• March 2, 2015

Iowa State Daily

Developer of Na'vi language speaks at ISU

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Posted: Friday, February 4, 2011 12:40 am | Updated: 9:46 am, Fri Feb 4, 2011.

The Great Hall of the Memorial Union echoed with the voices of students as they learned some Na'vi words and phrases from the creator of the language, Dr. Paul Frommer. Frommer spoke at the lecture: "Giving Avatar Its Voice: Creating the Na'vi Language" opening the 2011 National Affairs Series on Innovation.

Frommer developed the language for James Cameron's Avatar using a blend of Polynesian and African dialects. Frommer was heavily involved in helping with developing the language for all things Avatar-related, including video games, songs and the script.

Previously, Frommer learned Latin, French, German, Persian and some Arabic. He also taught math and English as part of the Peace Corps in Malaysia where he discovered his passion for languages.

Frommer eventually became a business professor in business communications at the University of Southern California Marshal's School of Business where he became the chair of his department in 2005.

Frommer met James Cameroon in summer 2005 when Light Storm Entertainment sent an e-mail to a friend of Frommer's in the linguistics department. His friend sent it to him and Frommer responded. Soon after, he met with James Cameron and joined the crew of Avatar.

"Life often has surprises, and sometimes those surprises are good," Frommer said. "It was the most amazing 90 minutes of my life, meeting James Cameron in his office with memorabilia from his films around us."

Frommer described how he created the language. According to him, Cameron had already developed around 30 words for the language. Frommer believed they sounded Polynesian and so drew heavily from Polynesian dialects to help develop the language. Frommer also developed a number system based on eights as the Na'vi only have four digits (although according to him, the human's avatars have five as a result of their human DNA).

"What really drove the development of the language was the script," said Frommer.

He said the words that were created were created for the script. As an example, he said that if they needed a word for hunting, he created a word for hunting but didn't create an un-needed word like sewing.

After giving a brief lesson in Na'vi,  Frommer then explained the development of Na'vi since the movie.

Frommer said many fans continue to add to the language, perfecting structure and creating new words.

"In most respects, this to me is the most extraordinary thing of all," said Frommer. "A community developed online that took off, and it grew to what I think are quite incredible proportions."

Na'vi has also be translated into many other languages, including Klingon.

"People basically got together and reconstructed the language," Frommer said. "I discovered that there are people who speak and write the language better than I do, and that was a source of pride for me."

However, Frommer still considers himself the "gate-keeper" for the Na'vi language.

"I get to decide what's in and what's out," he said.

Frommer may continue to create languages for other films in the future if offers are extended to him.

"I really enjoy talking about the language. This is my first time in Iowa, and I hope it isn't my last," Frommer said.

To learn Na'vi, visit http://www.learnnavi.org.

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