Written on June 1, 2010
in the giant venn diagram of popular culture there is increasingly more and more overlap between those of us who are exceptionally academic and those of us who are exceptionally nerdy. sometimes this takes us by a bit of surprise (generally the more academically minded – never underestimate the obsessive power of the nerd), but mostly we can see it coming if we stop to think for a moment. i mean, someone, somewhere liked battlefield earth, right? hmm. . .maybe not.
anyway, one of the ways in which this overlap is presented to the general population is in giant science fiction blockbusters. more specifically, giant science fiction blockbusters that contain their own invented alien languages. complete languages. ones that people start learning and obsessing over, and adding to. but before they can do that, someone’s got to come up with the actual words, sounds and grammar, right? that’s where paul frommer comes in.
when james cameron needed to create the na’vi language for avatar his production company sent an email to the USC linguistics department. this email got forwarded to paul frommer, who spent several years devising the language. starting from a couple dozen words that cameron came up with, frommer generated an overall sound palette for the language, a vocabulary of over a thousand words, an alphabet, and a complete syntax. he made recordings for the actors to help with their pronunciation. he coached them on the set.
at the moment there doesn’t seem to be anyone – frommer included – who is completely fluent in na’vi. but that’s bound to change. when the language forms the core of the highest grossing movie of all time, you’re going to get your die hard fans. frommer says that people write emails to him in na’vi, which take some time to translate, even for him. i asked him to tell me a joke in na’vi, on the spot, but he said it’d take an hour or so to figure it out first. too bad. i have to say, it’s a different thing to hear the language spoken from a normal, non-blue human standing in front of you than to see it in the movie. you hear the words more, the sounds (as foreign from english) are more distinct.
all my life i’ve been able to visualize words in my head. if i hear a word, i almost always, instantly, see it spelled in my head. (this is especially true with names.) in school i studied latin and greek, but it was always written, never conversational. i have to say, for someone like me it’s a little jarring to hear na’vi words and then later see them spelled out as totally different than i’d visualized. is it too much to ask to be a good speller in alien languages, as well?
if you want to learn the na’vi language yourself, don’t worry, the internet can help you with that. look here.
there’s klingon karaoke, and i know paul frommer is looking forward to the day when we can hear na’vi karaoke as well. living on a prayer in na’vi, anyone?
i can speak for all my graphic designer friends when i say that the true travesty of avatar is in its celebration of the oft (and justifiably) maligned papyrus typeface.