An Interview with Paul Frommer

An Interview with Paul Frommer
Author: Fredrik Ekman
MS Date: 02-22-2012!
FL Date: 03-01-2012
FL Number: FL-000006-00
Citation: Ekman, Fredrik. 2012. «An Interview with Paul

Frommer.” FL-000006-00, Fiat Lingua,
. Web. 01 Mar. 2012.!

Copyright: © 2012 Fredrik Ekman. This work is licensed

under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.!




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Fredrik Ekman

Constructed languages have been used for a long time in movies, but only since the 1980s
have we seen a more regular use of languages constructed directly for the movies, Klingon
being the most well-known early example. Lately, Paul Frommer’s Na’vi for Avatar has
received a good deal of attention. For the upcoming John Carter movie, based on Edgar Rice
Burroughs’ 1912 novel A Princess of Mars, Frommer has created a new language, based on
the alien language in the novel and its sequels.

Burroughs is mostly known as the creator of Tarzan, but his science fiction stories have
been extremely influential for the “sword and planet” genre, and are sometimes cited as part
of the inspiration for movies such as Star Wars and Avatar.

The movie and novel are set on the planet Mars, as it was perceived in popular literature
100 years ago. In fact, Burroughs helped popularize (and partly create) the image of a dying
planet populated by warring races of men and aliens. The planet is known as Barsoom by its

By expanding and formalizing the language from the novel that inspired Avatar, you could
well say that Paul Frommer has come full circle. The following interview with Frommer was
cunducted by e-mail at the end of January 2012.

Fredrik Ekman: First of all, what do you call the language? Martian?
Barsoomian? Something else?

Paul Frommer: I’ve been calling it Barsoomian.

Could you provide a sample phrase; something of your design that was used in
the movie?

Sure. Here’s a Tal Hajus line that means, “When can I kill it, Jeddak?”

Nar tu gheb nun thaala, Jeddak?

The gh represents a scrapey sound, something like “Parisian r.” (Linguists would
call it a voiced velar fricative.) The double a in thaala is a long vowel, held roughly
twice as long as the short a at the end. And the double d in Jeddak represents a
“geminate” or long consonant—you hold this d longer than a “regular” one.

Who contacted you to request the language? What were your instructions?

My initial contact was Colin Wilson, Executive Producer on Avatar and Producer
on John Carter. That contact led to a meeting with Andrew Stanton, the Director of

After speaking with Andrew and understanding the scope of the project, it was
clear that what I needed to do was develop a language that was well constructed
and workable, that sounded interesting but that the actors could pronounce
without too much difficulty, and that was consistent with all the linguistic material
ERB had included in the 11-book Barsoom series.


What were your initial feelings about the project?

Of course I was delighted to have another major language assignment and the
chance to work with Andrew. The challenge, I knew, would be the fact that I
wouldn’t be starting from scratch: there was already linguistic material in the
Barsoom series. The guiding principle I used in developing the language was that
unless there was a good reason not to, Barsoomian should be as consistent as
possible with ERB’s thoughts about it; that would respect the feelings of the fan
base and help give the language consistency and integrity. The problem was that
beyond about 400 words, Burroughs didn’t give many specifics, so it would
sometimes be necessary to guess what he had in mind.

What background material were you given?

I was sent all the books in the Barsoom series (I’ve read the first two cover to
cover and started the third), and I also took a look at what fans had written about
Barsoomian on the Internet. Perhaps the most useful resource, however, was John
Flint Roy’s A Guide to Barsoom, a real labor of love that I found invaluable. Roy had
isolated all 420-or-so words ERB used in the series—mainly character and place
names, but also a few measurement terms, numbers, plant names, etc.—which I
entered into my database; that was a lot easier than having to comb through each
of the 11 books to find the Barsoomian words!

Language and linguistics aside, what did you think about the books?

The books I read were imaginative, involving, and often exciting. I admired ERB’s
powers of description, the way he could make an alien landscape or creature come
alive in vivid detail. I also found it interesting to see how his writing was
sometimes a reflection of, sometimes a reaction to, the social attitudes of his time.

In his books (especially the first two), Burroughs wrote that much of the
communication on Mars is telepathic. How did you relate to that?

I thought of telepathy and spoken language as separate. The spoken Barsoomian
in the film is self-contained and doesn’t rely on telepathy to get its meaning across.

What existing languages inspired your design?

That depends on whether you’re talking about the phonetics and phonology—that
is, the “sound system” of the language—or the morphology and syntax, i.e. the
rules for forming words out of meaningful elements and combining them into
phrases and sentences.
For the sound system, what guided me was ERB himself. The sounds and
combinations he used in his 400+ words formed the basis of the phonetics and
phonology. However, since Burroughs’s spelling was inconsistent and not always


clear, some of this was guesswork. For example, why did he use ph in some places
and f in others—did he intend a difference in sound? What did he mean by ch—the
sound in church or the one in Bach and Chanukah? What does tj indicate (used once
in the word Tjanath)? How about gh as in Ghasta and Ghron—is that different from
a plain g? What did he mean by hn, as in Dihn? Why do some words start with z
and others x—did he mean two different sounds or only one (the z-sound)? In
words like Pnoxus and Ptarth, is the p silent or pronounced? So I had to make
decisions about all such things.

For the morphology and syntax, however, I was pretty much on my own. The only
sentence I discovered in the entire Barsoom series was the one-word imperative,
“Sak!” meaning “Jump!” Some of the grammatical elements I wound up using
were inspired by things in the languages I was familiar with. For example, I
indicated possession in Barsoomian the way it’s done in Malay and Indonesian: the
possessor follows the thing possessed with no special marking. So “John’s house”
is the equivalent of “house John.” I also found use for a word that marks definite
direct objects, the way Hebrew does.

What was the first idea that came into your mind for this language? How did
you initially envision the character and identity of the language?

The first idea, which remained my guiding principle, came directly from A Princess
of Mars. In speaking about Barsoomian, John Carter says: “The Martian
language . . . is extremely simple, and in a week I could make all my wants known
and understand nearly everything that was said to me.” Now of course the
possibility of mastering a language in a week exists, at least for now, only in fantasy
and science fiction; nevertheless, I took ERB’s “extremely simple” seriously. I
developed a very simple, transparent grammar for Barsoomian, which was quite a
contrast from Na’vi!

As for the “character” of the language, I wanted something that would feel natural
in the mouths of all the inhabitants of Barsoom, since as John Carter explains in
PM, “All Barsoomians speak the same tongue from the ice-clad south to the ice-
clad north… Only in the valley Dor…is there supposed to be a different language

Did you strive to make it a human or an alien language? How does that choice
manifest itself ?

Well, given that John Carter proves so adept at Barsoomian, I didn’t think it should
be very different from a human language. Anything truly alien probably couldn’t
be learned, at least not with the rapidity JC mastered it. And of course the
language had to be one the actors could pronounce. So there’s little if anything in
Barsoomian that isn’t found in some actual human language.


For example, in keeping with the simplicity guideline, I chose not to use a case
system for distinguishing grammatical relations, the way Latin and Russian do, but
rather to rely on word order, as we do in English. Now in terms of Subject,
Object, and Verb, there are six logically possible orders: SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS,
OSV, OVS. The first three are the orders commonly found in human languages.
(Klingon, by the way, uses OVS, which on earth is extremely rare. Na’vi, with its
case system, has very free word order.) I chose VSO for Barsoomian, the third
most common word order in human languages. (Languages with predominant
VSO order include Classical Hebrew and Arabic and the Celtic languages.)

So what are the main simplifications in terms of syntax and morphology?

There’s not much inflectional morphology—no noun cases, not even a possessive
case; little agreement phenomena in verbs; no grammatical gender; only a few
inflectional suffixes. The word order, as I mentioned, is straightforward VSO, and
modifiers consistently follow their heads.

What are the most interesting (in your opinion) grammatical features?

Well, as I said, the morphology and syntax of Barsoomian are very simple. Perhaps
the most interesting feature is the pronominal system, where there are distinct
cases for subject and object (akin to English I/me, he/him, we/us, etc.). To form
the objective case, you take the initial consonant of the pronoun and repeat it at
the end of the word. So I = tu, me = tut; he = ki, him = kik. Then to form the
plurals of these pronouns, you simply “voice” the unvoiced consonants—in these
examples, t becomes d and k become hard g. So we = du and us = dud. I rather like

How large is the lexicon?

It’s quite small. The lexicon was driven by the needs of the script. It covers
everything I had to translate but doesn’t go very far beyond that.

Could you resist the temptation to include some Easter eggs for Na’vi

I did resist that temptation.  There are no Easter eggs in Barsoomian—at least
not that I’m aware of.

Disney has revealed an alphabetic script for the language on their web site.
Were you in any way involved with the creation of that script?

No, I wasn’t. I had nothing to do with that alphabet.


The 26 letters and 10 digits of Disney’s Barsoomian script.

If you had constructed a Barsoomian script, how would you have done it?

Well, first of all we should note that although the spoken language of Barsoom is
universal, many different writing systems are found on the planet: “No two nations
have the same written language, and often cities of the same nation have a written
language that differs greatly from that of the nation to which they belong.” So lots
of approaches to Barsoomian script are possible.

There’s a daunting array of writing systems for human and human-like languages.
(The Wikipedia article “List of writing systems” is eye-opening.) For Barsoomian,
I think an alphabetic system, with separate symbols for consonants and vowels, is
the easiest and most efficient. But an important decision that needs to be made is
whether the system is supposed to have been designed “scientifically” through a
perceptive analysis of the language (like the Korean alphabet, for example) or
whether it evolved over time in a less deliberate way.

As a linguist designing an alphabetic script, I’d aim for a system free of ambiguity
and indeterminacy. That is, if you see something in written form, you know for
certain how to pronounce it, and if you hear something, you know for certain how
to write it down. That requires an analysis of the distinctive sounds of the
language, the general principle being that each distinctive consonant and vowel
gets its own symbol. But beyond that, interesting questions arise. For example, take
the sounds p, t, k. Those are “unvoiced”—they’re produced without vibration of
the vocal cords. If you voice them, you get b, d, g. Now should the written symbols
reflect that fact? For example, should the symbols for b, d, g be derived from the
ones for p, t, k in the same way, with the same modification? That’s a possibility!
One thing I’d like to see for Barsoomian script is a length marker. Since
Barsoomian distinguishes between long and short consonants as well as long and
short vowels, the same length marker could serve both purposes, for example
turning a into aa and d into dd.

Who owns the rights to your language?

I’m not up on all the legalities, but as far as I know it’s Walt Disney Studios.

Do you know if there are currently any plans to publish a Barsoomian
grammar or dictionary?

None that I know of.


I have heard that you did not work directly with the actors. Could you describe
the process?

That’s correct—I had no direct contact with the actors. I had been invited to
“Thark Camp” in London in January 2010 but couldn’t attend due to other
obligations. All my direct contact was with Andrew Stanton and the dialect
coaches. I provided translations of all the required lines, in a spelling system
consistent with the one ERB had used but with stressed syllables underlined. I also
recorded mp3 files, where I spoke the lines at three speeds—first slowly, then
faster, then at normal conversational speed.

Have you heard the actors voice your language?

No, I haven’t yet heard the actors speaking the language. As I said, I interacted
directly with the dialect coaches, who in turn worked with the actors. I’m very
much looking forward to the film and hearing the finished product! The premiere
is coming up, so it won’t be long now.

Have you done any work on the language after the shooting was completed,
e.g. for tie-in products?

No, I haven’t.

In your opinion, what is the reason that constructed languages have become
more common in movies during the past few decades?

Well, the main impetus, I think, was Klingon. It’s a well-constructed—and
complex!—language put together by a bona fide linguist, Marc Okrand, and it’s
still being studied by fans after something like 25 years. After Klingon,
unanalyzable gibberish just didn’t cut it. Besides, I think some moviegoers can tell
whether or not a language sounds consistent, even if they don’t consciously
understand a word. Such consistency can add to the sense of realism.

While making your two movie languages, have you learned anything about
natural languages?

More than anything, it’s been driven home to me how complicated natural
languages are! You can come up with general principles, but when you get down to
the details and try to use the language for genuine communication, you discover
how many little decisions have to be made along the way—how much territory a
particular word should cover, how a particular grammatical structure should
function in an unanticipated context, things like that. What we as speakers of
natural languages do every day of our lives without even thinking about it is
absolutely extraordinary.


The Avatar fans really took Na’vi to their hearts. Do you see that something
similar could happen with Barsoomian? Is it anything you wish for?

That’s hard to say. Of course I hope the language is well received by the fans.
Beyond that we’ll have to see what happens.

Do you know if your services will be required for a possible sequel?

I don’t know. But of course I hope so!

Thank you very much for your time and effort!

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An Interview with Paul Frommer image

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