Friday fun: Learning Na’vi for your Avatar
Na'vi is the language spoken by the fictional aliens in the currently very popular movie Avatar. Even though it's “just a movie”, Na'vi is an “actual” (constructed) language. It has vocabulary and grammar and was developed by linguist Paul Frommer. He's hoping it will become the new “Klingon” of movie languages.
Since the whole point of this blog is to show you how any language can be learned very quickly, I am taking it a step further today and claiming that even an alien language can be learned in no time if you have the right approach and attitude (presuming we are physiologically capable of pronouncing the words, which luckily we are for Na'vi!!)
I'll be simplifying and clarifying the information on the Wikipedia article about Na'vi, and re-stating it and filtering it for non-linguists. After studying the article and related links for just an hour, I watched the movie a second time and actually did understand several things being said without relying on the subtitles!
For the rest of this article I will presume that you are ready to enter your Avatar and join the Omaticaya clan on the life-sustaining moon deep in space known as Pandora.
Na'vi for dummies
So, you've decided to move to Pandora! If you are among the lucky few that has had their genome sequenced and combined with the Na'vi natives so that you can become a “driver” of this amazing 3m tall blue humanoid and live in the forest among the Na'vi tribe for the rest of your life, good for you!
However, to really get the best out of your experience, don't be a typical English-speaking skyperson! You should learn the Na'vi language. 🙂 It's true that some Na'vi in the Omaticaya tribe have already learned some English, but to really immerse yourself in that world you absolutely must learn their language! At first, some of them may prefer to talk to you in English, since the Na'vi get frustrated easily, but there are ways to convince them to always talk to you in their beautiful language!
In this article I'll give you some tips on how to look at the language, and how to start learning it, to greater improve your chances of eventually becoming a man or a woman in the second birth ritual and become truly accepted by the people.
They may be a primitive tribe with limited technological capabilities, but don't let that fool you into thinking the language will be easy! It has a very complex grammar system, including case declensions (genetive, dative etc.), and an entirely new set of vocabulary to learn! But don't worry, if you start learning this language with the right attitude, you can master it very quickly!!
Even a complex language can be easy!
If you look at Na'vi from the right perspective, you won't get discouraged by it's grammar and vocabulary. My research tells me that the case declensions are extremely consistent. I found Czech's 7 cases were not that bad once you see the patterns, and Na'vi has much simpler patterns that you'll master very quickly!
To give one example; the accusative only has 3 possibilities: -it, -t, -ti and these only change depending on the letters surrounding them in consistent ways. So, if you wanted to say a nice typical beginner phrase like “Let my spear strike the heart”, heart is in the accusative case. Heart is txe’lan, but in the accusative it becomes txe’lanit. So the entire phrase would be “Oeyä tukrul txe'lanit tivakuk“.
Now, I know some of you may be quite intimidated by a strange looking phrase like that, but don't worry! It will all come naturally very quickly 🙂 Since the Na'vi haven't developed writing systems yet, you are very lucky that you do not need to learn how to read strange alien symbols (although even if you did, that would only take a few hours if you did it right), and our earth linguists have devised a very straightforward way of reading and writing Na'vi using the Latin alphabet we all know and love!
You can actually read it pretty much as you would read English, with just some slight exceptions; for example, an x after a letter is not pronounced as in English, but represents an “ejective consonant” for the preceding letter. For the early stages, all you need to do is have a very slight pause whenever you see this x and you will be close enough! For example, if some clumsy child steps on your tail, you can say skxáwng! (moron/idiot!) as sk'awng. Easy isn't it!
Na'vi isn't a tonal language, so you can raise your voice and shout teasing exclamations at your skxáwng friend who can't mount his Pa'li (horse), in the same tones as you would in English! Although it's also important to learn that in Na'vi we use an infix syllable to represent the attitude of the speaker (positive, negative or formal).
A useful example of this is Oél ngáti kámeie, which is of course the famous and beautiful greeting “I see you“. “Káme” is to “see” (not a direct translation, but deeper, since you also see into/understand a person), so when you greet someone, you are obviously glad to see them, so you add the positive attitude affix ei to give the word kámeie. You can do this with all verbs; after a short time you get used to it and wonder why we don't do it in English!
As far as vocabulary goes, you can use image based memory techniques to learn many words very quickly! You'll also be glad to hear that Na'vi can borrow foreign words, so you already speak some before starting! For example kunsìp is “gunship” and toktor is “doctor”. And you thought this was going to be hard!
Similarity to Earthly languages
The good news for those of you who already speak languages is that you will have given yourself a head start over monolingual English speakers! Here are a few examples of commonalities:
- This can also use the x writing system, for altering the previous consonant, however it's only necessary on unconfigured computers. So cxu, and sxtatas are actually ways of writing ĉu and ŝatas (pronounced chu & shatas respectively). This certainly helped me to see past the ‘x' as an unpronounced letter at first.
- Word order is completely flexible! This is great news for those of you sick with remembering if you have to put the verb at the end or not in hard Earth languages. Since Na'vi uses cases (like the Accusative mentioned above), you can pretty much put your words in any order you like and it will be a fully correct sentence (as in Esperanto)
- Although the grammar is more complex than Asian languages, if you speak Thai (or Portuguese/French) you have one of the few sounds difficult to some English speakers already. The nasal sound (ã in Portuguese, on in French, ง in Thai) is very common in Na'vi and can start sentences, unlike in English. Those speaking those languages, especially Thai, will be better equipped to start words with this sound. This is written as “ng” (and as the sound we have in words like sing), but starts words like “nga” (you), which can be used in a phrase like Txo new nga rivey, oehu! (Come with me if you want to live!), always a nice icebreaker when meeting a stranger being charged at by a Angtsìk (rhino-like beast).
IRISH/GERMAN/GREEK/SLAVIC and many other languages
- It may take some getting used to for those unfamiliar with cases like the Genetive, but those who have learned languages that use them will be in for a treat! As I mentioned above, the rules for applying them are much more consistent and simpler and it is believed that they have no exceptions, unlike Earth-based equivalents. You never have to learn a new word, you just have to apply the common affix to the word.
SPANISH/ITALIAN/Other romance languages
- Double negatives! You never have nothing to fear when you don't have no time to not go nowhere to not learn no double negatives!! If you speak these languages you are already familiar with them! So fiketuwong ke nayume ke'u is This alien will learn nothing (ke is not and ke'u is nothing).
Other important tips
The ‘r' in Na'vi is rolled, so you should work on that as well as generally getting rid of your English accent.
Even though lots of Na'vi speak English, you should try to stop speaking English as soon as possible, or you may never improve your level. This would lead to you never being accepted among the people, since chants in Na'vi are necessary for rituals such as giving thanks to Eywa for the body of an animal you just hunted (although I'm a vegetarian, I have ways to convince this other culture to accept my alien eating habits!)
Make sure you have a good plan of action for learning the language, and you will easily achieve fluency in no time! Don't get too daunted by the huge task ahead of you; have mini-goals to be proud of your achievements and you will be confused for a native in no time!
Make sure to leave comments to give other tips to those wanting to learn this language, or share your story of your dreams of being a permanent resident of Pandora. When you learn a foreign language you are always one step closer to your travel dreams 🙂 Iráyo (thank you) for reading!
Kìyeváme!! (Bye, see you soon!)