James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction Q&A -- Paul Frommer (Linguist)

Paul Frommer, the linguist who created the Na'vi language in James Cameron's Avatar, talks how he created an alien language, what it's like to have Na'vi spoken all over the world, and how humans might begin to communicate if we were visited by intelligent alien life.

Q: People now speak Avatar's Na'vi all over the world. What's that like for you?

A: The thing that has really astonished and delighted me is that people in different parts of the world have embraced the language to the point where they use it for real communication. As I've often told people, I get emails written to me that are entirely in Na'vi. I have a blog where people can ask questions and comment and offer suggestions, very often entirely in the language. The fact that it's not just a curiosity but also a tool people use to communicate has blown me away and made me very proud.

Q: Language is constantly changing. Has Na'vi been molded by the fans in the past ten years that people have been using it?

A: At this point, there's a core group of people who have embraced the language to the point where they know it extremely well -- and so it is continuing to evolve. The most obvious place is that the vocabulary continues to grow. I don't know exactly how many words we have at this point - I think it's probably around 2,500 or so -- which is not huge, by any means. As native speakers of English, we probably have a passive vocabulary of something like 40,000 words. …But, people want to be able to use the language in all sorts of different contexts, some of which have nothing to do with Pandora. So, for instance, people want to know how to say "download," how to say "blog," "telephone," "computer." [Laughs] So we are constantly coming up with new vocabulary. It's not just specialized stuff, but also basic words for everyday activities. It's an evolving process, so to that extent the language continues to grow.

Q: How did you begin to create an entirely alien language in the first place?

A: The first thing you have to ask yourself is, "Why am I doing this? What's the purpose?" There are people who create languages entirely on their own just out of the sheer love of it, often to be part of a world they've created. So they know that world intimately and the language matches the world. Now in the case of Avatar and Na'vi, I was obviously not completely on my own. I was doing something to aid in the worldbuilding of James Cameron, to fill in a very important aspect of that world. So what I had to do, to the best of my ability, is figure out what he had in mind and what his vision of the world was, what the constraints were, what the parameters were, and so on. It's a different experience from doing it completely by yourself. For example, he had already come up with about 30 words on his own. Most of these were names of characters, names of animals, things like that. That gave me a little bit of a sense of the sounds he had in his mind, so I was able to say, “Okay, whatever I come up with has to be able to incorporate almost all of these sounds.” I thought it sounded a little bit Polynesian, so I used that as a base, but I also added things to it that are definitely not Polynesian.

Q: In what ways is the Na'vi language a reflection of who the Na'vi are?

A: Some choices were not arbitrary and really did reflect who the Na'vi were, what kind of environment they lived in, even their physiology. Going back to your original question of how you go about doing this, you have to know why you're doing it and for whom, how it's going to be used, and so on, but you also have to know as much as possible about the people who are going to be speaking it: about their culture, about their environment, about their physical being. For example, do they have a vocal tract that allows them to make sounds we're familiar with, the sounds of human language? Do they have a vocal tract that would allow them to make sounds we couldn't possibly reproduce? If you want to incorporate that, it's going to result in a different kind of language and a different sound for the language. One thing that James Cameron said early on was he didn't want to have any kind of electronic manipulation of the actors' voices, which told me something important: whatever sounds you come up for this language has to be something that humans can reproduce.

Q: The Series Premiere of James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction focuses on aliens in science fiction. As a linguist, if Earth were visited by "intelligent" alien life, what do you think our first steps to establishing communication with them would be?

A: That's a really, really hard question. [Laughs] Of course, different science fiction films have gone about it in different ways. The first thing is to try to understand what mode of communication they would have. Do they rely on vocal communication at all? Maybe, depending on what kind of creatures they are, they're something like chameleons, and their method of communication has to do with color and color changes. Maybe their communication has to do with gestures. If they even have some sort of auditory or vocal communication, maybe they have more than one speech-generating mechanism and they can say things simultaneously, almost like two or three notes creating a chord. That's the basic thing, figuring out what the channel of communication might be.

Then you have to know enough about them to figure out what they would even want to talk about. One thing I don't think people have taken into account enough is the fact that if an alien civilization is advanced enough to come to us, then hopefully they will help us understand their communication. It's not just a passive thing where we're totally on our own. ...Now, if an alien species comes to earth, you would think they would have some interest in trying to communicate with us, so it would hopefully be a two-way street. One of the things I liked about Contact was these extremely super-intelligent aliens did try to make an effort to teach us something, by including a kind of primer in the messages they sent. …That was Carl Sagan, who was a great genius, and that was a very interesting concept. So I guess what I'm saying is, hopefully it would be a two-way street. Hopefully they would help us figure out their communication, and maybe they could figure out our language possibly faster than we could figure out theirs.

Q: It's all conceptual of course, but it's fun to think about.

A: It's an amazing thing to think about. Several years ago, I attended a SETI conference and I was invited to be a panelist. I met [astronomer and founder of SETI] Frank Drake, and other wonderful people like that. There's been a lot of deep academic work on how you might possibly create a method of communication with an alien species, what would go into it. Literally books have been written about this stuff, and it's a very complicated and thorny issue. I hope that one day we'll actually be able to come to grips with that in a very real sense.

Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction films and books? How much influence have they had on your life (if any)?

A: From a very early age, I had a tremendously strong interest in space. I was going to be an astronomer. That carried through to when I went to college: I started out as an astrophysics major until I switched in my senior year and ended up with a math degree. The whole idea of astronomy and space has always been interesting and important to me. I loved to read science fiction when I was a kid and into my teens as well. I remember Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke -- that was a big influence. I remember The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. There was a wonderful book, I don't know how well known it is, called Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement. That was a memorable book. He created a really fascinating world and, in fact, there were some aspects of inter-species communication there, which peaked my imagination. In terms of movies, the one that blew me away in a way that no other movie ever has was, of course, 2001 [A Space Odyssey]. For me, it's not just the greatest science fiction film all time; for me, it's one of the greatest films of all time, period. I don't know how many times I've seen it. It's so beautiful; it has this stately pace. It's just gorgeous. ...In terms of other science fiction films, I was very impressed by Contact. ...And then of course Avatar. [Laughs]

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