A Taste of Na’vi Grammar
This page is a bird’s eye view of Na’vi grammar. It’s just to give you a feel for how Na’vi works, focusing on things that are probably unusual to most readers. It will not teach you the language. If you want to learn more you should check out the many resources offered here at LearnNavi.org
In English, we mark the role a noun is playing in a sentence by word order. A sentence like a dog bites the man is quite a different state of affairs from the man bites a dog. In Na’vi, the role a noun or pronoun plays in the sentence is marked by changing the ending of the word rather than by word order.
Frìp tutet nantangìl.
Tutet nantangìl frìp.
Each of the sentences above mean the same thing, a viperwolf bites the person. We know this because the subject of each sentence, the viperwolf (nantang), is marked with the ending -ìl; and the direct object, the person (tute) is marked with the ending -t.
These endings, called “cases,” are fairly common in Human languages, too. What is more unusual, though, is that in Na’vi the subject of a transitive verb, such as frìp to bite, is marked differently than the subject of an intransitive verb, such as hahaw to sleep.
Nantang hahaw. The viperwolf sleeps.
Here you will notice that the subject of an intransitive verb gets no ending at all. In Human languages, this separate marking of transitive subjects, intransitive subjects and direct objects is quite rare, and is known as a tripartite case alignment.
There are other case endings for different syntactic roles in Na’vi, for possession, for indirect objects and for topics. The forms of the endings change according to both fixed sound rules and style. See one of the fuller references for all the forms that can appear.
Dual, Trial and Plural
In English, nouns and pronouns can be either singular (house, dog, I) or plural (houses, dogs, we). Na’vi has these, but also has the dual for when there are two of something and the trial for when there are three. Plenty of Human languages have a dual (even English once had dual pronouns), but the trial is rarer.
In Na’vi these changes in number are marked with prefixes.
Menantang hahaw. Two viperwolves are sleeping.
Pxenantang hahaw. Three viperwolves are sleeping.
Aynantang hahaw. Viperwolves (four or more) are sleeping.
Certain consonants undergo a change called “lenition” when they follow a number prefix. For example, the word tute person becomes mesute in the dual, with the t at the beginning of the word becoming s from lenition. When a word takes the plural prefix ay- and starts with consonant that can take lenition, the plural prefix can be dropped, leaving only the consonant change to let you know the word is plural. So, the plural of person can be aysute, but is far more often simply sute.
Pronouns as well as nouns distinguish dual, trial and plural forms:
There is an additional subtlety in the first person non-singular pronouns, we. Na’vi distinguishes inclusive we – me and you from exclusive we – me and some other people but not you. So for example, the dual inclusive form is oeng me and you and the exclusive is moe we two (but not you).
The verb is perhaps the most complex part of Na’vi grammar, not only because of the different ways its meaning can be extended, changed and refined, but also because the form these changes take: infixes. Rather than adding to the beginning or end of words, such as the noun case and number markers, Na’vi verbs get syllables inserted into them to express different grammatical ideas and to extend the meaning of the verb. For clarification, infixes can be highlighted with angled brackets around them, as in, for example, ‹ìm›, the near past marker.
Na’vi verbs can be marked for tense, which will be very familiar to speakers of European languages, including English. What is less familiar to anyone who hasn’t studied, say, Native American Indian languages, is that Na’vi doesn’t simply mark past and future, but distinguishes the recent past from the general past, and the near from the general future.
Po k‹ay›ä. He will go.
Oe p‹ìm›ähem. I just arrived.
Fo p‹am›ähem. They arrived.
Na’vi makes another distinction in the future tense: intent. If the speaker wishes to say that they have a definite intent to bring about a state of affairs, slightly different future forms with an s are used.
In addition to the tense infixes there are aspect infixes. Verb aspect will be unfamilar to most readers, but has to do with how an action is presented in relation to other events. The imperfective aspect is used to describe an action that is ongoing, while the perfect presents an act as a complete whole. Typically, the imperfective, ‹er›, sets the background scene in a narrative, and the perfective, ‹ol›, presents snapshots of events taking place against that background. Na’vi is much more likely to mark aspect than tense.
When he was walking in the forest, he saw a viperwolf.
If both tense and aspect need to be mentioned Na’vi has blended affixes which combine tense and aspect marking, such as ‹alm› for the past perfective. There are quite a few of these blends. Fortunately, the full complement of tense and aspect infixes will rarely be seen in a verb. Once a tense, aspect or affect has been established, there is no need to keep repeating the marking on subsequent verbs.
Na’vi also has a set of infixes which mark how the speaker feels about the state of affairs they are describing. For example, the infix ‹ei› indicates the speaker feels good about what they’re saying, while ‹äng› means they’re unhappy.
Kxawm oe harmah‹äng›aw. Maybe I was sleeping (and am unhappy about that)
The same position used for these affect infixes is also used for markers of evidence and formality. For the full rules about which sort of infixes go where, and what they do, please see one of the larger references.
Free Word Order
As hinted at in the discussion on noun cases, Na’vi word order can be very free because the case endings let us know who’s doing what to whom. Since word order isn’t needed for syntax, Na’vi uses it for style and emphasis. For example, Frommer has said that the end of the sentence is “where the ‘punch’ is,” making it like English and Latin in putting emphasis at the end of a phrase.
However, though the order of subjects, verbs and objects is free, within noun phrases Na’vi word order is more strict. For example, an adjective that’s modifying a noun has to stay right next to the noun, to which it is connected by attaching an a to the adjective on the side closest to the noun.
Tse’a tsawla tutet oel. I see a large person.
Although we can shuffle around oel and tse’a, the words tsawl large and tute person must stay next to each other. If we want to say a very large person we must make sure that very does not intrude between the noun and adjective.