User:Erimeyz/Beginners' Guide: Lesson One - Letters and Sounds

From Learn Na'vi Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Note: This beginner's guide is a work in progress. There is still a lot to be done before it gets released. Feedback from everyone is welcome, including from beginners and experienced Na'vi learners. Please add your comments on the Beginners' Guide talk page, or post to one of the Beginners' Guide threads on the Learn Na'vi forum (such as the Letters and Sounds thread), or send a forum PM to Erimeyz.

In the first two lessons you'll learn about the Na'vi alphabet and the sounds of the Na'vi language. You'll learn how to read and pronounce any Na'vi word you see. You'll also be given careful, detailed explanations of how to make the Na'vi sounds. Why such detailed instructions? Why spend so much time just learning to say your ABC's? For two reasons.

  • First, there are many sounds in Na'vi that are unlike anything in your native language, especially if your native language is English. You need these instructions because without them you'll pronounce things wrong. You may come close, but you won't come close enough.
  • Second, Na'vi is a spoken language. It was designed to sound exotic and beautiful. Much of the beauty of the language depends on getting the sounds right, and much of the joy in learning the language comes from being able to speak it out loud.

So take the time to go through these lessons carefully. You'll have fun, you'll learn a lot, and you'll be a much better Na'vi speaker because of it. I promise you: there will be plenty of grammar and sentence-building and reading comprehension and so forth coming later on. But it can wait until after you've learned to speak out loud the Na'vi way.

The Na'vi Alphabet

The Na'vi have no writing system; their language is an oral language. However, Na'vi can be written using an alphabet based on the English alphabet (linguists call a language's alphabet its orthography). Paul Frommer created the Na'vi orthography so that actors could learn to read and speak their Na'vi dialog from the script. Consequently, the Na'vi alphabet is similar to English, but with a few important differences.

The Na'vi alphabet has seven vowels: a, ä, e, i, ì, o, and u. Note that there are two accented letters, ä and ì, as well as their unaccented counterparts. Standard US and English keyboards don't have these letters, but there are several ways to type them. See Typing Na'vi for details later on; for now you don't need to worry about it.

The Na'vi alphabet has twenty consonants. Fourteen of them are similar to their English counterparts: p, t, k, f, s, h, v, z, m, n, w, r, l, and y. The other six are somewhat special. Five of them are written using two English letters each: px, tx, kx, ts, and ng. Even though they are written using two English letters, in Na'vi they are each considered a single letter and they each make just a single sound. The final Na'vi consonant is known as a glottal stop, and it is written using an apostrophe, like this: '.

In addition to the twenty-seven letters in the Na'vi alphabet, the language has six other sounds that are treated as individual "letters" in spoken Na'vi but are written using the other letters shown above. Four of those sounds are what linguists call diphthongs - sounds made by gliding from one vowel sound to a different one. The four diphthongs are ay, ey, aw, and ew. The final two sounds are called pseudovowels. They sound like consonants, but are elongated, and they act like vowels when used in words. They are written using the letters they sound like, but doubled: rr and ll.

Thus, the complete set of sounds in the Na'vi language, and the letters used to write them, are as follows:

a ä e i ì o u
ay ey aw ew
px tx kx
p t k '
ts f v s z h
m n ng
w r rr l ll y

In English, a letter can have many different sounds. For example, the letter s has different sounds in the words sit, mission, and measure. In Na'vi, on the other hand, every letter always has the same sound. The Na'vi letter s always sounds like the "s" in sit. This means that once you learn what each letter sounds like, you will always know how to correctly pronounce any Na'vi word you read, even if you've never seen it before.

So let's start learning those sounds!

Vowels and Diphthongs

The seven Na'vi vowels and four Na'vi diphthongs are pronounced as follows:

a - baa (as in "Baa baa black sheep")
ä - bat
e - bet
i - marine
ì - bit
o - boat
u - flute or put (can be pronounced either way)
ay - kayak
ey - obey
aw - cow
ew - See below

The Na'vi vowels and diphthongs have the sounds of the words listed above as those words are pronounced in the most common accents used in the United States, Canada, and England ("General American", "General Canadian", and "Received Pronunciation" respectively) - i.e. the accents used by television newscasters in those three countries. People with strong regional accents and English speakers in other parts of the world may pronounce some of the words above differently; in those cases, the listed words will not accurately reflect the correct Na'vi pronunciation.

The sound of the Na'vi diphthong ew does not occur in English. Like all diphthongs, you pronounce it by first making one vowel sound and then smoothly changing it into a second vowel sound. Most native speakers don't even notice that this is how they pronounce words like "day" - they just do it naturally and unconsciously. However, in order to learn to pronounce ew correctly, you'll need to pay attention to how you say it. Begin by saying the Na'vi sound e as in bet, then say word. Smoothly connect the two; don't pause between them. It will sound as if you're saying the name "Edward" but without the "d". Once you have that down, leave off the "ord" part of "word". The smooth glide starting from e and ending at w is the sound of the Na'vi diphthong ew.

Practice reading and speaking aloud all the above vowels and diphthongs. Pay particular attention to the difference between a and ä and between i and ì, and work on remembering which is which. Also be careful with ay and ey; in English, "ay" is often pronounced like Na'vi ey (as in "hay") and "ey" is often pronounced like Na'vi ay (as in "eye"), so it's easy to get them confused. Also, English speakers sometimes have trouble with ä, e, and ì at the end of words. These are "short vowels", and English words rarely end in short vowels. English speakers have a tendency to pronounce words like swirä ("creature") as swi-rahh instead of swi-ra (like rat), lumpe ("why") as lum-pay instead of lum-peh, and alaksì ("ready") as alak-see instead of alak-sih.

Run through the whole list a few times before going on to the next section.

Consonants, Part I

The following Na'vi consonants are pronounced as they commonly are in English:

f - fat
s - sat
h - hat
v - vat
z - zap
m - mop
n - nip
l - lip
y - yip
w - wipe

Easy, right? Got it? Okay, good. Go on to the next section.

Consonants, Part II

The next three consonants are pronounced almost like they are in English:

p - pen, flap
t - ten, flat
k - ken, flak

There is a slight difference, though. In Na'vi, p, t, and k are all unaspirated. What does that mean? I'm glad you asked.


Aspiration is the strong puff of air that you make when pronouncing these letters. In English these letters are sometimes aspirated and sometimes not. In Na'vi they are always unaspirated.

To see the difference, hold your palm up to your mouth and say the words "tone" and "stone". You should feel a strong puff of air when saying "tone", and a much weaker puff or no puff at all when saying "stone". Also try the words "pin" and "spin", and "kill" and "skill". Repeat the words with your palm to your mouth, trying to make as strong a puff as possible with "tone", "pin", and "kill" and no puff at all with "stone", "spin", and "skill". Keep trying until you can clearly feel the difference on your hand and in the way you say the letters.

As you may have guessed, in English these letters are usually aspirated when they start a word. In Na'vi, they are unaspirated at all times, even when they start a word. With your palm to your mouth, try saying "tone", "pin", and "kill" without releasing a strong puff of air. This is hard for most English speakers to do, as it seems unnatural. Try the pairs "tone"/"stone", "pin"/"spin", and "kill"/"skill" again, but this time try to say both words in each pair with no puff at all. Try saying "tone"/"pin"/"kill" alternating between aspirated (the normal English way) and unaspirated (the Na'vi way). Practice this until you feel confident you can pronounce p, t, and k without releasing a puff of air even at the start of a word.

To many English speakers, unaspirated p/t/k at the start of a word sounds a lot like b/d/g. Unaspirated, "pan" sounds like "ban", "tell" sounds like "dell", and "kill" sounds like "gill". Even in Avatar, when Neytiri says to Seze tam tam (calm down) it comes out sounding like "dam dam". Try not to let this happen in your pronunciation! Even unaspirated, the p/t/k sounds should be distinctly different from the b/d/g sounds. In fact, the b/d/g sounds don't exist in the Na'vi language, so don't say them when you're speaking Na'vi!


There's one more difference in these letters between English and Na'vi, and that's in how they sound at the end of a word. Consider the word "sip". When you pronounce the "p", your lips close and then open again, releasing a little burst of air. This is called, naturally enough, a released consonant. In Na'vi, however, p is unreleased, which means that if "sip" were a Na'vi word, to pronounce the p you would close your lips and leave them closed, and you would not release a burst of air. Practice this a few times with your palm to your mouth, saying "sip" both the English way (closing your lips and then opening them again) and the Na'vi way (closing your lips and keeping them closed). You should be able to both hear and feel the difference between releasing a burst of air and leaving it unreleased.

Like p, the letters t and k are also usually released at the end of a word in English but always unreleased at the end of a word in Na'vi. However, instead of the air being stopped by closing your lips, it's stopped by putting your tongue against the roof of your mouth. In English, you stop the air with your tongue momentarily and then release the air. In Na'vi, you stop the air with your tongue and leave it stopped. Practice with the words "sit" and "sick", alternating saying them the English way and the Na'vi way.

Whew! That was hard. If you don't think you've quite mastered the sounds of unaspirated and unreleased consonants, don't worry too much about it right now. As you learn to speak Na'vi you'll get plenty of chances to practice, and over time you'll improve. For now just keep it in mind, and let's keep on going.

Consonants, Part III

The next two consonants are also pronounced like they are in English:

ts - cats
ng - singer

There's a gotcha, though. In English, these sounds are usually found in the middle of words or at the end of words. In Na'vi, these sounds are often found at the beginning of words. This is very unusual in English, and it's often difficult for English speakers to pronounce.

Let's start with ts.


Say the word "cats", and pay close attention to how you say it. It almost sounds like there's two syllables there: ca and ts. You open your mouth wide to say ca and then close it up again to say ts. Try drawing the word out: "caaaaats"; you'll leave your mouth wide open for a long time, then suddenly close it when you say ts. Try to see the two parts of the word as two completely different sounds.

Now try to make the second sound on its own. Say "caaaaats ts ts". Try to get a feel for how ts sounds all by itself. Say "ts ts ts". Great! You've learned to pronounce the Na'vi consonant ts in isolation.

Now say "cats are". Say it quickly, and run the two words together: "catsare". Now try "caaaaatsare". Now try "caaaaatsare tsare tsare". Be careful not to make it "caaaaatsare sare sare" - the t is important, and it's easy at this point to drop it, so don't! If you feel like you're losing the t go back and practice "caaaaats ts ts". Once you've got "caaaaatsare tsare tsare" nice and clean, try just "tsare tsare tsare". Then just "tsare". Congratulations! Not only can you say the Russian word "tsar", you've learned to pronounce the Na'vi consonant ts at the beginning of a word!

On to ng.


The first thing to note is that ng sounds like "singer", but not like "finger". sing-ER, not fing-GER. In most accents, there's a distinct difference between the two words. If the two words sound alike in your native accent, listen to how they are pronounced on national news broadcasts.

Start by saying "singer". Now change the ending to make it "singa"; say it out loud. Try to hear the two different parts, "sing" and "a", but keep saying it as one word; don't put a break or pause between the two parts. Now draw the first part out: "sinnnnnnnnga". While you're holding the first part, pay attention to where your tongue is: it's not all the way forward like it is at the end of the word "sin", and it's not all the way back like it is at the start of the word "gun". It's partway between the two.

Now say "sinnnnnnnnga" again, but partway through holding the first part, stop talking. Don't change the position of your tongue or the shape of your mouth; leave them exactly where they were when you were drawing out the first part, just stop making any noise. Pause for a moment, then finish the word. The sound you make when you finish the word is nga, and it's the Na'vi word for "you". Congratulations! Not only have you learned to pronounce the Na'vi consonant ng at the beginning of a word, you've said your first word in the Na'vi language!

Let's say some more!

Your First Na'vi Words

Here are some Na'vi words that use only the letters and sounds you've learned so far. Read each one aloud, then click on the audio link to hear an example of the correct pronunciation. Try to make your pronunciation match the examples as closely as you can. Practice reading and speaking each word until you are comfortable with all the words on the list. You don't need to memorize the definitions (yet), and you don't need to worry about getting your pronunciation absolutely perfect. Just get comfortable reading the Na'vi letters and speaking the correct Na'vi sounds.

The common trouble spots are noted: the ew diphthong, ng and ts at the start of words, short vowels (e, ì, and ä) at the end of words, and unreleased p/t/k at the end of words. Also remember that p/t/k are unaspirated everywhere.

  • ngawng "worm" (audio) - ng at start
  • tsawke "sun" (audio) - ts at start, e at end
  • tangek "tree trunk" (audio) - k unreleased at end
  • tanhì "star" (audio) - ì at end
  • tompa "rain" (audio)
  • kewong "alien" (audio) - ew diphthong
  • kifkey "world" (audio)
  • mawey "calm" (audio)
  • hufwe "wind" (audio) - e at end
  • lahe "other" (audio) - e at end
  • zene "must" (audio) - e at end
  • Eywa Na'vi guiding spirit (audio)
  • zekwä "finger" (audio) - ä at end
  • vul "tree branch" (audio)
  • eltu si "pay attention" (audio)
  • mikyun "ear" (audio)

Good so far? Great! You're ready to learn the rest of the Na'vi sounds. Fair warning: we've saved the hardest ones for last. But we know you're up to the challenge, so go on to Lesson Two.