Interview with Paul Frommer
David and Sylvia interview Paul Frommer about his creation of the language Na’vi for the movie Avatar. We discuss his experience working on set, and working with movie folks, as well as the language itself. Please note that this interview was conducted in mid-January, and reflects the state of affairs at that time. A lot of things have changed since then—in particular, the size of the Na’vi fan community, and the level of interaction Dr. Frommer has with that community.
Probably the most fun part of this interview for me was hearing the stories that came from the set. Listening to Paul, you get a sense of what it’s like to work on a major production like Avatar. I can imagine Dr. Frommer sitting there at the studio for hours on end, and then someone suddenly rushing in, their arms flailing, screaming, “Quick! I need to know how to say ‘Give me your pack’ in Na’vi!” And then after that’s done…back to hours of sitting. I suppose “that’s showbiz”, as they say.
Towards the end, we talk a bit about alien conlangs. There has been some great work done, and I mentioned a few languages that I’d like to link to here:
- Kēlen by Sylvia Sotomayor: Winner of the 2009 Smiley Award, Kēlen is a language that entirely lacks verbs. The implementation is quite extraordinary (especially when it comes to verb-heavy ideas, like motion).
- Dritok by Don Boozer: Don’t let the name fool you: This language has absolutely no voiced sounds, and is spoken mainly with clicks, ejectives and simultaneous hand gestures. It’s spoken by a race of beings with non-human physiology, but Don manages the spoken portion pretty well (check out him pronouncing the language here. It’s absolutely unbelievable!).
- Rikchik by Denis Moskowitz: And no discussion of alien physiology would be complete without discussing Denis’s Rikchik language. Rikchik’s are green, floating, one-eyed beings with forty-nine long tentacles dangling beneath them. They use seven of these to communicate. Denis had to invent an entire transcription system just to implement the language, which features no sounds at all, and no human anything.
- Fith by Jeffrey Henning: This language is so complex, that I still don’t get it. It uses a version of Last-In-First-Out grammar, and has operations which, for example, flip the order of words already spoken, and do various other things with the “stack” which is the linguistic material spoke in real time. It’s likely unspeakable by humans (though you can use it in writing by working slowly).
Dr. Frommer mentioned that he didn’t look at any other conlangs while creating Na’vi. Usually the first time one sets about to create a language, we see a number of assorted phenomena (e.g. free word order, mobile adpositions, uniquely English vowels, a high degree of optionality where one wouldn’t expect to find it, etc.) that a conlanger eventually grows out of, but for a first language, Na’vi does well enough, and the response has been overwhelming. It’s great to see how excited fans are to actually learn and use the language itself. That response is something future conlangers will remember, and something which production companies should sit up and take notice of.
Dr. Frommer said, “I’m not really sure that people in the [entertainment] industry understand the [legal] consequences.” The question of whether a language is covered by copyright has never been adjudicated; the closest is the dispute over Loglan, which was settled out of court by the splitting off of Lojban.
This lack of clarity means that rights are practically a matter of negotiation, not law. In recent contracts, the implications have been clear: professional conlangers get no royalties, and when they want to use their own language in some commercial medium, they have to ask permission. Furthermore, the studio may decide to be nice and ask the original creator about future changes made by someone else they’ve hired, but they don’t have to (and often don’t, as has been the case with Klingon)—sometimes to the detriment of the language involved.
This state of affairs is certainly undesirable at best. To be honest, I laughed out loud when I read the petition to Paul Frommer concerning Na’vi. This is a petition written to Dr. Frommer from the Na’vi community asking him to teach them the language. That’s kind of like asking a man dying of thirst to please take a drink of water!
There are larger issues at stake here, and I think if the Na’vi community wants to do not only Dr. Frommer some good but conlangers as a whole, the real petition you want is this: petition Fox to give publishing rights for Na’vi to Paul Frommer. If Paul has Fox’s blanket signoff, then he can publish a grammar, start a website, create a dictionary, talk freely about it, etc. As is, the language is a work for hire, which means that Fox owns it exclusively.
For this to change, studios need to realize the value that conlangers bring to their productions. There is already a growing demand for professional, well-done created languages in movies, and Na’vi, Klingon, and Quenya are testaments to how much fans really get behind these languages. Cameron is one of the producers who realizes this, and more will follow his lead.
Fans simply need to more vocally demand that all fantasy worlds have the same attention paid to their languages as is paid to other aspects of the production. Not only are modern audiences unsatisfied with gibberish for a made up language (something like the “foreign” languages in Danger Man), they expect to learn the invented languages used in modern productions—to use them, to see how they work, to learn more about them.
There’s one question I left out of the final cut of the interview. (You can listen to it here.)
David: Paul [Bennett] also asked—this is a fun one—how do I get a paid conlanging gig?
Paul: Well… My suggestion would be in the right place at the right time, and be very, very fortunate.
I’m afraid this an answer the conlanging community cannot—and should not—accept. This is certainly how it’s happened in the past (read up on how Mark Okrand got the job for Klingon and Atlantean; how Tho Fan was created; how Pakuni was created; and now Na’vi…), but it would seem a bit odd to suggest that the best way to get a paid conlanging gig is to get lucky, and the best way for a production team to find someone to create a language would be to throw out feelers at random to linguists who have no experience creating a language.
Fortunately, we now have a better way. The Language Creation Society maintains a pool of highly skilled conlangers (which you can join), and is currently fielding job offers. Most recently, we were hired to develop the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
Our goal is to introduce the entertainment industry to the expert language creation community. Hopefully from now on when producers, writers, directors, game designers, etc. are looking for someone to create a language, they’ll be able to find and hire someone who has real experience and skill at creating languages, as opposed to rolling the dice on someone who’s never done it before.
I think a couple of apologies are in order. First, this interview was conducted in mid-January, and this is April. Initially, we (both the LCS and Dr. Frommer) were concerned about how much information could be disseminated, but that ceased being an issue quite awhile ago. The fault, I’m afraid, lies with the our ability to maintain the LCS podcast. We’re still looking for a dedicated audio editor (someone who can edit for content and length), and we still have a considerable backlog (at least five hourlong interviews, with more on the way). Unfortunately, our interview with Dr. Frommer was a casualty of this present state of affairs. My sincere apologies to the Na’vi fan community who have been waiting for this interview for quite some time, and to those following the LCS podcast, who’ve been waiting for anything for quite some time.
Second, I received a number of questions to ask Dr. Frommer both from LearnNavi.org members, and also from conlangers. I asked a number of them, but not all of them. Fortunately, most (if not all) of those questions have since been answered by Dr. Frommer directly in one form or another. A big thank you goes to the people who submitted questions: Paul Bennett, Peter Bleackley, David Edwards, Fredrik Ekman, Steven Lytle, Kate Rhodes, Olivier Simon, and numerous members of the LearnNavi.org fan community (special thanks to ZBB/LearnNavi member Nessimon for posting my original request at LearnNavi.org!).
At first I thought I was going along with David to interview Dr Frommer as moral support. I didn’t intend to speak, just to sit quietly, listen, and make a back up recording in case something happened to David’s recording. That’s why you don’t hear me until about half way through the podcast. I was also a little embarrassed about Peter Bleakley’s question, but it did lead to an interesting discussion of other alien conlangs, so, thank you, Peter.
Oh, and I am so going to steal those floating jellyfish thingies from the movie.