John Carter: Inventing New Language

The actors playing Tharks also had to learn the Tharkian language and accent, which was developed for them based on the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs by Dr. Paul Frommer, professor emeritus of Clinical Management Communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Frommer, whose doctorate is in linguistics, also developed the language in “Avatar.”

Frommer’s guiding principle in developing the Thark language in “John Carter” was that unless there was a good reason not to, he would make the Thark language as consistent as possible with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writings in order to respect the fan base and help give the language consistency and integrity.

Frommer went through John Flint Roy’s “A Guide to Barsoom” and entered each Barsoomian word he found there into a database.  The 420 words Burroughs had invented were mainly character and place names, but there were also a few measurement terms, numbers, plant names, etc. Frommer’s goal was to discover all the sounds and sound combinations Edgar Rice Burroughs had used, which would form the basis of the sound system of the language.

Creating that sound system was the first order of business for Frommer. “I had to decide what sounds are in the language, what sounds are not in the language and what sort of combinations of sounds existed,” he says. “I discussed my ideas with Andrew Stanton and then I sent Andrew and Colin Wilson producer some sound samples, which were certain ideas for how the language might sound, consistent with the spelling that Burroughs had come up with.”

As there was virtually no grammar and thus no rules, Frommer had to determine the grammar on his own. He decided it should be simple—no complex verb conjugations, no case endings on nouns—with grammatical relations determined by word order, as in English, and words mostly in their basic forms without alteration.

The idea of simplicity came from a line in “A Princess of Mars” at the end of Chapter VII, which John Carter says in narration: “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.”

An example of one important grammatical element that Frommer had to figure out was the basic word order in sentences, since there were no full sentences in the books to use as examples, except for one simple command. He explains, “The three basic elements of a sentence are subject, object and verb. There are six possible permutations of those. Some of these are extremely common in human languages and some are not. I decided on a verb-initial sequence: verb, subject, object. So basically, an English sentence like ‘I see the house,’ comes out in Barsoomian as ‘See I the house.’”

Dialogue coach Roisin Carty was brought on the “John Carter” production to help the actors learn the language. In order to assist her, Frommer wrote out the dialogue in both English and the constructed language and provided a phonetic guide and recorded sound files to help the actors with pronunciation.

Carty, who previously worked on the “Lord of the Rings” films to develop the Elvish language, notes distinct differences between the two created languages: “Tolkien based his Elvish dialect on the Welsh language. It is very lyrical and light in quality. The Thark language is quite staccato and earthy, with thumped consonants.”

Describing how the actors approached learning the language, Carty recalls, “At Thark camp, before the film started shooting, the actors worked as a group and practiced their lines in a circle. They would copy each other and influence each other, and they shared ideas.”

Carty also worked with the actors individually on their Thark language skills. “Willem Dafoe,who plays Tars Tarkas, speaks the most Thark,  Doubled consonants are held longer: Jeddak, lekkad, ebbok, skarrus short vowels: a, e, i, o, u Long vowels: aa, ey, ee, oa, oo

In the examples in the next text box, underlined syllables are stressed. and he’s learned all of it very well,” Carty comments. “We went through the scenes speaking Thark to one another and we really began to communicate in the language. It was amazing.

Samantha Morton and Polly Walker also really brought it to life. That’s the sign of a good actor!”

Frommer feels that constructed language in film is here to stay and that it adds another dimension to the movie for the audience. “It adds a sense of reality, an extra dimension of reality. Not that a listener is going to understand what the sentence means and understand what every word means, but there is a sort of consistency, which I think comes across almost unconsciously. If it were gibberish, somehow it probably would not feel as real to an audience as if it were a really consistent, constructed language.

“In any event, ever since Klingon in ‘Star Trek,’ it’s became sort of expected that if there is a language to any extent in the science fiction enterprise, it’s going to be a language that is actually a language,” Frommer continues. “So after Klingon you had the languages of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which Tolkien had come up with, which are very wellconstructed

languages, and then there was Na’vi in ‘Avatar.’ And now, more recently, there is Dothraki, which is the language of ‘Game of Thrones.’ By and large, any sort of language for science fiction that’s going to have any sort of major role is going to be well constructed from here on in, I think.”

Pronunciation Key

 

ch as in Bach, Chanukah (scrapey sound)

gh no equivalent in English. Scrapey sound,

but voiced. Something like “Parisian r.”

th as in thin, NOT as in then

tj Represents the ch sound in church, chin

x Always like ks, even at the beginning of

a word: xamad ( = ksamad), xan ( = ksan)

ao Represents the ow sound in cow

ay Represents the sound in eye, my, pie, sigh

ey as in they

The actors playing Tharks also had to learn the Tharkian language and accent, which was developed for them based on the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs by Dr. Paul Frommer, professor emeritus of Clinical Management Communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Frommer, whose doctorate is in linguistics, also developed the language in “Avatar.”

Frommer’s guiding principle in developing the Thark language in “John Carter” was that unless there was a good reason not to, he would make the Thark language as consistent as possible with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writings in order to respect the fan base and help give the language consistency and integrity.

Frommer went through John Flint Roy’s “A Guide to

Barsoom” and entered each Barsoomian word he found there into a database.

The 420 words Burroughs had invented were mainly character and place names, but there were also a few measurement terms, numbers, plant names, etc. Frommer’s goal was to discover all the sounds and sound combinations Edgar Rice Burroughs had used, which would form the basis of the sound system of the language.

Creating that sound system was the first order of business for Frommer. “I had to decide what sounds are in the language, what sounds are not in the language and what sort of combinations of sounds existed,” he says. “I discussed my ideas with Andrew Stanton and then I sent Andrew and Colin Wilson producer some sound samples, which were certain ideas for how the language might sound, consistent with the spelling that Burroughs had come up with.”

As there was virtually no grammar and thus no rules, Frommer had to determine the grammar on his own. He decided it should be simple—no complex verb conjugations, no case endings on nouns—with grammatical relations determined by word order, as

in English, and words mostly in their basic forms without alteration.

The idea of simplicity came from a line in “A Princess of Mars” at the end of Chapter VII, which John Carter says in narration: “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.”

An example of one important grammatical element that Frommer had to figure out was the basic word order in sentences, since there were no full sentences in the books to use as examples, except for one simple command. He explains, “The three basic elements of a sentence are subject, object and verb. There are six possible permutations of those. Some of these are extremely common in human languages and some are not. I decided on a verb-initial sequence: verb, subject, object. So basically, an English sentence like ‘I see the house,’ comes out in Barsoomian as ‘See I the house.’”

Dialogue coach Roisin Carty was brought on the “John Carter” production to help the actors learn the language. In order to assist her, Frommer wrote out the dialogue in both English and the constructed language and provided a phonetic guide and recorded

sound files to help the actors with pronunciation.

Carty, who previously worked on the “Lord of the Rings” films to develop the Elvish language, notes distinct differences between the two created languages: “Tolkien based his Elvish dialect on the Welsh language. It is very lyrical and light in quality. The Thark language is quite staccato and earthy, with thumped consonants.”

Describing how the actors approached learning

the language, Carty recalls, “At Thark camp,

before the film started shooting, the actors

worked as a group and practiced their lines

in a circle. They would copy each other and

influence each other, and they shared ideas.”

Carty also worked with the actors individually

on their Thark language skills. “Willem Dafoe,

who plays Tars Tarkas, speaks the most Thark

Doubled consonants are held longer: Jeddak, lekkad, ebbok, skarrus short vowels: a, e, i, o, u Long vowels: aa, ey, ee, oa, oo

In the examples in the next text box, underlined syllables are stressed. and he’s learned all of it very well,” Carty comments. “We went through the scenes speaking Thark to one another and we really began to communicate in the language. It was amazing.

Samantha Morton and Polly Walker also really

brought it to life. That’s the sign of a good actor!”

Frommer feels that constructed language in film is here to stay and that it adds another dimension to the movie for the audience. “It adds a sense of reality, an extra dimension of reality. Not that a listener is going to understand what the sentence means and understand what every word means, but there is a sort of consistency, which I think comes across almost unconsciously. If it were gibberish, somehow it probably would not feel as real to an audience as if it

were a really consistent, constructed language.

“In any event, ever since Klingon in ‘Star Trek,’ it’s became sort of expected that if there is a language to any extent in the science fiction enterprise, it’s going to be a language that is actually a language,” Frommer continues. “So after Klingon you had the languages of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which Tolkien had come up with, which are very wellconstructed

languages, and then there was Na’vi in ‘Avatar.’ And now, more recently, there is Dothraki, which is the

language of ‘Game of Thrones.’ By and large, any sort of language for science fiction that’s going to have any sort of major role is going to be well constructed from here on in, I think.”

Pronunciation Key

 

ch as in Bach, Chanukah (scrapey sound)

gh no equivalent in English. Scrapey sound,

but voiced. Something like “Parisian r.”

th as in thin, NOT as in then

tj Represents the ch sound in church, chin

x Always like ks, even at the beginning of

a word: xamad ( = ksamad), xan ( = ksan)

ao Represents the ow sound in cow

ay Represents the sound in eye, my, pie, sigh

ey as in they

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