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?


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