Na'vi/Discourse

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Beyond the level of syntax is discourse. This is the influence that the practical requirements of speech have on grammar. Such influences include the relative frequency of words and phrases; context, mutual knowledge, and the flow of information in a conversation; and the intentions and feelings of the speakers. For example, the choice between long and short case forms and long and short plural forms may depend on such factors; other areas of grammar influenced by discourse factors include the choice between preposition and suffix; "free" word order; the choice between referring to something with a noun or with a pronoun; the omission of pronouns, tense, aspect, and mood when these are assumed to be understood; the choice between using the topic or a grammatically determined case for a noun phrase; the use of second-position (affect) infixes in a verb; and the transitivity of the verb.

Discourse particles[edit | edit source]

Various particles in Naʼvi are used for addressing people, expressing emotion, and organizing a conversation. For example, tse is used to introduce an utterance, a mild announcement that one has something to say, like "now" or "well" in English. Tut is a particle of continuation; if someone asks for your name, or how you are, after answering you can add ngaru tut? "and you?"[note 1] The vocative particle ma was covered in the chapter on nouns, and the question-tag particle srake in the chapter on questions. Also considered particles are interjections such as tewti! "wow!", though other parts of speech may be used in this fashion, such as tam "to suffice" or "okay".

Affect[edit | edit source]

The second-position infixes, covered in the chapter on verbs, are determined primarily be discourse phenomena: The emotional connection the speaker has with the event, how likely the statement is to be accurate, and how much respect the social situation calls for.

There are also emotive particles that appear at the end of a clause and reflect the emotional connection the speaker feels about the topic of discussion or with the audience:

  • Disparaging pak, as in Tsamsiyu pak? "Hah! A warrior! (you call that a warrior?)"
  • A particle for surprise, exclamation, and encouragement, nang "oh my!", which typically occurs with nìtxan "so much", as in sevin nìtxan nang! "my aren't you pretty!" or "look how pretty you are!"
  • A particle ko which elicits agreement, like the eh of Canadian English (in other English dialects, ko can be translated "let's", "okay?", "why don't you", "wouldn't you agree?", etc.), as in makto ko! "Let's ride!" and,
Tsun tutet tspivang ko
tsun tute-t tsp‹iv›ang ko
be.able person-acc kill‹sjv eh
"They can kill a person, you know."[1]

Omission of pronouns[edit | edit source]

Pronouns allow one to refer to something multiple times without repeating its name. However, Naʼvi goes a step further: Pronouns tend to be used when switching from one referent to another, but otherwise dropped. That is, once the identity of a referent is established, pronouns aren't necessary, even for the subject of a clause. This is familiar from English texting, but is not as common in conversation.[note 2] In Naʼvi, it is good conversational style as well. The identity of subjects may also be recovered from situational expectations. If a simple statement of a feeling is made, such as ʼefu ngeyn "feel(s) tired", it can be assumed that the subject is the speaker, oe, as one can only be sure of one's own feelings; and if a question, ʼefu ngeyn srak?, it can be assumed that the speaker is inquiring about (ay)nga "you", as you're the only one whose feelings you would know directly. For third persons, one would normally expect the evidential in ‹ats›, as one can have no direct knowledge of the feelings of another person: ʼefatsu ngeyn "(s/he) seems tired"; ʼefatsu ngeyn srak? "do (they) seem tired (to you)?".

Register[edit | edit source]

Two language registers are attested in Naʼvi. The formal ceremonial register has already been introduced; it's characterized by formal pronouns and an infix to the verb. There is also a military register. This is characterized by clipped speech—clipped even by Naʼvi standards—and abbreviated pronouns. For example,

Tìkan tawnatep!
"Target lost!"

T‹awn›atep cannot function as an English passive; the closest in the normal register would be tìkan atawnatep "a lost target".

In addition, the ä is dropped from genitive pronouns: oey (pronounced [wey]) "my", ngey "your", pey "her/his", etc.

Topic–comment[edit | edit source]

As was discussed in the section on case, Naʼvi frequently uses a topic–comment structure, where a phrase is placed at the beginning of the sentence as the topic (background) for the comment which follows:

Sìpawmìri oe ngaru seiyi irayo
sì-pawm-ìri oe nga-ru s‹ei›i irayo
pl+nomz-ask-top I you-dat do‹approb thank
"Thank you for the questions" (lit. "As for the questions, I thank you")

However, a noun phrase is sometimes moved to the front of a clause without it taking the topic case:

Fìswiräti, ngal pelun molunge fìtseng?
"This creature, why do you bring him here?"
fì-swirä-ti nga-ìl pe-lun m‹ol›unge fì-tsenge
this-creature-acc you-erg what-reason bring‹pfv this-place

Since the topical case can only be used with nouns, in order to topicalize a clause, it must be relativized to a dummy noun:

Furia nì'Ìnglìsì pamrel sivi, oeru txoa livu.
"Excuse me for writing in English."
fì-ʼu-ri-a nì-ʼÌnglìsì pam-rel s‹iv›i oe-ru txoa l‹iv›u
this-thing-top-attrib adv-English sound-image make‹sjv I-dat pardon be‹sjv

(Lit. "as for writing in English, may I be forgiven".)

Word order[edit | edit source]

expand 'focus'

Naʼvi constituent order (subject–object–verb order) is syntactically free—that is, it is determined by discourse factors rather than by syntax. The word order within a noun phrase (demonstrative-numeral-adjective-noun etc.) is similarly free. One of the few cases where a set word order is common is that lu tends to come at the beginning of a clause when it is used without a subject to mean "there is", a construction used for "to have": Lu oeru ikran "I have a banshee".

The basic (least marked) order is perhaps subject before object. Moving an argument to the front of a clause can be used to focus on it. For example,

Naʼvil ayyerikit yom "The People eat hexapedes"
Ayyerikit Naʼvil yom "Hexapedes (not direhorses) are eaten by the People"

That is, "hexapedes" are the point of the statement. (Naʼvi does not have a passive voice, which may perform a somewhat similar function in English.) This is the opposite of the topic, which would set the hexapedes up as the background for a following point:

Ayyerikìri, Naʼvil yom "As for hexapedes, the People eat them."

Likewise, moving an argument from where it would be expected at the front of a clause to the end may give it more "punch":

Lu oeru kxetse "I have a tail" (neutral statement)
Ngeyä kxetse lu oeru "Your tail is mine!" (emphasis on mine)

As noted under dative case in the chapter on nouns, the default word order of possession is lu "be" followed by the possessor in the dative, as in lu oeru "I have". Along with context, this helps distinguish who is who in a multiple dative construction:

Lu oeru aylìʼu frapor.
"I have something (= words) to say, to everyone."
lu oe-ru ay-lìʼu fra-po-r
be I-dat pl-word every-one-dat

where frapor "everyone" can be understood to be the recipient because it is not adjacent to the verb.[2]

Another factor in Naʼvi word order is aesthetic. For example, nga yáwne lu oér "I love you" (lit. "you are beloved to me") has the order it does because it is considered the most euphonious.

In proverbs and songs, meter is also a consideration. For example, in the korén aʼáwve tìruséyä ʼawsiténg ("the first rule of living together", AKA the Golden Rule):

Hém ngeyä zénke fkóru livú,
tsáhem a ngáru pŕrteʼ ke lú [note 3]

Clause order[edit | edit source]

This kind of subordinating strategy is common among human fixed-order verb-final languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Turkish. Indeed, though these examples followed the English word order of subordinate clause following the noun it modifies, the human verb-final order of subordinate clause preceding the noun is also possible in Naʼvi:

Tsun oe ngahu nì-Naʼvi pivängkxo a fìʼu oeru prrteʼ lu.
"Itʼs a pleasure to be able to chat with you in Naʼvi."
tsun oe nga-hu nì-Naʼvi p‹iv›ängkxo a fì-ʼu oe-ru prrteʼ lu
be.able I.intr you-with adv-Naʼvi chat‹sjv sbrd this-thing I-dat pleasure? be
(Lit. "this being-able-to-chat-with-you-in-Naʼvi thing is a pleasure to me")

For example, "I didn't see where she was going", po tsane karmä a tsengit ke tsìmeʼa oel above, could also be worded oel tsìmeʼa ke tsengit a po karmä tsane, where po karmä tsane "she was going there" occurs on either side of the object tsengit "place". This contrast can be further seen in the following, where a relative clause is used to nominalize a clause in order for it to form a topic:

Ngal oeyä ʼupxaret aysuteru fpoleʼ a fìʼuri, ngaru irayo seiyi oe nìtxan!
"Thank you very much for sending my message to people!"
nga-l oe-eyä ʼupxare-t ay+tute-ru fp‹ol›eʼ a fì-ʼu-ri nga-ru irayo s‹ei›i oe nì-txan
you-erg I-gen message-acc pl+person-dat send‹pfv sbrd this-thing-top you-dat thank do‹approb I.intr adv-much

or conversely,

Furia ngal oeyä ʼupxaret aysuteru fpoleʼ, ngaru irayo seiyi oe nìtxan!
fì-ʼu-ri-a nga-l oe-eyä ʼupxare-t ay+sute-ru fp‹ol›eʼ nga-ru irayo s‹ei›i oe nì-txan
this-thing-top-sbrd you-erg I-gen message-acc pl+person-dat send‹pfv you-dat thank do‹approb I.intr adv-much

"Because" for the English clause order (verb-X because verb-Y) is either taweyk(a) (from oeyk "cause") or talun(a) (from lun "reason"). With the opposite clause order, the forms switch to aweykta and alunta.

Transitivity[edit | edit source]

Verbs in which transitive and intransitive forms imply different agents are made transitive with the causative infix ‹eyk›. For example, latem means "change", as an object changes by itself, as say the seasons change; if an external agent causes the change, however, the form is l‹eyk›atem. Similarly sngäʼi is "begin" in the sense that something happens on its own, as the rain begins; with an external agent, as in "I began work", the form is sng‹eyk›äʼi. However, with many verbs, transitivity does not imply a change in the acting agent. For example, pey may be either "wait" (intransitive) or "await" (transitive):

Nìaynga oe perey nìteng.
"Like you, I too am waiting."
nì-ay-nga oe p‹er›ey nì-teng
adv-pl-you I wait‹ipfv adv-same
Oe tsun pivey trrit a nga tayìng ayoer(u) nì'ul.
"I can await the day when you will give us more."
oe tsun p‹iv›ey trr-it a nga t‹ay›ìng ay-oe-ru nì-ʼul
I can wait‹sjv day-acc sbrd you give‹fut pl-I-dat adv-more

Here the person waiting is the same, regardless of the transitivity of the verb, so the causative infix is not used.

General action, without any specific object, as in English "I ate too much", is intransitive, whereas an implied but unstated object, as in "he ate some (of it)", is transitive.[note 4] Thus,

Oe taron
"I hunt"
oe taron
I.intr hunt

Here the speaker is merely saying that hunting is an activity that they engage in; this equivalent to such intransitive clauses as "I walk". An overt object, on the other hand, requires that the agent be in the ergative case:

Oel tolaron paʼlit
"I hunted a direhorse"
oe-l t‹ol›aron paʼli-t
I-erg hunt‹pfv direhorse-acc

If, however, the agent is in the ergative case, but there is no expressed object, then an omitted object is understood. So if asked about yerik, the speaker might say,

Taron oel kop.
"I hunt them too"
taron oe-l kop
hunt I-erg as.well

In the case a relative clause removed either the subject or object of a dependent clause, the case of the other, and the transitivity of the dependent verb, are unaffected:

Ikran a tolaron oel tsawl lu nìtxan.
"The banshee I hunted was very big."
ikran a t‹ol›aron oe-l tsawl lu nì-txan
banshee.intr sbrd hunt‹pfv I-erg big be adv-great

Here ikran is in the intransitive case because it is the subject of lu "to be"; however, oel remains in the ergative, since the object is understood from the context: Ikran a tolaron pot oel tsawl lu nìtxan "the banshee which I hunted it was very big".

The ergative case can also be dropped if the object is retain in a non-accusative case, as in a topic:

Tìfyawìntxuri oeyä perey aynga nìwotx.
"You are all waiting for my guidance."
tì-fya-wìntxu-ri oe-yä p‹er›ey ay-nga nì-wotx
nomz-way-show-top I-gen wait‹ipfv pl-you adv-all

With an intransitive verb, the causative simply makes the verb transitive. For example, from po holahaw "he.INTR slept" we get oel h‹eyk›olahaw poti "I.ERG put him.ACC to bed (made him sleep)". However, if the verb is already transitive, its subject (now the 'causee') becomes dative rather than accusative. That is, there may be up to three arguments, in the ergative, dative, and accusative cases. So, from Neytiril yerikit tolaron "Neytiri.ERG hunted a hexapede.ACC, we get:

Eytukanìl Neytiriru yerikit teykolaron.
"Eytukan had Neytiri hunt a hexapede."
eytukan-ìl neytiri-ru yerik-it t‹eyk›‹ol›aron
(name)-erg (name)-dat hexapede-acc hunt‹caus›‹pfv

Not all arguments are required; also, the causee can be included but made more peripheral by putting it in an adpositional phrase:

Eytukanìl yerikit teykolaron.    Also:      Eytukanìl fa Neytiri yerikit teykolaron.
"Eytukan had a hexapede hunted." "Eytukan had a hexapede hunted by Neytiri."
eytukan-ìl yerik-it t‹eyk›‹ol›aron
(name)-erg hexapede-acc hunt‹caus›‹pfv
eytukan-ìl fa neytiri yerik-it t‹eyk›‹ol›aron
(name)-erg by (name) hexapede-acc hunt‹caus›‹pfv

In English, the opposite of a causative is a passive. Naʼvi does not have passives; something like "hexapedes are eaten" would be worded fkol yom ayyerikit "one eats hexapedes", with the pronoun fko "one". The difference between "hexapedes are eaten by the People" and "the People eat hexapedes" is essentially one of word order; since Naʼvi word order is free, it can be changed without having to change the verb or the subject, as noted above.


Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. In both questions, the dative case is used.
  2. For example, "Saw you online and wanted to say hi. Hope everything is fine. Will try to call this week. BTW, Carol finally got in touch with me. Said she's been very busy. Didn't go to India after all. Went to Vegas instead. I can't figure her out. Guess she decided on gambling rather than the guru." Note that "I" and "she" are required when changing from Carol to the speaker and then back to Carol, but otherwise not much bothered with.
  3. Lit., "Your actions must not be to one (= another), those which are not a pleasure to you"
  4. A clause in which an erstwhile transitive verb behaves intransitively, with no argument in the ergative or accusative case, is called an anti-passive.


Syntax · Lexicon
Syntax · Na'vi · Lexicon
  1. Transcribed from sound recording in the New York Times Magazine
  2. Learnnavi-Wiki Canon Dative + copula possessive