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Na'vi Linguistics: Case

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If I had been thinking more clearly earlier, I would have written this little installment of the Na'vi Linguistics series first.  I've been dealing with languages that have case for decades now, which leaves me with a false impression about how difficult they are for beginners to such languages.  Hopefully this article will make up for that oversight, and help new members of the site in the future.

Let's start with English.  In English, we decide what roles nouns are playing in a sentence by two things.  First, where they occur in the sentence and, second, if they're after a preposition.  For example:

 (1) The dog runs.
 (2) The dog sees the cat.
 (3) The cat sees the dog.

If you recall your grammar from English (or French, or Spanish) class, in both sentence (1) and (2) above "the dog" is the subject of the sentence, that is, it is the agent performing the action of the verb.  In the first sentence, the subject and verb are sufficient to describe a complete state of affairs.  In sentence (2) "the cat" is the direct object, that is, it is the focus or patient of the verbal action.  I say "focus or patient" here because in the sentence "I see the dog," the dog isn't actually altered or impacted by my action, whereas if I say, "I pet the dog," then the dog is actually experiencing a change of state (to slobbery doggy bliss, one trusts).

If we swap around the nouns in sentence (2), we get sentence (3), which in English describes a quite different state of affairs.  So, in English (and in many other languages on this planet, though not all) what we call the syntactic role in a sentence is determined by word order.  If you shuffle things around, you get a new meaning.

In Na'vi, these syntactic roles are determined not by word order, but by "cases" (that name goes all the way back to the Greek grammarians, but I wouldn't try to interpret the word unless you become addicted to grammar at some future date).  Cases are when you alter the form of a word to indicate its syntactic role, rather than let word order do it.  In Na'vi, as in most Human languages, the cases are marked by changing the ending of the word.  We actually have a small remnant of this in English for the possessive.  When we add 's to the end of a noun, we change its syntactic role to that of possession,

 (4) The cat's toy is lost.

In Na'vi, not only is the possessive marked with a change in word ending, but the subject, the direct object and two other relationships we'll get to are as well.  Because the roles are marked by changing the word, Na'vi is free to use word order to indicate style, emphasis, etc.  Some Human languages do have case marking, but still have fairly strict word orders.

Another piece of Greek grammatical vocabulary:

  decline verb "to write out all the case forms of a word"
  declension noun "a table or other format laying out all the case forms of a word"

In European languages (like German, Russian, as well as ancient Greek and Latin), the case forms are are muddled together with the endings that mark a word plural.  This is very unusual in Human languages, most of which like Na'vi have one marker for the plural and separate markers for case.  In that sense, Na'vi case endings are easier.  However, the endings change a bit depending on what sounds a word ends in, to meet the sound rules of the language.  I'm not going to explain all the rules of that here, but instead point you to my Na'vi Grammar cheat-sheet.  I'll still give all the forms below, but I'll let you look at the summary for the rules.

One last thing before I explain the Na'vi cases.  These days the terms for naming cases are pretty well established.  However, Frommer used slightly unusual terms for some of his cases because of how he studied what is called "case alignment."   Instead of using the usual case names, he used the terms for describing the roles.  In the discussion below I will indicate both the usual and the Frommerian terms for things, since you'll see both used in the forum.

Some Na'vi vocabulary for the discussion below:
 nantang noun, "viperwolf"
 yerik noun, "hexapede"
 puk noun, "book" (a loanword from English)
 po pronoun, "he, she" (for animate beings — Na'vi doesn't usually distinguish gender)
 tse'a verb, "see"
 hahaw verb, "sleep"
 tìng verb, "give"
 kä verb, "go"
 ne adposition, "to, towards"

Subjective (in other works called the "intransitive").  This is the simplest case, because it has no special form: it's just the bare noun, nantang.  In Na'vi this is the case used for the subject of intransitive verbs (a lesson on verb transitivity will come later):

 (5) nantang hahaw A viperwolf sleeps.

This case is also used when a noun is used with an adposition (what we call "prepositions" in English).  This is an important point.  In European languages that have noun cases, very often prepositions require particular cases.  This does not happen in Na'vi.

 (6) Po kä ne nantang She's going towards the viperwolf.

Agentive (in other works, "ergative").  The ending forms are -l and ìl.  In Na'vi this case is used for the subject of transitive verbs,

 (7) nantangìl tse'a yerikit The viperwolf sees a hexapede.
 (8) nantangìl tse'a The viperwolf sees (something).

Notice in sentence (8) that even though I don't explicitly name the thing seen, I still mark the subject with the agentive.  The verb is still transitive.  There is a situation where you can use the subjective with a transitive verb, but that is a bit confusing and we're waiting on more examples and explanation from Frommer on that.

Patientive (in other works, "accusative," more crazy Latin mistranslations of Greek).  The forms for this are -t, -it and -ti.  The patientive case is used to indicate the direct object of a transitive verb.  Note that means you should never see this case in a sentence with an intransitive verb.  Looking at sentence (7) again,

 (9) nantangìl tse'a yerikit The viperwolf sees a hexapede.
 (10) nantangìl yerikit tse'a The viperwolf sees a hexapede.
 (11) tse'a yerikit nantangìl The viperwolf sees a hexapede.

Notice that sentences 9, 10 and 11 all encode the same state of affairs.  Because of the case endings, we can shuffle the words around (see the post on "Free" word order for details).

Dative.  The endings are -r, -ru and -ur.  Frommer really loves the dative — it gets used for several different jobs.  In most languages, the fundamental job of the dative is to indicate the indirect object of the sentence.  An indirect object describes "to whom" or "for whom" an action is performed.  English, just to be confusing, has two ways to indicate this, one with word order, one with the a preposition (usually "to" but sometimes "for" makes sense).

 (12) I give the book to the student.
 (13) I give the student the book.

In sentences 12 and 13 above I have underlined the indirect object.  If one were trying to bring viperwolves culture,

 (14) Pol tìng pukit nantangur He gives a book to the viperwolf.

Note: po-l is agentive, puk-it is patientive.

There are other idioms and uses for the Na'vi dative.  I will leave most of them for you to learn as you get more advanced in the language, but there are two important uses I will mention.  First, there is no verb "to have" in Na'vi.  Instead you use the dative with the verb lu.  The idiom means something like "to/for him there is a book,"

 (15) Lu poru puk he has a book (lu usually comes first in this idiom)

Finally, Na'vi has many verbal idioms which are composed of a noun plus the prop verb si, such as eltu si "pay attention," kavuk si "betray," etc.  The literal sense of these is something like "do a betrayal thing."  They are considered intransitive verbs, which means they take the dative — not the patientive — when you want a direct object and the subjective for the subject,

 (16) po kavuk si yerikur She betrayed the hexapede.

It is a very common mistake for beginners to use the dative in all places English can use the preposition "to," including senses of motion, such as "I go to school."  The Na'vi dative is never used for location like this — you need an adposition (such as ne).  So take care with that.

Genitive.  The forms are -ä and -yä.  This is the equivalent of 's or the preposition "of" in English.  It indicates possession,

 (17) puk nantangä or nantangä puk the viperwolf's book or the book of the viperwolf

Notice that in Na'vi the genitive can come before or after the noun it possesses (sometimes called the possessum).  Notice that a genitive noun can possess words in different cases, as in,

 (18) pol tse'a pukit nantangä He sees the viperwolf's book.

One annoying thing about the genitive is that several pronouns change form when they take the genitive ending.  The vowel changes, so that the genitive of po is peyä for example.  You will have to memorize these, I'm afraid.

Topical.  The endings are -ri and -ìri.  This case is far the most confusing for beginners.  European languages don't really have syntax that matches the use of the topical, so our only translation for it is rather clunky, "as for X, concerning X".  We also need some serious clarification from Frommer on how to use it more widely.  If I ever understand it, I'll write up a separate document.

For now, you should know that there are a few idioms where the topical case is often used.  For example, when thanking someone (irayo si to thank), you often put the thing you're thanking someone for in the topical.

 (19) Pukìri po irayo si nantangur She thanks the nantang for the book.

Similarly, when you apologize (tsap'alute si) the thing you apologize for goes in the topical.

So, those are the Na'vi cases.  Use them wisely!

Edit: I always find typos after I hit "save..."

'Oma Tirea:
One thing I have found most fascinating (and annoying): There's no clear one-word English equivalent for the Na'vi word po.
Spoiler"Ain't that a b****?" ~ Trudy Chacon

Tirea Aean:
true. there is not a single English word that equates to Po...the closest we got is he/she. and the one it is depends on context. the most common misconception is to use po as "it" people seem to also use "fko" as "it" as well...

I like this post. I posted it on my Facebook. many others like it as well.

Excellent post!

So are we still are uncertain of how to use -e and -an at this time I guess?  Poe and Poan still iffy, not usable as listed ASG, or are we OK with this?  ---

(14 a.) Poanìl tìng pukit nantangur He gives a book to the viperwolf.

(14 b.) Poel tìng pukit nantangur She gives a book to the viperwolf.

And topicals remain unclear for various situations?

Tewti, ma william, fì'u txantsan lu!  This should be very helpful.


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