Linguistics expert Paul Frommer discusses how he developed the Barsoomian language for John Carter, which now makes it way to Blu-ray and DVD as of June 5.
Paul Frommer, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Management Communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, was hired by Walt Disney Studios to develop the Barsoomian language for John Carter. Although Professor Frommer was tapped to expand the Barsoomian language created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frommer came to John Carter with previous on screen language experience after developing the Na’vi for James Cameron’s Avatar.
As you’ll learn in our exclusive one-on-one with Paul Frommer, creating the Barsoomian language in John Carter didn’t require quite the same complex language creation process as Avatar but was still a unique creative endeavor that required rules, a sound system, and grammar.
Interestingly, as Professor Frommer told The Deadbolt, the Barsoomian language has old historical connections to a foundation used to create English.
THE DEADBOLT: Since John Carter was originally able learn Barsoomian in a week, how did that make your job easier?
PAUL FROMMER: In a way, it did. There’s a quote from A Princess of Mars where Edgar Rice Burroughs has him say the Martian language is extremely simple and in a week I could make all of my wants known and I could understand nearly everything that was said to me.
No language is that simple, but that allowed me to construct a very simple grammar for it that was transparent. It’s perfectly realistic but it’s pretty straightforward.
There’s not a lot of what linguists refer to as inflectional morphology. There’s not a lot of endings on words. It relies, as English does, mostly on word order. It was fun to do. It was fun to extrapolate from what Edgar Rice Burroughs had done and build a real language around it.
THE DEADBOLT: How did you determine what Barsoomian needed sound wise in a sound system as compared to what was already there?
FROMMER: I wanted to be true to what he had already done. As you know, there are 420 words distributed throughout the 11 book series. So 400 words should give you a fairly good sense of the sound of the language. The only thing is, just from the spelling system that he came up with, you can’t necessarily determine exactly what he had in mind.
My basic guideline was to be true to what he had done. There’s such a huge fan base of people that regard them as sacred texts and I wanted to be true to that. For example, look at a word that has a “ch” in it. It could be “chuh” or it could be “cuh” or it could be “shuh”, like machine. Those were the types of decisions I had to make arbitrarily.
THE DEADBOLT: What existing sound system worked best for Barsoomian?
FROMMER: The Barsoomian sound system doesn’t relate to any existing language, although every sound in the sound system is found in some languages. I looked at the words he had come up with – this is a hundred years ago – and it occurred to me that he had probably been exposed to a fair amount of Latin, because that’s what education used to be. So a lot of the words appeared to me to have connections to Latin.
You have words that begin with “pt”. What other languages do you find words with “pt”? Well, you have it in Greek. We have words in English like pterodactyl. There were also a lot of “th” words. So I built on all of that. I decided that the “ch” should be “huh”, like the German “bah”, which was kind of interesting and certainly consistent with what he had done. There were some interesting consonant clusters and combinations of sounds.
THE DEADBOLT: How did you bridge the gaps between the written language, the oral language, and how Barsoomian was intended to be telepathic?
FROMMER: I really didn’t pursue the telepathic thing at all. I considered that separate. I was not asked to come up with anything like a written alphabet. I believe that there is an alphabet on the Disney website that I didn’t take part in.
But according to the books, the various communities on Barsoom, although they all have the same spoken language, they have different forms of written language, which is interesting and kind of the reverse of the Chinese situation. There’s probably a lot of room for development of the written language of Barsoomian.
THE DEADBOLT: How much guess work was involved in the construction beyond what Burroughs had thought out for the language?
FROMMER: If you’re talking about syntax and morphology, that was virtually all mine. Even though there are over 400 terms that he had come up with, there’s virtually no grammar. There’s almost no “word building” aspects. I think there was precisely one sentence that I came up with, a one word sentence, which meant that the grammatical rules were entirely up to me. Whatever I came up with, I would not violate what was in the book.
For that I really fell back on the guiding principle that things should be simple. The language is not terribly inflected, very similar to English. It’s based on word order to distinguish grammatical relations.
I decided on a verb-initial structure. If you take six elements, subject-subject-verb, mathematically there are six permutations. It turns out that three of those permutations are fairly common in the language. Of the least common is verb-initial and that’s the one I chose. It’s certainly a common structure that’s found in human language and that would mean it would be something that John Carter could learn.
THE DEADBOLT: How did working on the Na’vi language in Avatar help for John Carter?
FROMMER: Na’vi was my first created language. It’s a very different language from Barsoomian. Having worked on that, I was able to anticipate some problems and see where I needed to develop things for Barsoomian and avoid some of the things I had to grapple with for Na’vi.
That said, Barsoomian is a lot less developed, as I constructed it, than Na’vi. Of course Na’vi has had at least two and a half years to develop, and continues to develop in the whole [Avatar] community. So far with Barsoomian, I developed it to a point where I needed it for what was in the script. The vocabulary is still quite small and it reflects the need in the script as it was given to me.
THE DEADBOLT: How would Barsoomian be different if you didn’t have to think of the human parameters around it, such as the actors or how it would sound on screen?
FROMMER: Well, it might be very different. Still, if you want to stick to the premise that John Carter considers it a very simple language – and you have to do it to be true to the books – then probably it wouldn’t be very different given the fact that a truly alien, weird language would either be unlearnable by a human or very difficult for a human.
That being said, if you forgot about the stipulation that Edgar Rice Burroughs put in and let your mind wander into strange areas, you could come up with some very interesting and odd means of communication.
It’s possible that an alien race might have two or three different sets of vocal production mechanisms. Maybe things could be said simultaneously. One throat could utter one sound and another throat could utter a different sound. You could also have things like harmony, two words that have different meanings separately that are totally different when said together.
You could have all sorts of strange sounds, tweets and beeps, which would be very interesting and unlike anything a human could produce. So a truly alien language without the constraints would sound very different but something the actors wouldn’t be able to handle.
John Carter is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on June 5, 2012.