RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There are those who say that 3D extravaganza "Avatar" just might be the action movie of the future. Opening this week, James Cameron's space fantasy is chockfull of dazzling special effects. And like his last epic, "Titanic," it offers an unlikely love story. Jake, a former U.S. Marine turned Avatar, played by Sam Worthington, falls for a beautiful blue humanoid on the moon, Pandora. And for that alien world, the director commissioned an entirely new language.
(Soundbite of movie, "Avatar")
Unidentified Man: (Na'vi language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: (Na'vi language spoken)
MONTAGNE: The language that we're hearing was invented by Paul Frommer. He's a linguist and professor at USC Business School, and he joins us here in our West Coast studios. Good morning.
Professor PAUL FROMMER (Clinical Management Communication, Marshall Business School): Hi, Renee, how are you?
MONTAGNE: What did James Cameron say he wanted when you first started out on this project?
Prof. FROMMER: Well, he wanted a complete language with a totally consistent sound system, morphology, syntax. He wanted it to sound good. He wanted it to be pleasant. He wanted it to be appealing to the audience.
MONTAGNE: Would you mind terribly, giving us a fair sample, not in the movie?
Prof. FROMMER: Uh-huh.
MONTAGNE: Speaking to us.
Prof. FROMMER: OK. I could say, for example (Na'vi spoken) Renee, (Na'vi spoken) Which means, hello Renee, I see you. Are you well? It's a pleasure to be able to chat with you.
MONTAGNE: And then what would I say back?
Prof. FROMMER: You could say (Na'vi spoken) which is a short form of I see you.
MONTAGNE: (Na'vi spoken)
Prof. FROMMER: (Na'vi spoken)
MONTAGNE: (Na'vi spoken)
Prof. FROMMER: Yeah, that's quite close, right.
MONTAGNE: I gather when the film "Avatar" was shooting you were on the set. I mean, what was your most important function?
Prof. FROMMER: The primary function was to be there for the actors and to help them with pronunciation and to coach them between takes. But every so often, there was a moment of panic when someone would come up to me and say, oh, Paul, we decided that we need to put in this extra line and how do you say such and such. And sometimes I could come up with it on the spot. And sometimes I had have to say give me five minutes. OK, the most memorable example of that was when Jim Cameron and Sam Worthington came up to me and said, we've decided that the character Jake is going to be recounting an incident he had where he was bitten in his big blue butt � so how do you say big blue butt?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FROMMER: So I said, give me - give me a minute. So I had big and I had blue, but I didn't quite have butt. So I - the final word was (Na'vi spoken). So my big blue butt is (Na'vi spoken).
MONTAGNE: The actors, then, are speaking in another language that has real meaning. It isn't just a fake�
Prof. FROMMER: Oh very much so.
MONTAGNE: �fake sound of another language.
Prof. FROMMER: No, no, it has real meaning. It has grammar. It has syntax. It has all the things that a real language would have.
MONTAGNE: Did they master the language itself, or were actors saying what's on the page?
Prof. FROMMER: Saying what was on the page. I think, at this point, I'm pretty much the only one who knows the grammar and, you know, maybe that will change as time goes on.
MONTAGNE: So you have - there's no one beside yourself that you can actually converse with in Na'vi?
Prof. FROMMER: Well, so far that's true, yeah.
MONTAGNE: So far?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FROMMER: Who knows? I mean�
MONTAGNE: Somebody - you know someone who happens to be learning it, right, and studying it?
Prof. FROMMER: Well, I have been pleased to see that there's been some interest out there. I've been getting enquiries as to where can we learn this language. So�
MONTAGNE: Oh, oh, you have already? And the movie isn't even out yet?
Prof. FROMMER: And the movie isn't even out yet.
MONTAGNE: So this is a little like Klingon, the language from "Star Trek" that people have been speaking actually for years now.
Prof. FROMMER: Yeah, Klingon is an incredible language. It's a difficult language and it's really taken on a life of its own. There's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon. So if Na'vi ever achieved anything close to that I'd be absolutely delighted.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. FROMMER: It's a pleasure.
MONTAGNE: Linguist Paul Frommer of USC's Marshall School of Business.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.