na’vi – paul frommer talks …

December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

okay so if you are not avatar-ed out here’s a little interview with Frommer from nightline


na’vi, number and yoda’s hands

December 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Further adventures in xenolinguistics … well if we can have xenoanthropologists why not linguists … we can take the old debate about the primacy of language over culture and vice versa to a whole different planet!

The good news though, is that indeed there is a learn Na’vi site which appears to be either made or endorsed by Paul Frommer, though curiously much of it reads like the Wikipedia entry …

One element of the material presented in the Wikipedia entry and in a pdf document associated with the website above is the Na’vi number system.

As the Na’vi have four digits per hand, they have a base-eight number system. Only a few numbers are attested

  • ‘aw               1
  • mune          2
  • tsìng            4
  • vofu            16
  • tsìvol          32

From this it would appear that the root for four is tsì, for 8 is vo, and that 32 is “4 eights”      Karyu Amawey

Aside from the fact, that we would need to resolve whether vofu can  be interpreted then as bimorphemic  8x? (we may not be able to make a connection between the remaining -vu and mune, ‘2’). I like the idea that the number is based on the Na’vi body. This is a very cognitive view of the origin of the number system.  many (human) speech communities have based their numeration system on the body. It has been argued (though disputed) that the roman numeral V is a representation of the human hand with fingers spread wide apart, for example, but more concrete evidence comes from languages like the Mayan family where a base-twenty system is used – the number of fingers and toes a human possesses.  There are traces of this vigesimal counting system in French, where the numbers 80-99 are made up of (4×20)+N, where N<20. For example, 91, quatre-vingt-onze is four (times) twenty (plus) eleven.

The Na’vi hand has four digits we are told – some human languages have a base-four number system. A number of languages of eastern Papua New Guinea have a system which uses some kind of operation like French so that five is four plus one etc. Some have argued that these quaternary systems are also based on the human body, four being the number of fingers if we exclude the thumb.

My own experience of collecting data from a language of this area, however, had a very different explanation. The word for four was homophonous for the word for ‘dog’, a very salient animal in the culture (alongside the fruitbat). Our informant suggested that the Use of dog for four was because of the four legs. ‘Eight’ was enumerated as two dogs; ‘eleven’ two dogs plus three.

Speaking of three:

This alien, our good friend Yoda, three fingers he has.  We might imagine then that some alien cultures would have developed a base-three or base-six counting system. I, however, can find no reference to a human language with a ternary number system.

na’vi grammar wikipedia-ed already

December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Ok so my prediction sort of came true. While there is no dedicated site I can find, Na’vi has been wikipedia-ed. What? Sure that is a verb.
So apart from the plain versus ejective stop contrasts, the phonology of Na’vi is pretty straightforward, though with nice complexities in the positioning of fricatives. The vowels though are interesting. There is an asymmetrical vowel system with four heights at the front and three at the back, with front _e_ and back /o/ not quite at the same height. The low CAT vowel is the front counterpart to the BARD vowel.
What is super exciting … to the artificial language grammar geeks, mind, is the tripartite case system. Not nominative accusative, not ergative- abosolutive, but a mixed case system. That is, the AGENT of a transitive clause – one where the verb has an object, has a case marker, which fancy linguists call ergative. The object receives a marker too, a different one, called accusative case. It is accusative case because it is specifically for objects. In a truly ergative language, objects of transitives and subjects of intransitives (verbs that don’t have objects) are marked the same way. In Na’vi this does not obtain (classic syntax speak!) as the subject of intransitive does not receive a marker at all, and so might best be described as nominative. Confused? Consider these examples from English

a. Jack patted the dog.
b. Jack yawned

If we wanted to replace Jack with a pronoun in both sentences we would choose he becuase as a nominative accusative language, our idea of subjecthood doesn’t care about the presence or absence of objects.  If English was an ergative language, the pronouns for Jack would be different because in the first example Jack is doing something to some other thing, while in the second Jack is simply doing something. The first Jack replacement  pronoun would be an ergative one, and the second would be an absolutive one. In ergative languages, usually there is a distinct marker for ergative subjects, and absolutive ones go unmarked.   To make it truly ergative though, if we replace the dog with a pronoun, and all things being equal, i.e. , it’s a male dog, then the pronoun which replaces the dog would be the same as the one that replaces yawning Jack.

Having a tripartite case system this doesn’t happen in Na’vi.  Instead there are three different pronouns. An ergative pronoun for patting Jack, an accusative pronoun for the patted dog, and an unmarked pronoun for yawning Jack. This is a prett rare case system in human languages, perhaps most well-known in a couple of Australian languages, I think. I guess for the creator of Na’vi this was a real marker of difference for his alien language.

Now, I wonder how long before Na’vi rappers appear on youtube?

skxawng, you moron! Or is it skxaung?

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

So, a new artificial language makes its way to the front of the stage. James Hamilton’s new blockbuster movie, Avatar has a language for the linguistics-sci-fi crossover crowd. This one, called Na’vi was created by Paul Frommer from the Unversity of Southern California,

Because linguistics is so glamorous, even Vanity Fair wanted to interview him. You can read it here. It is particularly interesting to see the quip about the Klingon language and the Klingon Language Institute. Citing it as a benchmark in artificial language construction, he is aiming for that kind of success. I’m expecting to find a link to a Na’vi language wiki any day now.
Incidentally, this part of the interview made me cringe.

How many languages do you speak fluently?

One. But I have various competencies in other languages. Probably Persian is my best, although it’s a little rusty at this point. I was in Iran in the mid ’70s, so it was a long time ago.

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that one … my answer is similar … One. Gibberish.

Here’s an interview with Frommer from Radio New Zealand in which he does a good job teaching the ejectives.

new word of the day

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

often spelled non-troversy

Okay so I am behind the times. The word’s been around since at least 1997 but seems to have increased in frequency since the mid 200s. It seems a nontroversy is an event that is hyped to be controversial but actually isn’t. The media and politicains are accused of creating nontroversies for their own gain. Many seem to cite the publishing fetishisation of celebrity as a continual source of nontraversial topics.

Speaking of wordy types – wordnerds, here is an interesting site to play around with and even join! Wordnik tracks new words and allows you to comment on them. Definitions are given but the examples and the presentation of cotext allows you to examine usage in more detail.

Here’s their definition of nontroversy:

December 10, 2009
Today’s word of the day is nontroversy, an event or occurrence that is seen as controversial by some people but not by others. It’s primarily colloquial or slang (thus the abundant uses in social messaging) and is used mainly by those who believe something that is being called a scandal or an outrage is really a non-issue. It’s formed from non- plus (c)ontroversy

a perfect syllabary?

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

A while ago, I posted some artwork based on Braille. These works presented English in a Braille system.  Braille has been put to use for a great deal of languages, but it seems to me that the Japanese Braille syllabary is remarkable in its elegance.

Looking closely we can see that there are close relationships between the signs for syllables that share a vowel. Look how /ku/, /su/, and /hu/ all share the upper two dots of the cell which we can understand as the vowel /u/. Likewise, syllables that share a consonant phoneme in the onset (prevocalic position) also share a similarity. For example the /s/ phoneme is represented in the Braille orthography as the middle and bottom dots of the right column of a Braille cell. These dots are combined with the appropriate vowel dots to create the syllable.

If we take the system with a focus on the consonant and understand the representation of each syllable, i.e., /ke/ , /ka/, etc as modifying a basic consonant sign, then perhaps Braille for Japanese qualifies as an abugida or alphasyllabary. Many languages of Ethiopia  use the abugida script originally used in Ge’ez the classical of that area, and whose  first four syllables create the name of the phenomenon. The writing systems of many South Asian languages are also abugidas.  Abugidas contrast with syllabaries, where in the latter, there is no visual relationship between signs for syllables that share similar phonological forms. That is, syllables that share a consonant such as /pa/ and /pe/ or a vowel, /pe/ and /ke/ will not share features in the script.

The Ge’ez abugida

Note the shared basic shape of signs across each column.

‘ and ” and alien linguistics

December 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Perhaps the dream job of many linguistics graduates would be behind the scenes on a sci-fi TV series. It seems that some contemplation of alien linguistics has become de rigueur for this genre. Not to be outdone by the Trekkies, Stargate fans too are trying their hand at documentary linguistics. Apparently, the Goa’uld, the baddies of the series, who are parasites that can control their host, rule huge chunks of the universe, and appear to prefer masquerading as gods as their means of control.
The stargate wiki has some interesting information about the language as well as a dictionary. (I have yet to hear an announcement of the formation of a Goa’uld Language Institute)

Two things caught my attention in the wiki. The authors suggest evidence of language contact in the lexicon of the Goa’uld language. They have incorporated words into their language from the language of the Unas their original hosts on their home planet before they discovered the stargate and burst out into the universe. Of earthly languages,  the wiki suggests Mayan, Latin, Arabic and above all Egyptian as sources of borrowing or influence. The written form of the language uses hieroglyphs which makes sense as they posed as Egyptian gods.

Other dialects were apparently written in Linear A and B!

The other things that struck me about the Goa’uld is my assumpthin that  here represents the glottal stop. For English speakers the glottal stop seems to be an easy and formulaic way of exoticising language. The presence of this extremely mundane consonant which has a minor role in the phonology of English, is some kinds of linguistic shorthand for strange and foreign. One wonders whether it is because in lay terms it might be characterised as a sound without sound or simply because the apostrophe is an unexpected device for representing phonology rather than punctuation, just as in what I would call the heavy metal umlaut. Readers familiar with German orthography will now what I am talking about. I refer to the diaeresis or double dots placed above certain vowels graphemes in that language to distinguish separate vowel phonemes. The symbol _ä_ represents a sound distinct from _a_. The heavy metal genre seems to have adopted the diaeresis as a distinctive marker i.e. Motörhead, .- if you see a band title with it you know they are metal … well except for Björk … hers are necessary.

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