Naʼvi nouns are inflected according to the following template:
Gender is optional and uncommon, even for pronouns 'he' and 'she', but number and case are required. There are no articles like "a" or "the", though there is a suffix for "some" that appears before the case ending.
In Naʼvi, plurals are only used if there are at least four objects.
Number Prefix 1 Singular (none) 2 Dual me+ 3 Trial pxe+ 4+ "Plural" ay+ or +
(ay- plus lenition, or just lenition)
Nouns show greater number distinctions than human languages do: besides singular and plural, they not only have special dual forms for two of an item (eyes, hands, lovers, etc.), which are not uncommon in human language (English has a remnant in "both"), but also trial forms for three of an item, which in human languages are only found with pronouns. A plural is more than dual or trial; that is, four or more. For example, in "the wings of a banshee", tsyal "wing" is plural (ikranä syal), because banshees (ikran) have four wings, but in "the wings of a bird", tsyal cannot be plural syal, but only dual mesyal, because birds have only two wings.
When number is unknown, for example when asking how many of something there are, the plural is used, as in English: Q: "How many children do you have?" A: "One." When quantity is specified with a number, then the singular form is used. (See Numbers.) And when number is established, it need not be repeated: Menga lu skxawng "you two are idiots"; aynga lu karyu "y'all are teachers" (plural haryu).
The prefixes trigger lenition, which is indicated in the table above by the "+" signs rather than the hyphens that usually mark prefix boundaries. Trials are not common, but occur for example in pxehilvan "the three rivers" (kilvan "river"). In nouns which undergo lenition, the plural prefix may be dropped, so the plural of tokx "body" may be either aysokx (the "full plural") or sokx (the "short plural"). In the dual and trial, lenition of a glottal stop may result in a sequence of two e's, in which case they contract: ʼeveng "a child", pxeveng "three children".
Naʼvi does not have grammatical gender. However, where desired, masculine individuals may be distinguished by the suffix -an, and feminine ones by -e :
Masculine -an Feminine -e
For example, tsmuk or tsmúktu is "sibling", tsmukán "brother", and tsmuké "sister".
However, gender is not generally used unless there is some reason for distinguishing it.
The suffix -o, which has the role of "some" in the pronouns tuteo "somebody" and ʼuo "something", may be used with other nouns too, as with ketuwong "alien" in,
- Lu ketuwongo nìʼaw.
- "It's just some alien."
Nouns are declined for case depending on their function in the sentence: subject (intr and erg), object (acc), recipient (dat), possessor (gen), and topic (top), like the English pronoun "I, me, my, mine". The case markers each have two to three forms (allomorphs), the distribution of which is somewhat variable:
Case forms full reduced Intransitive (intr) (unmarked) Ergative (erg) -ìl -l Accusative (acc) -it -ti
Genitive (gen) -ä, -yä Dative (dat) -ur -ru
Topical (top) -ìri -ri
Apart from the genitive, which does not follow the pattern of the other cases, the case suffixes have full (vowel-initial) forms after orthographic consonants (consonants, syllabic consonants, and diphthongs), and reduced (consonant-initial) forms after simple vowels. In addition, the accusative and dative cases have short forms in which their final vowel is dropped; this would appear to depend on the rhythm of speech and perhaps formality rather than anything grammatical.
Nouns are not double-marked for case. Attributives do not agree, in case or number, with the nouns they modify, and this holds for possessive pronouns and genitive nouns as much as it does for adjectives. So while "my spear" in citation form is oeyä tukru, in the ergative case it is oeyä tukrul, with only tukru "spear" marked for the ergative.
Subject and object
Core nouns are declined in a tripartite case system, which is quite rare among human languages, though found in Nez Perce. In a tripartite system, there are distinct forms for the object of a clause, as in "Neytiri hunted a hexapede"; the agent of a transitive clause which has such an object, as in "Neytiri hunted a hexapede"; and the argument ("subject") of an intransitive clause, which does not have an object, as in "Neytiri is sleeping". An object is marked with the accusative suffix -it/-t/-ti, and an agent with the ergative suffix -ìl/-l, while an intransitive argument has no case suffix. That is, the ergative and accusative tend to occur as a pair, whereas a single argument has no case inflection. Translating our English examples:
|"Neytiri is sleeping"
|"Neytiri hunted a hexapede"
Neytiril yerikit tolaron
The use of such case forms leaves the word order of Naʼvi largely free, for example, agent-object-verb (AOV) or object-verb-agent (OVA):
|Oeyä tukrul txe'lanit tivakuk
"Let my spear strike the heart"
|Katot täftxu oel
"I weave the rhythm"
When evident from context, the subject need not be stated:
"Oe trram naʼrìng-mì tarmok. Tsoleʼa syetute-t.
"Yesterday I was in the forest, saw a Trapper".
A genitive case in -ä/-yä can be seen in oeyä tukru "my spear" above. English expresses the genitive with either -'s (the pianist's hands) or with of (the hands of the clock). Unlike the other cases, the genitive shows the relationship of nouns to each other, rather than between a noun and a verb. Although sometimes called a "possessive", the genitive has a broader range of use than actual possession:
|Naʼviyä luyu hapxì||kifkeyit Eywaʼevengä|
|"You are part of the People"||"the world of Pandora"|
Multiple genitives may occur, one after the other, as in
- holpxay ayzekwäyä feyä
- "the number of their fingers"
- Aylìʼufa awngeyä ʼeylanä aʼewan
- "In the words of our young friend"
Note that they do not occur in any particular order.
The dative is prototypically used for giving something to someone, marking a recipient, or doing something for someone, marking a benefactor:
Nga Naʼviru yomtìyìng
"You will feed the people"
More generally, it is used for the direction or endpoint of an action, as in poru tìng-nari "look at him". However, it is also used in situations, so-called dative constructions, where an English speaker might not expect it:
|Oeru txoa livu.
|Ngaru lu fpom srak?
"Hello, how are you?"
|(Literally, "May there be forgiveness for me"
= "May I have forgiveness")
|(Literally, "Is there well-being for you?"|
= "Do you have well-being?")
Such constructions contain verbs such as lu "be" that involve little overt action, including more concrete concepts of having. When one has something for someone, a double dative is used:
- Lu oeru aylìʼu frapor.
- "I have something (= words) to say, to everyone."
Note that word order and context help clarify who has something to say to whom: lu oeru "I have" is the default word order for a possessive dative, in contrast to the recipient dative frapor. (See Word order in the chapter on Syntax.)
The dative is also used with objects/recipients of 'do' + noun constructions and causative verbs, which will be covered in the chapter on Verbs. That is, whereas in English one assists someone (accusative), in Naʼvi fko si srung tuteoru one does assistance to someone (dative).
The topic and the topical case
A topic indicates the background context of a clause, and the topic marker -ri/-ìri is somewhat equivalent to (though much more common than) English "as for", "concerning", "regarding", etc. Topics are not grammatically required but are used to structure the presentation of what one has to say. The topic marker preempts the case of the noun: that is, when a noun is made topical, it takes the -ri/-ìri suffix rather than the case suffix one would expect from its grammatical role. For example, in,
- Oeri ontu teya längu
- "My nose is full [of his distasteful smell]",
since the topic is "I", the subject "nose" is associated with "me": That is, it's understood to be "my nose" without stating that explicitly.[note 3] Note that "nose" itself is unmarked for case, as it's the subject of the intransitive verb "to be".
Such a topic-comment structure sets up the background of the sentence, what the speaker intends to speak about with the rest. (Thus the term 'topic-comment': what the speaker intends to talk about, followed by what s/he has to say about it.) This construction takes some of the pressure off of the case system, with the result that not too many nouns need to be marked with the same case:
- Sìpawmìri oe ngaru seiyi irayo
- "Thank you for the questions" (lit. "As for the questions, I thank you")
As with other cases, -ìri is restricted to the noun at the base of the noun phrase, regardless of the word order of that phrase:
- Lìʼfyari leNaʼvi ʼRrtamì, vay set ʼalmong a fraʼu zeraʼu ta ngrrpongu.
lìʼfya-ìri le-naʼvi ʼRrta-mì vay set ʼ‹alm›ong a fra-ʼu z‹er›aʼu ta ngrr-pongu language-top adj-people Earth-in until now unfold‹past.pfv› sbrd every-thing come‹ipfv› from root-group
- "Everything that has gone on with Naʼvi until now on Earth has come from a grassroots movement."
- (lit. "As for the Naʼvi language on Earth, everything that until now has unfolded comes from a base group")
Here the word lìʼfya "language" is modified by leNaʼvi "Naʼvi" and ʼRrtamì "on Earth", yet the suffix appears on that first word.[note 4]
This -ìri can also behave as a more typical case, linking the noun phrase to the verb, rather than setting up a topic as an introduction for the rest of the clause to comment on:
- Pxan livu txo nìʼaw oe ngari
- "Only if I am worthy of you" (lit. "Only if I be worthy in regard to you")
- Ngaru seiyi oe irayo ngeyä pxesìpawmìri
nga-ru s‹ei›i oe irayo ng[e]-yä pxe+tì-pawm-ìri you-dat do‹approb› I thank you-gen tri+nomz-question-top
- "I thank you for (in regards to) your three questions"
The absolutive form of a noun is an unmarked case form. In Naʼvi, both the intransitive subject and the citation (dictionary) form are unmarked. However, the absolutive is also used after a preposition, as after ne "to" in kä ne kelku (also kä kelkune) "go home";[note 5] and it occurs when a noun stands in parallel (in apposition) to another, regardless of the case of the other noun. For example, in ʼeylanur awngeyä Peyral "to our friend Beyral", ʼeylan "friend" but not Peyral takes the dative case; compare awngeyä Peyralur "to our Beyral".
Except for the genitive, which is discussed below, and the "long" accusative, which is invariable, all case suffixes have a full form which begins with a vowel, and a reduced form in which that vowel is dropped. The full form is found after consonants and syllabic consonants, and the reduced form is found after simple vowels. Diphthongs take the shortest form that is syllabic; in the case of the dative, that means either the full of reduced form, -ur or -ru.[note 6]
Case form distribution (apart from gen) Case forms erg short acc long acc dat top full form after
tìngayìl kifkeyit payti payur
payri reduced form
after pure vowel
swiräti naʼviru lìʼfyari
The difference between the long and short forms of the accusative would appear to be one of register rather than of grammar. For instance, a quick response to the greeting oel ngati kameie "I See you", with the long form of the accusative, is kame ngat, with the short form.[note 7] However, it may also provide for euphony, for example in aylìʼut horentisì "the words and rules (ACC)", from lìʼu "word" and koren "rule".
The dative also has a long and short form, though apparently only on pronouns. For instance "to me" may be either oeru or oer, and "to them" foru or for.
There are a few exceptions to this pattern. Kemri "rule.top" is given as an alternate of kemìri in a proverb, where meter may play a role, just as sì "and" and lu "be" may be reduced to s and l before a vowel in song, without that being a general rule of the grammar. A colloquial contraction of tsaʼu "that", tsaw, has case forms acc tsawt and top tsawri, but these may just be retentions of the forms of the full words, tsaʼut and tsaʼuri, where they are regular.
The forms of the genitive pattern somewhat differently, and here it is an initial consonant of the suffix which drops. Nouns which end in a simple front or central vowel, i, ì, e, ä, a, take the suffix -yä, as in
- aymokriyä of voices, tsawkeyä of the sun, ayzekwäyä of fingers, tompayä of the rain,
but the suffix -ä appears after consonants, syllabic consonants, diphthongs, and the back/rounded vowels u, o:
- ayzìsìtä of the years, txonä of the night, trrä of the day, kifkeyä of the world, fìlìʼuä of this word.
Changes in the noun stem occur in some nouns; in addition, the final a or o vowel of pronouns changes to e when genitive -yä is added:
- ngeyä your (from nga), feyä their (from fo).
Naʼvi does not have a case suffix for nouns used to address someone, a function called the vocative, but instead use a particle ma, which occurs before the name or term of address: Ma Neytiri, herahaw srak? "Neytiri, are you sleeping?", rather like archaic or poetic "O!" in English. It occurs before the noun phrase, and is never suffixed: Ma oeyä ʼeylan! "My friend!"; ma smukan sì smuke "O brothers and sisters", ftu oe neto rikx, ma skxawng! "Get away from me, moron!".
Ma is obligatory with people and Eywa (God), but optional with animals. For example, it is used ceremonially with animals one has killed in a hunt,[note 8] but may be omitted when talking to one's paʼli (horse). It may thus indicate a degree of politeness vs. intimacy.
With collective nouns, such Naʼvi "the People" and tsampongu "war party", in which the singular form is used for multiple people, a collective vocative suffix -ya is found as an alternative for ma: Mawey, naʼviya, mawey! "Calm, people, calm!"; frapoya! "(hey) everybody!".
It is not clear if Naʼvi has a regular system of diminutives, but there are some compounds with hìʼi "little, small" that have this function. For example, tanhì "star" appears to derive from atan "light" and hìʼi, and hìʼang "bug" appears to be similarly derived from ioang "animal". The words for "son" and "daughter", ʼitan and ʼite, are based on a different root: they are the masculine and feminine derivations of ʼit "a little, a bit".
Affectionate terms would appear to not be related. "Mommy" and "daddy" are saʼnu and sempu, short for saʼnok "mother" and sempul "father".
- See the appendix for an explanation of the glossing conventions used in these examples.
- Nga is in the intransitive case because there is no object to the verb—or rather, because the semantic object is incorporated into the verb, which thus becomes intransitive. With a simple verb tìng "to give", nga would become ergative: Ngal naʼviru syuvet tìyìng "you will give food to the People".
- Compare oeyä tukru "my spear" above.
- The rest of the sentence will be explained in the remainder of this book.
- Note that this is not the case in English, where the pronoun in "by/from/for me" is in the accusative/dative case.
- The demonstrative pronoun tsaw is an exception, with tsawl, tsawt, and tsawr, possibly because it is a contraction of tsaʼu, where these would be the expected case forms after u.
- Indeed, in the film, when the elders Eytukan and Moʼat speak to a public audience, they use the long -ti form of the accusative.
- Ma tsmukan, oeru txoa livu "my brother, forgive me"
- How to speak 'Avatar', MSNBC, 2009 Dec 30
- "Do You Speak Na'vi? Giving Voice To 'Avatar' Aliens". NPR, 2009 Dec. 15