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What Did He Say?

Creators of Klingon and Na'vi languages come to Boise State

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Fictional aliens need fictional languages, and if filmmakers want it done right, they hire real-life linguists to invent them. With how authentic the languages become--containing systems of grammar and tense markers--these fictional languages may not be quite so fictional after all. Just ask Marc Okrand, creator of Klingon, and Paul Frommer, creator of Na'vi on Thursday, March 3, when both linguists speak at Linguists in Hollywood, a free event organized by the Boise State Linguistics Association and the English Majors Association.

Okrand and Frommer will talk about working as linguists in the film industry and discuss the cultural phenomena their creations have inspired. In addition, audience members will get to participate in a Q&A session--in English

"[Okrand and Frommer] have never met face to face--this will be the first time," said Boise State linguistics professor Michal Temkin Martinez. "They were both really forthcoming and super nice about it."

Okrand first lent his expertise to 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He phonetically constructed dialogue that matched the Vulcan characters' English-speaking lip movements, but sounded like an alien language. Before that, he was involved in the earliest days of closed-captioning.

For Star Trek III (1984), Okrand was commissioned to invent a language for the Klingons. He devised words and grammatical rules, spawning the world's newest language. Okrand only penned words needed for the films' scripts, but as three more sequels emerged, that list grew--enough that in 1985, he had compiled a Klingon lexicon large enough to generate a language reference book, The Klingon Dictionary. And now, you can find Hamlet, the Bible, operas and even Facebook insults translated into Klingon.

For 2009's blockbuster Avatar, director James Cameron also scouted for a linguist that was up to the task. He found University of Southern California's Paul Frommer, who crafted a language of his own. Like Okrand, Frommer spent time on set coaching actors through the language. After Avatar hit theaters, a new clan of devout fans studied the Na'vi language. Given time, Na'vi could potentially carve out a territory in fan culture to rival Klingon.

Oh, and a final piece of advice: if you happen to find yourself on a Klingon spaceship (or at a sci-fi convention), you would do well to remember the simple phrase, "Nuq daq o' puchpa e'?" or "Where is the restroom?"

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