University of Southern California

Crafting an Alien Language, Hollywood-Style
Professor's Work to Hit the Big Screen in Upcoming Blockbuster Avatar
December 7, 2009 • by News at Marshall

When the alien characters in James Cameron's latest sci-fi epic Avatar speak, they're literally speaking a new language, one developed by Paul Frommer, a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business.

With the film set to open on December 18, Cameron's seeking to top his 1997 Oscar-winning box office smash Titanic; while Frommer, a professor of Clinical Management Communication at Marshall, is using a different standard to judge his own work on the film: Klingon.

Klingon, the full-fledged language developed for the fictional warrior race in the Star Trek universe, explains Frommer, is currently the gold standard by which all constructed alien languages are compared. There's a Klingon dictionary and even Hamlet has been translated into Klingonese.

But while Klingon is rough-sounding, Frommer intended his language, which is spoken by the Na'vi, the humanoid race who live on Pandora, where the action of Avatar takes place, to be "musical and mellifluous."

Frommer began working with Cameron on the language in the summer of 2005, after representatives from Cameron's production company Lightstorm Entertainment, emailed USC's linguistics department, where Frommer received his Ph.D., about developing an alien language.

Linguistics professor Edward Finegan, with whom Frommer wrote Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguistics, passed the request on to Frommer, who ended up meeting with Cameron and landing the job. "It's probably the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me," Frommer said.

For 10 years, Frommer, who said he speaks "bits and pieces of 15 languages," was a strategic planner and business writer in the corporate world before he joined Marshall in 1995. From 2005-2008, he served as director of Marshall's Center for Management Communication.

Frommer currently teaches an upper division advanced writing for business course, as well as "Cross-Cultural Business Communication for Non-native Speakers." He said that he tried to bring the communication principles of precision and clarity that he teaches his students, to crafting the Na'vi language.

Cameron had already come up with about 30 words that provided Frommer with some of the types of sounds the director had in mind. Frommer's next step was to create a sound system, a palette of consonant and vowel sounds in various combinations that would be unique to the Na'vi. "It's not based on any particular human language," Frommer said, "as the Na'vi live light-years away from earth and are humanoids, not humans."

After constructing the grammar, Frommer then translated scenes in the Avatar script, coming up with vocabulary on an as-needed basis. The next part of Frommer's job was to conduct a "Berlitz-type course in Na'vi pronunciation" to prepare the actors and help them learn their lines. Frommer said he spent a lot of time on the state-of-the-art set, which he described as like being "at NASA headquarters" because of the highly sophisticated technology employed to create the Pandoran jungle on a bare soundstage.

Frommer provided on-the-spot changes to the script and between takes would counsel the actors who he said had "the hard job of memorizing lines in a language that doesn't exist and make it sound like they've been speaking it all their lives."

After finishing production on the film, Frommer spent three weeks translating dialog for the Wii and X-Box versions of Avatar; work that he said gave him a chance to expand the Na'vi vocabulary.

Future opportunities could include expanding the Na'vi language for an Avatar sequel, a Na'vi dictionary, or—who knows?—a Na'vi version of Hamlet.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.