The Linguist Behind Avatar

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The language spoken by the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar is the most buzzworthy alien dialect since Star Trek‘s Klingon, and the man behind it is     University of Southern California’s Paul R. Frommer. Long before Avatar became the world’s highest-grossing film, Frommer was toiling away on the words and sounds moviegoers now attribute to the film’s giant, blue creatures. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Andrea Fuller spoke with Frommer to discuss the language’s origins and inspiration. Here’s an excerpt:

Q. What was so appealing about the project to you as a linguist?

Doing this kind of work as an academic is not going to advance your research reputation. It’s not going to result in publications in peer-reviewed journals. But it just may push the world forward in the way it’s turning on young people to the wonders of language.

Q. How did you go about creating the Na’vi language?

The first thing is to try to nail down the sound system or, to be more technical, the phonetics and the phonology. You want to determine what sounds are in the language, and just as importantly what sounds are not in the language. … I also included some interesting combinations of sounds. You could have a word that begins with “fng.” I excluded certain familiar sounds. There’s no “b,” “d,” or “g” sound. There’s no “sh” sound. I think I came up with a pretty interesting collection of sounds. Then you start talking about pronunciation rules. How does one sound change into another under certain circumstances? Once that’s determined, then you can be thinking about how to build the words, morphology, and how to put them together in phrases and sentences, which is syntax.

Q. Did you model this on any language?

Not on any particular language, no. I’ve studied bits and pieces of maybe 15 or 16 languages. If you look at Na’vi, you may see this  particular structure reminds you of something in Persian, or something in Chinese, or something in Hebrew. 

To read the rest of the interview, you will have to subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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