Reef Na’vi part 1: Phonetics and Phonology

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Reef Na'vi part 1: Phonetics and Phonology
Posted on January 8, 2023 by Pawl

Kxì nìmun, ma frapo! Sìlpey oe, ayngari fìzìsìt alu °3747 sngilvä'i nìltsan.

It's finally time for us to start talking in detail about RN, the Reef Na'vi dialect heard for the first time in TWOW. (So far I've been referring to RN vs. FN, "Forest Na'vi," but at times I'll switch to the proper Na'vi names and abbreviations for these dialects, Lì'fya Na'rìngä (LN) vs. Lì'fya Wionä (LW).)

This post will be about the LW sound system. Later we'll talk about the differences in LW morphology, syntax, and semantics as compared to LN.

First, however, let me mention a few things in general about dialects.

In common usage, "dialect" is often a pejorative term. ("I speak proper English" or French or Spanish or German or Chinese . . . ; "You speak a dialect.") That's not how linguists use the word. For us, "dialect" simply means a variety of a language. In that sense, we all speak a dialect. Dialects often correlate with geography. In the case of English, we have, broadly speaking, American English, British English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Indian English . . . all different "Englishes." And of course there are dialects within dialects. Dialects can also be based on ethnicity, on social class, on generation, even on occupation. Dialectology is a rich subfield of linguistics in which you can take whole courses.

Are all dialects of a language equal? Yes and no. Yes, in that they're all rule-governed systems of communication, all equally valid, all worthy of study. No, in that although there may be no objective reasons for saying one dialect is "better" than another, people's attitudes about dialects can be judgmental. In some societies, a particular dialect, referred to as standard, can have prestige and high status, and is generally considered correct, proper, and desirable. Other dialects might be the opposite, with stigma and low status. It's important to keep in mind that such societal judgments have nothing to do with the intrinsic merits of the dialects themselves! They arise from history, from social hierarchies, and from attitudes passed on from generation to generation.

Finally, how do different dialects develop in the first place? The most frequent way is based on the following observations:

  • Living languages are constantly changing.
  • Language change is in general unpredictable.
  • When speakers of the same language divide into groups and locate in different places, with reduced communication between the groups, their language continues to change, but not necessarily in parallel ways.
  • In such a situation, we wind up with different dialects. If the differences become great enough so that there's no longer mutual comprehension, we say we now have two different languages rather than two dialects of the same language.

What I've mentioned above is just the barest outline of a complicated subject, and there's a lot more to say. But cutting to the chase, how does all of this relate to the situation on Pandora?

What we now know is that there are different dialects of the Na'vi language there. We have a LOT more information on one of these, LN, but we're beginning to learn something about another dialect, LW. There's no reason to believe that one or the other of these is considered "standard," but our focus will continue to be on LN, simply because that's the dialect we first met and the one we know the most about. Nevertheless, we'll explore, to the extent we can, what LW is like and how it differs from LN, keeping in mind that since these two dialects are mutually comprehensible, the differences won't be too great.

Thinking historically, a crucial assumption we'll make is that LN and LW stem from the same parent language spoken by both groups in the past (just how far in the past is as yet unknown); when the groups separated, their languages began to separate as well. LN preserved certain things from the parent language and changed others; the same is true for LW. But each language variety preserved and changed different things.

Whew! That was a lot of introduction! But I hope it helps you see the big picture before we dive into the details. Alaksi srak? Here we go!

Phonetic/Phonological characteristics of Reef Na'vi

The combination sy is pronounced sh ( [ ʃ ] in IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet).

LN                                LW
syaw                            shaw                'call'
tsìsyì                            tsìshì                'whisper'

The combination tsy is pronounced like the ch in "church" (IPA  [tʃ ] ):

Some of you guessed this already. 🙂

LN                  LW
tsyal                chal                'wing'
tsyeytsyìp      cheychìp          'tiny bite'

The glottal stop is lost between non-identical vowels. Between identical vowels, the loss is optional.

LN                  LW
fra'u                frau                'everything'
Lo'ak              Loak                'Lo'ak'
rä'ä                  rää OR rä'ä    'do not'

(Note that this can happen as well in colloquial LN, where, for example, Lo'ak and Mo'at are often pronounced Loak and Moat respectively.)

In the case of two identical vowels, the missing tìftang does not cause the vowels to coalesce into one; we retain them both in the spelling. So in LW it's rää, rììr, and meem rather than , rìr, and mem. These are pronounced not as one long vowel but as two vowels, which is made clear by intonation—or some might say, by tone. (Think of saying "Aha!" in English but leaving out the h.)

And now it gets interesting! 🙂

At the beginning of a syllable (and therefore at the beginning of a word), the ejectives px, tx, and kx are pronounced b, d, and g respectively.

LN                    LW
txon                don                  'night'
holpxay          holbay            'number'
kxitx                gitx                  'death'
skxawng        skxawng          'moron'  (no change)

Note that this sound change is a "surfacy" one. That is to say, a word like don is underlyingly txon, with the ejective. Other phonological rules apply to this underlying form. In particular, lenition applies to it, which results (at an intermediate stage!) in the familiar singular / short plural pair txon / ton. After that rule has applied, the tx-to-d change takes place, so the pair in LW winds up being pronounced don (sg.) / ton (pl.).

U vs. Ù.

This requires some explanation.

As you know, LN has 7 vowels (not counting the pseudo-vowels), which appear on a standard vowel chart like this:

                                                  i  ì                    u

                                                        e                  o

                                                            ä        a

Notice something interesting? The chart is asymmetrical! In the upper left corner (these are the high front vowels), there are two different vowels, i (often called tense) and ì (often called lax). As we all know, these vowels sound different and can change the meaning of a word, as in mi 'still' vs. 'in.' English, of course, has the same distinction: seat vs. sit, beach or beech vs. b****, etc.

Unlike Na'vi, however . . . and now we have to change that to: unlike Forest Na'vi 🙂 . . . English makes a similar tense/lax distinction in the upper right, where we have the high back vowels. So suit (IPA [ u ] ) contrasts with soot (IPA [ ʊ ] ), and the vowel sounds in good and food are not the same. (I sometimes wonder how anybody learns the English spelling system!)

What we're now discovering is that the parent language of both LN and LW had the tense/lax distinction for the high back vowels. That is, it had two distinct vowel sounds,
[ u ] and [ ʊ ], which we can write as u and ù respectively. In LN, the distinction was lost: the two sounds merged, and now there's only one u, which can be pronounced [ u ] or [ ʊ ] or something in between. The important thing is that you can't distinguish words in LN by going from one of these vowels to the other. Linguists would say that these vowels do not contrast; the difference between them (in LN!) is not distinctive.

LW, however, has retained the distinction from the parent language. So it has two high back vowels, u (tense) and ù (lax), and the difference IS distinctive. For example, LW has the two words tsun 'heel' and tsùn 'can,' which are NOT pronounced the same! Those two distinct words have merged in LN, so that tsun is ambiguous. Not so in LW.

In summary, then, LW has an 8-vowel system:

                                                    i  ì                    u  ù

                                                          e                    o

                                                            ä        a

By this point you're probably jumping ahead with some alarm and anticipating what this means for our dictionaries. I admit it's a bit startling: every word in LN containing a u has to be checked to see whether that u is u or ù in LW! It's not quite as bad as it sounds, however, since u predominates over ù. Eventually we'll have a list of LN words where u changes to ù in LW. (Example: pum would be on the list, since LN pum corresponds to LW pùm, but lun would not, since LN lun corresponds to LW lun.)

If you're writing a story with reef characters, how should you transcribe their dialog? This is somewhat of a judgment call, since it's not necessary to indicate all the differences in pronunciation in the spelling. The same written sentence can be pronounced in different ways by the forest and reef clans. For an English analogy, a phrase like "dance on the water" is pronounced differently in British and American English: the vowel in "dance" is different, the quality of the t in "water" is different, and the Brits do not pronounce the final r while the Yanks do. Nevertheless, the written form is the same.

Here's what I'd suggest as a guideline:

For LW spelling, include ù when appropriate. Change px, tx, and kx to b, d, g optionally; do so if you want to emphasize the difference between LN and LW. But there's no need to change sy to sh or tsy to ch: simply retain the original spellings and pronounce the words in the appropriate way for each dialect.

As an example, here's a line in Reef Na'vi from A2. It's from the scene where Quaritch is demanding to know Jake's whereabouts, and the Reef Olo'eyktan is explaining what Quaritch needs to do to find him:

  Pori do new fìtutanti rivun, zene ftu fayspono hivùm,
  kivä nìdukx nemfa na'rìng.

  'He needs to leave these islands and go deep into the forest if he is to find this man.'

There are a few more sound changes to discuss—minor ones—but this is plenty for now, so I'll stop here. One more thing, though, before I go:

It's easy to imagine that these sound differences are somehow appropriate to the different environments in which the forest and reef clans live. For example, perhaps you might think that the loss of initial ejectives had something to do with the water culture of the reef people . . . that the smoother sounds (b, d, g) are more in keeping with the smoothness of water than the popping ejective sounds (px, tx, kx). Don't fall into that trap. The sound changes that take place in the history of a language have nothing to do with "appropriateness." Although they typically occur in a systematic and organized way (the ejective change, for example, affects all the ejectives, not just one or two), just which changes occur is a matter of chance.

Siva ko, ma smuk!


ta P.


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