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How to speak 'Avatar'

WETA / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
In the film "Avatar," Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) teaches the Na'vi language to Jake

(Sam Worthington), a "dreamwalker" who is mind-linked to a human controller.

Ayftozä lefpom ayngaru nìwotx! That's "Happy Holidays to You All" in Na'vi, the language that was created for the sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar." The professor who made up that phrase as well as all the alien dialogue in the movie hopes Na'vi does as well as Klingon, another fictional alien tongue that has taken on a life of its own. But for now, that's out of his hands.

"I have an in-box that's amazingly full," linguist Paul Frommer, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, told me today. "They're all asking the same thing: 'Where can I learn this language?' I'm getting messages from all over the globe. The thing is, I don't own the rights to the language."

Frommer noted that snippets of Na'vi are finding their way onto the Internet - some correct, some incorrect. "What I would love to do is get something out to the people, but I can't do it on my own. I have to do it in conjunction with the movie people," he said.

Those people have been a little busy - which is understandable, considering that "Avatar" has been America's top-grossing movie for the past two weeks. But once the holidays are over and school is back in session, Frommer is planning to check in with Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind "Avatar," and with Lightstorm Entertainment, director James Cameron's production company.

If Na'vi takes off the way the "Avatar" saga has, Frommer could well follow in the footsteps of fellow linguist Marc Okrand, whose rendering of "Star Trek" Klingon has been immortalized in dictionaries, literary works, films, online name generators, rap music and merchandise. Heck, there's even a Klingon Language Institute.

How Na'vi lingo was born

The gestation period for the Na'vi language was much longer than a Klingon pregnancy: Cameron conceived of the idea behind "Avatar" - set in a world where humans could interact with aliens by projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered alien bodies, or avatars - back in 1994. The filmmaker already had some definite ideas about names and words when he put out the word in 2005 that he was looking for a linguist.

Paul Frommer

At the time, Frommer was director of the Center for Management Communication at USC and the co-author of a linguistics textbook. He jumped at the chance to work with Cameron. "It's probably the most exciting thing that's happened to me," he said.

The first job was to find a palette of sounds that would satisfy Cameron's vision. "I wanted to make sure that whatever aural impression I came up with would be something that he'd be happy with," Frommer said.

The professor offered up three audio choices: a language like Mandarin Chinese, where rising or falling tones convey meaning; a language where vowel lengths make a difference, as they do in Mayan languages, for instance; or a language with ejective sounds, paralleling Native American tongues ranging from Lakota to Tlingit.

Cameron went with the ejectives, and as a result, you'll hear p's, t's and k's occasionally popping out of the mouths of the Na'vi. How do you enunciate an ejective? Here's Frommer's example: "You make a 'k' sound as loudly as you can without breathing, and then you add a vowel ... k-uhhhh." In written Na'vi, the sounds are represented by px, tx and kx.

Building a language

Frommer's next task was to whip up a recipe for combining the sounds. "It's not just a question of what sounds go into the languages, but also what sounds are excluded," he said. "If you throw in every kind of spice you have in the kitchen, you're not going to get something distinctive."

So Frommer held back on some of the ingredients commonly found in English. "There's no buh, duh, guh. There's no 'j' sound. There's no chuh, shuh or thuh," he said. To compensate, he added some sounds not commonly found in English, including the initial consonant clusters fp-, tsm-, sng-, tskx- and ftx-.

Another feature of spoken Na'vi is its use of vowel clusters. Frommer's favorite example is the eight-syllable mouthful "meoauniaea" (meh-oh-ah-oo-nee-ah-eh-ah). "Don't ask me what it means - I haven't assigned a meaning yet. But I love the word!" Frommer said.

The sounds were sometimes real tongue-twisters for the actors, who had to be taught how to say their Na'vi lines. "I didn't think I could get through it," Zoe Saldana, who plays the alien heroine in "Avatar," told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not good with languages. All the actors, we worked together. It was the only way."

Frommer assumed that the ejectives would be the hardest part for the actors, but the real toughies were some of the initial consonants, such as ng- (as in "fishing" or "nga," the Na'vi word for "you"). "Putting a familiar sound in an unfamiliar place turned out to be the most difficult," he said.

The overall effect has been called "Afro-Polynesian-Native American." That description might suggest that the language parallels the enviro-panentheistic philosophy expressed by the Na'vi - just as the guttural tones of Klingon parallel that culture's martial bent. But Frommer said he wasn't specifically going for that connection.

"The Klingons are a pretty rough crowd, so Okrand put in a lot of 'khaaaa' and that kind of stuff. What Cameron wanted for Na'vi was something smoother and more appealing, so I tried to make it sound nice," Frommer said. "But other than that, there isn't any obvious correlation between language and culture. So much of that is in the ear of the beholder."

Cameron started out with a repertoire of about 30 words, including the names of the major characters, words for some Pandoran animals and the term "Na'vi" itself. Frommer expanded the vocabulary to more than 1,000 words, adding some to the list even as the movie was being shot.

"There were days when I spent 12 or 13 hours on the set," he recalled. "They would change things on the fly, and they would come to me and say, 'Well, we need to say such-and-such.'"

Playing by the rules ... sort of

Frommer had free rein when it came to Na'vi grammar. The sentence structure isn't determined by word order (as English is) but by cases (like Russian). That means the word order is free to reflect the most mellifluous phrasing of a sentence. "If a sentence didn't flow in a particular word order, then if the discourse allowed, I could change the word order to something that flowed better," Frommer said.

The meaning of a single word can be altered by the addition of a suffix. For example, the word for a human who is manifest in an avatar is "uniltìranyu," or Dreamwalker, while the word for the avatar itself is "uniltìrantokx," or Dreamwalker Body. The plural form of a noun is denoted by a prefix rather than a suffix. For example, a single human is known among the Na'vi as a Sky Person, or "tawtute," while the plural (Sky People) is "aysawtute" or simply "sawtute."

The linguist also came up with clever twists to change a noun's case depending on whether the verb was transitive or intransitive, and to change a verb's aspect depending on whether the action was incompleted or complete. If Neytiri is sleeping, for example, you would say "Neytiri herahaw." But if Neytiri hunted a hexapede ("yerik"), you would say "Neytiril yerikit tolaron."

The Na'vi language isn't always as rigid as it sounds, which can make things interesting for linguists - even the linguist who made it all up in the first place. Frommer said there were a few occasions when the dialogue that Cameron wanted didn't mesh with the official rules. "I would tell him, 'Yes, but according to the grammar, it should be such-and-such,'" the professor recalled. "And he said, 'You know what? Find a way to do it the way I want to do it.'"

Frommer always found a way. After all, this is Hollywood - where even linguistic rules were meant to be broken.

More about languages and the movies:

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