This is the first lesson for the Na’vi language. Not much to cover here. Usually first lessons are reserved for phonology, pronunciation, morphology and such preliminary details. However these details can be quite technical and this series of courses strives to be more practical. There is a plenty of other sources that can fill you in about what Na’vi is, how the letters are pronounced and so on.
This first lesson will be reserved for the Na’vi alphabet. In the fictional background of the Avatar universe, the Na’vi are a primitive pre-writing culture; they wouldn’t need writing anyway as their tradition is based on a semi-telepathic communication and connection to the neural network of their homeworld. In any case they don’t need writing, so only the English alphabet is used for their language as described by the futuristic human explorers and linguists.
This is the oral Na’vi alphabet:
The x arks ejective consonants, also called pxorpam (plural: porpam).
As a first step, notice that the “letters” are named in a way to tell some things about Na’vi phonology, and also phonotactics:
- Most consonant letter-names are symmetrical and include -e-; these indicate the consonants that can begin or end a word with. For example the letter-name NgeNg reveals that words can begin (nga, ngep) or end (ftang, ting) in that sound. This is also true with other, more crazy sounds like KxeKx (kxem, rikx).
- The other consonant letter-names end in -ä and indicate the consonants that can’t end a word. For example the letter-names Zä, Vä, and so on, reveal that in Na’vi, words can never end in -z, -v etc.
- Words never start with Rr- or Ll-. That’s why the letter-names have a tìftáng (apostrophe) as an onset.
There is one more thing we need to address:
Na’vi is a language that has non-fixed stress; the stress is inherent to each word and is learned, or memorized. Spanish and Greek indicate the stress with an acute accent. Officialy, the stress is not marked, and in most media appearances, transcriptions or fan compositions, there is no indication of how you are supposed to read a word or text. You can find where a word is stressed only if you look it up in a dictionary, while resources like learnnavi.org occasionally indicate the stressed syllable by underlining it (like: irayo).
Did you notice the title of the lesson, ‘áwvea sänúmvi? I decided to fill that gap in a totally unofficial way; following the example of Spanish and Greek, I’ll consistently indicate every word’s stress with an acute accent, so that it will guide your “mental voice”, and the visual input will help you associate better a word with its sound, and thus remember it. Like this: Oél ngáti kámeie. This will also be the case with the stressed pseudovowels: lŕŕtok. So don’t be scared that I complicated Na’vi by adding more strange sounds like á and ú; these are nothing more than the stress.
Throughout human history, explorers or colonists came in contact with native populations, who were introduced to notions and things about which their language had no terms. These peoples had to adopt words from those new languages, but also adapt them to their own phonology. So in Tahitian the ‘hundred’ is hanere. Same happens with proper names in Samoan like Tavita ‘David’ or Ianuari ‘January’.
The case with the Na’vi is similar: Take for example the books; as the Na’vi had no written literature, they first saw them when they were brought by humans. Having no word for a book, they took the English (Na’vi: ’Ìnglìsì) word and adapted it to their own phonology as puk.
Loaning doesn’t seem to have happened extensively, but loans had to be taken when Na’vi needed to refer to things outside its culture. This is the case with human names or with objects not found on Pandora. Generally these loans are phonetic approximations of ’Ìnglìsì words, or just transcriptions in Na’vi spelling.
- Earth ► ‘Rrta
- Jake ► Tseyk
- Jason ► Tsyeyson
- Seattle ► Siätll
- San Francisco ► SänFränsìsko
- pineapple ► paynäpll
I thought providing a “Trivia” section with each lesson, with some linguistic context concerning things already discussed. Hopefully, the study of a fictitious language of a fictional alien people created for an American media franchise, can become an educating and enriching process.
While being a constructed language, Na’vi displays a realistic amount of rules. Every language has certain phonotactics; for example it’s impossible to find an English word beginning in, say, tsl-. However tsl- is a legitimate initial consonant cluster in Na’vi. Similarly, Na’vi words don’t permit some sounds that exist in English; or end in sounds which would be OK in English. These rules are called phonotactics and are what give each language its distintive flavour; even if you don’t speak French, you can tell it’s French if you are hearing French, thanks to its flavour. Na’vi phonotactics give Na’vi its Na’vi flavour.
One of those “irregularities” is the unpredictability of the lexical stress. On the contrary many natural languages display a regular, predictable pattern of stressing.
- In Finnish and Hungarian, the stress usually falls on the first vowel of the word.
- in French, stress falls on the last vowel.
- In Quechua and Swahili every word is stressed on the penultimate syllable (second-to-last vowel). This is also the case with Esperanto.
- Classical Latin has a more complicated rule, which has to do with the nature of the penultimate syllable; but still predictable. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, follow the same rule.
Na’vi falls within the category of English, Spanish, Italian and Greek, languages whose words have stress, but its placing in each word follows no describable pattern.
One of the most exotic aspects of Na’vi are the ejective consonants; these are found in many languages which we would call “exotic”. The Andean language Quechua has such consonants in initial positions. I mention Quechua especially because there are more similarities between Quechua and Na’vi.
Na’vi belongs to the club of famous constructed languages that are heavy in apostrophes. For whatever reason, apostrophes are commonly employed for the effect of alienness; I am sure you have somewhere read a space story about some Galactic Overlord Xn’zzerd’or, or something. More sophisticated constructed languages like Mando’a, Klingon and D’ni also come to mind. While the apostrophe is often used arbitrary and random, in Na’vi it mirrors real-world usage in “exotic” languages such as Arabic, Mayan and Polynesian dialects. Actually Na’vi aims more for the Polynesian effect in my opinion. According to a Samoan proverb: Se’i lua’i lou le ‘ulu taumamao.
- Study the Na’vi alphabet or memorize it in some capacity. Try to explain to yourself why the sound H is represented in the alphabet with the name Hä, and not, say, HeH?
- What are the sound in English sounds that are missing from the Na’vi alphabet?
- What are the letters that can’t end a Na’vi word?
- Read the Wikipedia article on Na’vi language, its background, and phonology. Try to understand some more exotic concepts, like what is a “pseudovowel“, an “ejective consonant” or “glottal stop“.
- Try to define the difference between PeP and PxePx; the difference between I and Ì; the difference between A and Ä.
- Try to understand the definition of a stress. Why reading aloud a Na’vi word can be a bit more difficult than, say, Hungarian or French?