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.


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