussed his vision for the movie and the language. At the end, I was thrilled when he shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard.”


MM: What were his initial requests?

PF: Well, he wanted a complete language, with a consistent sound system (phonology), word-building rules (morphology), rules for putting words together into phrases and sentences (syntax), and a vocabulary (lexicon) sufficient for the needs of the script. He also wanted the language to be pleasant sounding and appealing to the audience.

"We created the language of the Na’vi starting about the time that I was doing the shooting draft of the script [...] Dr. Paul Frommer, who was with USC (University of Southern California) at the time, spent about a year creating the language. The trick was we had the language before we actually cast most of the parts. So the casting director, Margery Simkin, had to learn a bit of Na’vi so that she could get the auditioning actors to repeat the sounds of the language. If they couldn’t make the sounds, they couldn’t have the part.     
The studio asked me the same question. They asked, “Do they have to have tails?” We’re very happy with the way the Na’vi worked out because what we found is the tail and the ears show the characters’ emotional state. A cat owner knows that you can tell a cat’s mood by what its tail is doing. Just as we created a verbal language, we created a vocabulary for the tail and the ears."
[James Cameron - via inquirer.net]

"I've discovered over the years that a voice needs to sync with body movements as precisely as it does with lip movement, in order for the sound to most effectively bond with the character."
[Ben Burtt - an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]



MM: Can you reveal the process of creating the Na'vi language? What are the major difficulties in creating a phonetic system with its own style, consistency, and unique character?

PF: I didn’t quite start from zero, since Cameron had devised 30 or 40 words of his own for the original script—some character names, place names, names of animals, etc. That gave me a bit of a sense of what kinds of sounds he had in mind.

The next step was to develop the phonetics and phonology—the sounds that would and would not appear in the language, along with the rules for combining sounds into syllables and words and the pronunciation rules that might in certain circumstances change one sound into another. The major constraint, of course, was that although Na’vi is an alien language, it has to be spoken by human actors, and so the sounds it included had to be ones that the actors would be able to reproduce.

To create some interest, I included a group of sounds not often found in western languages—“ejectives,” which are popping-like sounds that I notated as kx, px, and tx. I also needed to determine what other elements in the language would be “distinctive”—that is, would be able to differentiate words: for example, stress (the eventual answer was yes), vowel length (no) and tone (no). I presented Cameron with three different “sound palettes” or possibilities for the overall sonic impression of the language—he chose one, and we were off!

The next step was to decide on the morphology and syntax. For those, I was on my own. Since this was an alien language spoken on another world, I wanted to include structures and processes that were relatively rare in human languages but that could be acquired by humans, since according to the plot of the movie, a number of humans had learned to speak the language. The verbal morphology, for example, is achieved exclusively through infixes, which are less common than prefixes and suffixes. And the nouns have a system of case marking, known as a tripartite system, that’s possible but quite rare in human languages.

"Overall, the creation of alien languages has been the hardest task. A language, or more accurately, the sensation of language, has to satisfy the audience's most critical faculties. We are all experts at identifying the nuances of intonation. Whether we understand a given language or not, we certainly process the sound fully and attribute meaning--perhaps inaccurate--to the emotional and informational content of the speech. Our minds are trained to recognize and process dialogue. The task, therefore, of creating a language is all the more difficult because of the strength of the audience's perception."
[Ben Burtt - an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]



MM: How did you make the Na'vi dialogue sound "real"? How difficult was it to make the dialogue believable?

PF: Well, that was really more a matter for the actors—and it was quite a challenge. They had to learn their lines in a language no one had ever heard before, including learning to make unusual sounds and sound combinations, and then they had to act convincingly in that language! That involved not only memorizing the sentences but mastering the stress and intonation, so that they could place emphasis in the right place. It wasn’t easy, but they did a remarkable job.

I met with all seven of the Na’vi-speaking actors off-set before their scenes were shot to help them with the pronunciation, and I also supplied recordings in the form of mp3 files so that they could listen to and absorb the dialog.


MM: Is there a “gold standard” for constructed language that served as an inspiration to you?

PF: In terms of “alien” languages, that would have to be Klingon, the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek series. It’s a very impressive piece of work—a rough-sounding language with a complex and difficult phonology and grammar that now has a devoted base of followers. There are Klingon clubs all over the world where people meet to speak the language, and there’s even a translation of Hamlet into Klingon! If Na’vi ever came close to that kind of following, I’d be delighted.


MM: Do the Na’vi have their own alien writing system?

PF: No, the Na’vi don’t have a writing system, so that was one thing I didn’t have to bother with. But of course I needed to devise a consistent orthography, based on the Roman alphabet, to write down the language for descriptive purposes and transcribe the words and sentences for the actors.


MM: Did you develop a vocabulary?

PF: Yes, I developed it on an as-needed basis. That is, the words I came up with first were those that appeared in the script. This past May, when I translated dialog for the Avatar video game, I faced new situations that required words I didn’t yet have, so that was an opportunity to expand the lexicon further.


"Part of my research was to identify interesting real languages to use as a basis for alien ones. The advantage of using a real language is that it possesses built-in credibility. A real language has all the style, consistency, and unique character that only centuries of cultural evolution can bring. I found that if I relied on my familiarity with English, my imagined "alien" language would just be a reworking of the all-too-familiar phonemes of everyday general American speech. I had to break those boundaries, to search for language sounds that were uncommon and even unpronounceable by most of the general audience."
[Ben Burtt - an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]



MM: An "a posteriori" language is any constructed language whose vocabulary is based on existing languages, either as a variation of one language or as a mixture of various languages, unlike "a priori" constructed languages (e.g. Klingon). How did you first search for some exotic languages that would act as inspiration?

PF: I didn’t base Na’vi on any particular human language. In terms of its sound, I thought that the original words Jim Cameron had come up with had a bit of a Polynesian flavor, and I included those sounds in the language. But I added a lot beyond that, so that I don’t believe that Na’vi sounds like any specific existing language.

As I mentioned, there’s nothing in Na’vi that couldn’t be found in some human language—and that’s important, since humans have learned to speak it. However, the particular combination of elements in Na’vi—its sound system, morphology, and syntax—is unique.


Avatar producer Jon Landau to discuss making James Cameron's vision a reality.

And a linguist invented the Na'vi language—did you pick up any?
I have enough trouble with English! I could say a few words in Na'vi, but not much. Na'vi is a hard language. When I knew we had to create a language for the movie, I thought, okay, you go hire someone and say, 'This is the word we have to say.' And they'd come up with the word. I was wrong. Paul Frommer, our linguist, took six months just to define the structure of language, which I thought was fascinating. And after that, he'd start coming up with the sentences that we needed.
Does it have parallels to any language on earth?
I think it's relatively unique. We didn't want someone to hear it and go, 'Wow, that's Watusi!” Or Maori, or French.
[via boxoffice.com]


MM: The upcoming score by James Horner will feature vocals in the Na'vi language. Would you like to describe your experience with the singers during those recordings?

PF: That was a lot of fun! James Cameron had written the lyrics for six songs, four of which I translated into Na’vi. (It was interesting to try to write poetry in the language!) Then at various times I met with music director James Horner, his associates, and the singers who had to sing in Na’vi to help them pronounce the words of the songs. For some of the recording sessions, the music was fluid and developed on the spot, which I found a wonderfully creative process. For one session, though, there was already pre-composed music written out on a musical staff. I’m a pianist and I have a musical background, so I was able to read the music with the singer and help him fit the words to the melody.

Thanks, Paul. Congratulations and continue the good work!

(Listen to Frommer give Na'vi lessons to NPR.org)


read more:
[USC professor creates an entire alien language for 'Avatar' - via LA Times HeroComplex]
[Brushing up on Na'vi, the Language of Avatar - via vanityfair.com]
[USC professor gives Avatar aliens a voice - via dailytrojan.com]
[The language of Avatar revealed - via bbc.co.uk]
[Na'vi talk down Klingon as the last word in alien-speak - via entertainment.timesonline.co.uk]
[Do You Speak Na'vi? Giving Voice To 'Avatar' Aliens - via npr.org]
[Language Design for Sound Designers - via Darren Blondin]

www.avatarmovie.com
twitter.com/officialavatar 

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous12/21/2009

    absolutely fascinating. this man is a delight. this language is beautiful.

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  2. Wow, wonderful. I wish i could learn this!!! Did a great job, sounds nothing like any earthly language. You should publish a book on how to learn Na'Vi.

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  3. i was a student in linguistics study,, this man is outstanding! great job=)

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  4. Kaltxí. Nga-ru lu fpom srak? Na'vi is great, but I still can't understand the Grammar and most of the words though. But a language like this in barely a few years is outstanding!

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  5. Anonymous1/19/2010

    Wonderful!!! This man is outstanding!!! He should publish a book where we could learn from!!!!

    ReplyDelete