Common Mistakes

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Here are a few mistakes commonly made by beginning Na'vi learners.

Noun Cases

Example: Oe-yä-ri ikran tse'a nga
Attempted meaning: My ikran sees you.
Correct: Oe-yä ikran-ìl tse'a nga-ti

If you find yourself wanting to stack up more than one noun case, then you need to rethink what the noun cases mean. In this example sentence, there are two things wrong.

  • The topic (oe, "I") doesn't need two suffixes. Either -ri ("About me; Ikran sees you") or -yä ("My ikran sees you") would work in this case, but not both.
  • The subject (ikran) and object (nga, "you") need suffixes. Na'vi has free word order. Whereas English sentences are usually subject-verb-object (SVO) and Japanese sentences are usually subject-object-verb (SOV), the words in Na'vi sentences can be in any order. Subjects and objects are distinguished by using suffixes, not by which comes first. The example sentence has no suffixes on the nouns, so there's no way to know whether the ikran sees you or you see the ikran. For a transitive verb like "see", you need the ergative (subject) marker and accusitive (object) marker, -il and -ti respectively.

Example: Nga-l t<ay>erkup
Attempted meaning: You will die.
Correct: Nga t<ay>erkup

The ergative and accusative only work for transitive verbs. "Die" is, however, intransitive. Na'vi is a tripartate language. In layman's terms, that means the subject and object of a transitive verb are indicated differently than the subject of an intransitive verb. Note: Just because you only use one noun in a sentence does not make the verb transitive. If you want to say "I see" some unspecified object (as in "Look over there, see the Ikran?" "Yes, I see.") you would still make it Oe-l tsa'e.

Literal English Translations

Example: Oe lu h<ìy>um ye'rìn
Attempted meaning: I am leaving soon
Correct: Oe h<ìy>um ye'rìn
Better: Oe h<ìy>um

Leave out helper words. English is an odd language in many ways. One way is that where most languages would modify the verb or nouns for things such as tense and aspect, English throws in helper words. The various forms of "be" such as "am", "are" and such are good examples. In other languages, those words are unneeded, and would render a sentence grammatically incorrect if put in. In the example, the word lu ("to be - am, is, are") is extraneous and incorrect. "am leaving" is simply h<ìy>um, not lu h<ìy>um.

Take full advantage of Na'vi tenses. There is another word in the English version of this sentence that, while grammatically correct to use in Na'vi, could be considered superfluous. That word is "soon" (ye'rìn). Na'vi has more than just the basic concept of past, present and future tenses. It also has the concept of "proximate" tenses for past and future - something that either just happened (past proximate) or is about to happen (future proximate). Since the future proximate is already used in this sentence (<ìy>), it is already stated that it will be happening soon, and so repeating it is redundant in this case.

Translation of Idioms

Example: Sìltsan txon
Attempted meaning: Good night
Correct: Kìyevame

Merriam-Webster defines idiom thusly:

  • 1a : the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class; dialect
  • 1b : the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language
  • 2 : an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as "No, it wasn't me") or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as "Monday week" for "the Monday a week after next Monday")

Be aware of English idioms; translate them carefully and appropriately. Sometimes it is hard to recognize an idiom, especially when you are only fluent in one language. We use them every day without even thinking about it because we all know what they mean. But when you are translating something into another language, it's important to think about what you are actually saying. Think about the words; do they mean what they say? For example, consider the German idiom "Hals über Kopf" - literally translated "neck over head". A German speaker just learning English might be tempted to translate it that way, but if they said that to a native English speaker, the person they were talking to would have no idea that what they meant was that they are in a hurry.

The situation is the same for English speakers just learning Na'vi. Consider our example: "good night". Literally, it is saying the night is good. But you're not really talking about the night at all, you're saying goodbye to someone.

Because idioms exist to shorten common phrases, or to carry meanings that would be otherwise long winded, often the best translation of an idiom is another idiom (in the new language). In this case, Na'vi does have its own idiom for the same thing, though its literal translation is closer to the meaning (and matches up with another English idiom for goodbye). The correct Na'vi idiom is k<ìy><ev>ame, literally "See you again soon". Note that you don't actually mean that you will see them again soon, though one would hope that you do wish to.

Aspect vs. Tense

Example: Ts<ol>e'a oe-l po-an-it
Attempted meaning: I saw him
Correct: Ts<am>e'a oe-l po-an-it

Don't use aspect markers to indicate tense. Na'vi has infix markers for five tenses (past, near past, present, near future, and future) and for two aspects (perfective and imperfective); tense and aspect are two separate sets of grammatical elements. English, however, uses the same sets of words to indicate both tense and aspect. For example, the phrases "he walked", "he was walking", and "he did walk" all indicate tense (the same in each case) and aspect (different in each case). In Na'vi you can indicate one or the other or both.

The example uses the perfective aspect infix <ol>. Loosely speaking, the perfective aspect implies something that is complete while the imperfective implies something that is ongoing. This notion of "completeness" leads some to think of the perfective as being in the past; this in turn leads them to translate past-tense English into perfective-aspect Na'vi. This is incorrect. Na'vi aspect markers do not indicate tense, and so Ts<ol>e'a could refer to the past, present, or future - which is not what the speaker intended.

Aspect is not required in Na'vi. If in doubt, leave it out; stick to using the tense markers and leave the aspect ambiguous. However, aspect does convey meaning, so you will not be communicating to the full potential of the Na'vi language by ignoring it. Look for good examples and explanations of how to use aspect correctly and effectively.