A Lesson in the Language of ‘Avatar’

BY Arts Desk  December 18, 2009 at 2:18 PM EST

Paul FrommerPaul Frommer had never aspired to invent a language, but when James Cameron — director of the highly-anticipated “Avatar” — e-mailed the University of Southern California’s department of linguistics looking for someone to create a speech system for the movie, the professor was eager to accept the challenge. Over the next four years, Frommer built morphology and syntax for the fictional Na’vi society depicted in Cameron’s film, inventing names for new animals and plants, and carefully constructed patterns for language usage that would reflect the culture Cameron envisioned.

Frommer’s Na’vi is the latest in a series of languages invented for science fiction books, films and television, Klingon being perhaps the most famous and fully-realized among them. Invented by Marc Okrand for the television series “Star Trek,” the language is spoken in clubs around the world; its enthusiasts have even translated a Klingon version of Hamlet. Frommer hopes that the number of Na’vi speakers worldwide will grow similarly.

Frommer coached actors on pronunciation during filming and he also coached me, in a Na’vi crash course. Here’s our conversation: