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Na'vi Linguistics: the Syllable

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wm.annis:
I assume everyone reading this already knows a bit about Na'vi sounds and spelling, that, for example, px is a single consonant, even if written with two letters, and that ts though composed of two sounds is considered a single unit in Na'vi.

Another fun thing Na'vi forces us to think about in more detail than most of us are used to, is the syllable.  If we cannot dissect a syllable correctly, we're likely to misplace an infix.  Now, I know some people here wail about "walls of text" and linguistic jargon, but linguists came up with this terminology for a reason — it's useful.  So I'm going to give a quick overview here of a more technical way of thinking about the syllable.  When I'm done, hopefully we'll all have a way to very concisely and accurately say where an infix should go.

Every syllable has three parts: an onset, a nucleus and a coda.

Let's start in the middle, with the nucleus.  In every language on the planet [suomichris — can we ignore Nuxálk for now?] the nucleus is the only required part of a syllable.  It is the peak, central part of the syllable, and is nearly always a vowel sound (simple vowel, diphthong).  Here are some simple words in English with the nucleus underlined: see, at, flock.  In Na'vi two sounds most of us think of as consonants can be the nucleus of a syllable, rr and ll.  English actually has the ll sound, again underlining the nucleus, people (or pipll in Na'vi spelling).

Going back to the front, the onset of a syllable is the consonant or consonants the syllable starts with.   Different languages have different rules about what are allowable onsets.  English onsets can be very complex.  Na'vi can have either (1) no onset, sometimes called a null onset, (2) a single consonant onset or (3) a consonant cluster with f, ts or s followed by another consonant (see the Language Log post for the legal elements of the cluster).  Note that because Na'vi does not require an onset, you can get words like äie vision, a three syllable word with each syllable having a null onset.  Going back to my English examples, here are the words again, with the onset marked: see, flock, Øat (I've used a Ø to mark a null onset).

And now to the end of the syallble, where we have the coda.  This is the conclusion to the syallble.  English can have very complex codas, but in Na'vi you have two choices, (1) no coda at all, as you might expect also called a null coda, or (2) a single consonant (again with restrictions laid out in the Language Log post).  Back to my three English words: flock, at, seeØ.

The fundamental rule of Na'vi infixes is that they come before the nucleus.  If there's a null onset, that doesn't change anything.  The word eyk, lead has one syllable with a null onset, the nucleus ey and the coda k: Øeyk.  To add everyone's favorite infix, ‹iv›, just insert it before the nucleus: iveyk.  Similarly, if the onset is a consonant cluster, that also doesn't change anything: tspang has a tsp onset, a a nucleus and a ng coda.  After you add the near future infix ìy, you get tspìyang.

Extra mumbo-jumbo:  A syllable that has no coda is sometimes called an open syllable, and one with a coda is called closed.  This matters in Na'vi only because there's a restriction on the vocalic rr and ll.  They may not occur in closed syllables.  This constrains the shapes words can take in Na'vi, and can even intrude on grammar.  To add the ergative ending to the word trr day, you have to use the form you'd use with a word ending in a consonant, because *trrl would be illegal, since it puts rr into a closed syllable.


Edit: clean up closed syllable matter.

suomichris:
Nice post!  And very helpful for those new to linguistics/Na'vi, I imagine!


--- Quote from: wm.annis on January 22, 2010, 05:55:22 pm ---[suomichris — can we ignore Nuxálk for now?]
--- End quote ---
Well, I guess... But can we talk about Berber instead??? ;)


--- Quote ---English actually has the ll sound, again underlining the nucleus, people (or pipll in Na'vi spelling).
--- End quote ---
It might also be worth noting that English also has an /r/ sound (although not the same /rr/ as in Na'vi) that can stand as the nucleus of the syllable, at least in some dialects: e.g., "pepper."


--- Quote ---Going back to the front, ...
--- End quote ---
!!!


--- Quote ---The fundamental rule of Na'vi infixes is that they come before the nucleus.
--- End quote ---
This is a far more important point than it may appear at first, and I'm going to try and explain why, hopefully without making this confusing.

In Na'vi, we have all of the vowels that can be the nucleus of a syllable, along with the sounds /rr/ and /ll/, but note that /rr/ and /ll/ are still consonants, even though they stand in as the the nucleus.  The Wikipedia page talks about (or used to) putting infixes before the first vowel.  But what about the (deduced) root /lrr/ "smile"?  It doesn't have a vowel, and if we try to apply this "before the vowel" rule, we're going to have some trouble.  But, by viewing it as the nucleus, we're now able to deduce that the infixes should go l<here>rr.

suomichris:

--- Quote from: wm.annis on January 22, 2010, 05:55:22 pm ---Extra mumbo-jumbo:  A syllable that has no coda is sometimes called an open syllable, and one with a coda is called closed.  This matters in Na'vi only because there's a restriction on the vocalic rr and ll.  They may not occur in closed syllables.  At the moment I can't think of a grammatical process which puts you in danger of running into that problem.  But Frommer made a special point to remind people of it, so I'll mention it here.

--- End quote ---
I think this is important because of the case allomorphs.  So, if we have a word like /trr/ "day," and we want to make it ergative, we can't just put an /l/ on the end, because this would create */trrl/ a form that is not allowed in Na'vi.  So, we have to do something else, and use the allomorph of the ergative marker /-ìl/ instead, giving us /trrìl/, which is fine as far as Na'vi phonology goes.

omängum fra'uti:
For the point of people learning, if you are going to call it (Properly) a nuclease of the syllable then that means you have to first teach people what the nuclease of a syllable is.  Which brings you right back to the explanation that caused confusion in the first place.

I think Frommer's approach of calling /ll/ and /rr/ psuedo-vowels, and calling the whole set of vowels, diphthongs and psuedo-vowels as "syllabic vowels" may be the least confusing approach for just teaching the language (vs teaching linguistics).

Eaite Randjam:
All of this is very important and informative to a new student to the Na'Vi language, at least it is with me.  Thanks for this all important lesson!

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