Thoughts on ambiguity

A couple of questions have come up regarding ambiguous structures in Na’vi that I thought would make a good topic for the first post in the Language Discussion section—Tìpängkxo leLì’fya—for intermediate and advanced learners.

Note: These kinds of posts may be somewhat discursive, and I won’t hesitate to talk about general language issues in addition to specific aspects of Na’vi. If you’re among the “grammatically curious,” I hope you’ll enjoy the discussions. But if that’s not you, it’s OK! Feel free to skim a post lightly or skip it entirely. Some people flourish with extensive discussions of grammar, others don’t. Remember: You don’t need a conscious understanding of grammar to know a language well! We’ll be talking more about this in future posts.

We’ll get to the Na’vi examples in a moment, but first some general observations about ambiguity.


Linguists say an utterance is ambiguous when it has two or more distinct interpretations. It’s safe to say that every natural language contains ambiguous elements or structures, and these can sometimes interfere with clear communication.

In English, for example, two of the most notoriously ambiguous words are “right” and “hot.” Here’s a little snippet of conversation in a car that illustrates the first problem:

A: So I should turn left at the next corner, correct?

B: Right!

And if someone says, “This soup is too hot for me to eat,” what is she saying—that the soup needs to cool down first or that it’s too spicy?

But it’s not just words themselves that can create ambiguity—it’s often a question of how words “hang together.” (In technical terminology, the distinction is one of lexical vs. structural ambiguity.) If your friend says, “I hate raw fish and onions,” will he tolerate fried onions, or are all onions, raw or not, off the menu? And here’s an example I’ve used in my classes on Advanced Writing for Business: “Give me the report you wrote on Thursday at 5:00.” You’ll be able to get three distinct meanings out of that one. (By the way, the reason ambiguity comes up in a writing course is that good writers need to anticipate how something they’ve written that may seem perfectly clear to them might be interpreted differently by readers, and then revise their writing to reduce the possibility of misunderstanding.)

Other languages have similar problems. For example, when I was studying Mandarin Chinese I learned early on that nán meant ‘male.’ Then I learned it also meant ‘south.’ And then I found out it also meant ‘difficult.’ (The written forms of those three words are distinct, but the spoken forms are identical.) Before that, in my elementary German class, I came across the phrase die Frau die das Kind liebt, which can mean either “the woman who loves the child” or “the woman who(m) the child loves.”

With all this potential for ambiguity, why don’t we misunderstand each other more often than we do? For two reasons: First, an utterance that’s theoretically ambiguous in isolation may not be ambiguous in context—the context will disambiguate for us. For example, if someone said, “That’s a huge bill,” we’d interpret it one way in a budgetary discussion and another way if the speaker were on a bird-watching trip. (Such things, of course, are the stuff of puns. Some of you probably know the little story about the duck in the pharmacy. <g>) Second, speakers can usually find ways to rephrase things so as to eliminate ambiguity when the context doesn’t help: if you order a smoked-turkey-and-Gouda sandwich (never had it but it sounds good) and it’s not going to be clear whether you want your Gouda cheese smoked as well as your turkey, you can rephrase your request as either a Gouda-and-smoked-turkey-sandwich or a smoked-turkey-and-smoked-Gouda sandwich, neither of which is ambiguous in the way the original phrasing was.

Two ambiguous structures in Na’vi

With that behind us, let’s turn to two structures in Na’vi with the potential for troublesome ambiguity.

1.       Pre-Nominal Lenition-Triggering Adpositions and Short Plurals

Don’t worry—this is less complicated than the heading makes it sound.

As you know, the plural prefix, ay-, triggers lenition, the phonological process that changes px to p, p to f, t to s, etc., in nouns beginning with a consonant that can undergo the process. (To avoid that awkward wording, I’ll use “lenitable” for these consonants, even though I’m not sure it’s a real word. The rule then becomes: The plural prefix triggers lenition in nouns that begin with lenitable consonants.)

Example: river = kilvan, rivers = ayhilvan

You also know about “short plurals” for such nouns: Alternatively, rivers = simply hilvan.

Furthermore, you know that certain adpositions—among them fpi, ìlä, mì, ro, sre, and—also trigger lenition when they’re pre-nominal, i.e. before a noun.

Example: in the river = mì hilvan

You probably see where this is going. How do you say “in the rivers”?

If you use the full plural there’s no problem: mì ayhilvan (Note: Although the writing doesn’t change, the + ay– combination is pronounced may. So mì ayhilvan is pronounced as if it were mayhilvan. Other examples of this process: nìayoeng ‘like us, as we do’ is pronounced nayweng; aynantang sì ayriti ‘viperwolves and stingbats’ is pronounced aynantang sayriti.)

But if you use the short plural you’re back to mì hilvan, which is now seen to be ambiguous: it can mean either ‘in the river’ or ‘in the rivers.’

Is this a problem? Not always. As we’ve seen above, the context will often make the meaning clear. If someone told you he saw Neytiri swimming mì hilvan, chances are she was swimming in only one river at a time. By the same token, if someone said Lu fayoang alor mì hilvan Eywa’evengä, hilvan is almost certainly plural, since Pandora presumably has more than one river. (That’s an assumption, although I hope a plausible one. Apparently we’ll all find out a lot more about Pandoran bodies of water in Avatar 2!) But if you were told that Neytiri likes to swim mì hilvan a lok Kelutral, and you didn’t know if there was more than one river close to Hometree, you might not interpret the message correctly.

In cases like these, speakers rely on a convention:

RULE FOR PLURALS AFTER ADP+: If there is the potential for misunderstanding and the plural is intended, the full plural form is used. The lenited form without ay- is interpreted by default as singular.

2.       Comparison of adjectives with to

This one is trickier.

As you know, comparison of adjectives in Na’vi is simple: There’s no “comparative degree” of the adjective as there is in English (old vs. older, good vs. better). You simply use the adjective in its root form along with the word to, which corresponds to ‘than’:

(1)    Po to oe lu koak. ‘She is older than I (am).’

What kind of word is to? At first glance it looks like an adposition, just as ‘than’ in English looks to many people like a preposition. In fact, however, ‘than’ is classified as a conjunction. (If it were a bona fide preposition, then “She is older than me” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, whereas it’s often considered substandard or at best only for informal contexts.) In my personal lexicon, I’ve classified to as PIV—that is, a pivot. (In “A is ADJ-er than B” constructions, B is the “standard of comparison” and ‘than’ is the “pivot.”)

In any event, the question for us here is whether to behaves like an adposition, and the answer is yes: You can put it either before or after the noun it’s connected to. In other words, ‘than I’ is either to oe or oeto, just like ‘with me’ is either hu oe or oehu.

But that means that a sentence like (2) is well formed:

(2)    Poto oe lu koak. ‘I am older than she (is).’

Now when Na’vi is written, there’s a difference between (1) and (2), even if it’s a small one, which means there’s no ambiguity. But what about the spoken language? (Keep in mind that writing was introduced to the Na’vi by the Sawtute; it was a spoken-only language long, long before that.) If (1) and (2) sound precisely the same, then we could really be in trouble, since they say opposite things.

There are two ways out of the dilemma. One is to make sure that if you use structures like (1) and (2), you convey your intended “bracketing” ( po [to oe] vs. [po to] oe) with your voice, through rhythm and intonation. This is, in fact, a natural thing to do. In slow, deliberate speech it’s quite simple. Here are my attempts to distinguish the two in reasonably fast speech. See if you think the difference is clear:

The other way out is simply to avoid word orders like (1) and (2) in situations where there’s a danger of misunderstanding. The following sentences don’t have the potential for ambiguity that (1) and (2) do:

(3)    Poto lu oe koak.

(4)    Po lu to oe koak.

(5)    Oe lu poto koak.

(6)    Oe lu to po koak.

And many more . . .

Irayo to kwami/roger for passing along this question from Wikibooks and to Prrton for a lucid private discussion.

I just discovered that the number of posts to the fora of has passed a quarter of a million. Tewti! Wou!!

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24 Responses to Thoughts on ambiguity

  1. Wm Annis says:

    Oh, man. Thanks to koak, I now know I need to work on those unreleased final stops some more.

  2. Wm Annis says:

    Um… since we’re on ambiguities…

    Are only nouns subject to lenition with these adpositions, or is it the first word in a noun phrase?

    wä sutan (wä aysutan)
    wä sawl tutan?
    wä tsawl sutan?

    Or is the lenition more grammaticalized?

  3. Kemaweyan says:

    Irayo, ma Karyu 🙂 Txantsana ‘upxare leiu. Lu oer lahea säfpìl fya’ori a tsun fko sleykivu law san mì hìlvan sìk – tsun fko pivlltxe nìftue san hìlvanmì sìk fu san kìlvanmì sìk (txo kìlvan lu ‘aw). Slä seiyi irayo oe ngar furi pängxko ayoehu fì’uteri. Fì’u leiu lesar nìngay. Ulte korenìri a teri mì + ay = may sì aylahe, seiyi oe ngaru irayo nìtxan.

  4. Kemaweyan says:

    Oeru txoa livu, tswola’ nìwotx…

    Lolu oer pxeyvea tìkenong: pe + (ay) hilvan. Pe+ ke lu ADP, kefyak? Ulte ke omum oel nìngay fya’ot a tsun fko sleykivu tsat law nìwotx (mungwrr fya’o a san hìlvanpe sìk). Zene fko pivlltxe san peayhìlvan sìk fu san payhìlvan sìk srak? Fu fìsäfpìl lu keyawr nìwotx ulte faylì’u lu kxanì srak?

    Mì oeyä ‘upxare aham längu kxeyey: furi zene livu furia, ngaytxoa.

  5. Ftiafpi says:

    For the two phrases:
    # Po to oe lu koak.
    # Poto oe lu koak.
    I heard a clear difference between the two and could see that being distinguished by a native speaker, even in rapid conversation.

  6. Prrton says:

    In the vein of the lenition question by Wm Annis:


    wä fongu feyä (“against their group”)


    wä sapongu feyä (“against that group of theirs”) ???

  7. Corey Scheideman (Tirea Aean) says:

    To avoid such ambiguity, I am in the habit of (as Kemaweyan pointed out) putting ADP as a suffix when it is lenition causing. i.e kilvanmì and hilvanmì. this way there is no ambiguity caused by leniting ADP and short plural. I have always liked the idea of just putting lenition causing adpositions at the end of the word to avoid lenition.

    I also have a habit of putting adpositions and the -pe- interrogative in such a position to support cases and prefixes…i.e. mesutepe? or pesul fìtsengeti tok? if the word needs an adposition AND a case suffix, I tend to put the adposition in front, and put the noun case on…This may be the default, as I hardly ever see something like Tupel tok fìtsenget? with the -pe-l on the end. [But after Trr ‘Rrtayä and seeing tsayfnesänumvit who knows what one is able to do with adp, prefixes, and suffixes? (tsa-ay-fne-sä-num(e)-vi-t) A single word that means “those types of lessons.” tsaw eltur oeyä tìtxen soli nìtxan…]

    The same goes for such word order ambiguities…I try as much as I can to order the words in such a way that no ambiguity can exist…such as poto lu oe koak, and such. By th way, it is awesome to know that to is an ADP-like word. to attach it word-final makes comparison sentences easier somehow for me…

    With that, we know how to say A is better than B. B-to lu A sìltsan…
    but how does one say “That is good, but THIS is better.” would it have to become, “That is good, but THIS is better than that”? That seems the most likely route…

    Like Ftiafpi, I heard the tìketeng between “Po to oe lu koak” and “Poto oe lu koak.” and actually would understand this when in conversation. Very good point there that vocal rhythm and the way you say the two sentences would be distinct for the sake of understanding.

    Fìsänumviri ngar irayo seiyi oe ma Karyu Pawl.
    –Tirea Aean

  8. Corey Scheideman (Tirea Aean) says:

    Oeru tìkxey…I probably should have said mesupe? instead of mesutepe? ngaytxoa.

  9. tigermind says:

    Tewti! Fwa ngata faysänumvi seralew ayoene set ma Karyu Pawl woeiu fìtxan!
    Wow! It’s so amazing that these lessons are coming from you now, Karyu Pawl =)

    Like others have said already, i can definitely hear how timing and accent can help clear up ambiguity–and i can also hear some places my Na’vi pronunciation could use some work…

    Fì’upxareri ngaru irayo seiyi oe, ma Karyu. Kìyevame, ulte Eywa ngahu.

  10. okrìsti says:

    Na’vi: Oe ke pamrel seri nìhawng, slä nì’aw oe new piveng futa zamunge oel tsaylì’ut suteru leToìtse fìkrr. Ulte oe zene pivllte san tsakem seri a fì’u oer prrte’ lamu ulte oe namume nìtxan.
    Eng.:I am not writing much, but I just want to tell, that I brought these words to the German people this time. And I have to say, “doing that was fun and I learned much”.
    Ger.: Ich schreibe nicht viel und wollte nur mitteilen, dass ich eine deutschprachige Übersetzung angefertigt habe und muss sagen: “Das zu tun hat mir Freude bereitet und ich habe einiges gelernt.”



  11. Nìwotxkrr Tìyawn says:

    Loving the first Tìpängkxo leLì’fya post ma Karyu Pawl. I have a question that sort of goes along with what wm.annis was asking. If the adposition is coming after the noun such as “kilvanmì” if a lenitable consonant comes after that, does lenition occur?

  12. Kä'eng says:

    Nìwotxkrr Tìyawn: I’ve seen one usage of postfix mì followed by a lenitable consonant. From the Trr ‘Rrtayä message:

    “’uo a fpi rey’eng Eywa’evengmì ’Rrtamì tsranten nìtxan awngaru nìwotx.”

    tsranten did not lenit to sranten.

  13. Plumps says:

    In this, Na’vi is quite »restricted« meaning that, as far as I can see, lenition occurs only for a specific set of grammatical categories, not like in Irish, where nouns, verbs and adjectives are subject to lenition.
    But I think it will help beginners of Na’vi not to get too confused.

    Also a follow-up question of what William asked, concerning attributive adjectives. We are used to putting those between preposition and noun as English does (German does it as well). Na’vi allows relative free word order. So, would something like:

    oe wem tsawla wä sute (cf. oe wem tsawla sutewä) be possible as well?

  14. Gisle Aune says:

    Nimun seiyi oe ngaru irayo, ma Pawl furia sìltsana pamrel.

    Tirea Aean has one good idea in my opinion. I have always tagged it to the end of the word when the adoption either causes lentition or when I am unsure about it. Best to play safe.

    Eywa ngahu, ulte sìlpey oe tsni nga pamrel sìyevi nìmun ye’rìn.
    Eywa be with you, and I hope that you will write more soon.

    Rivey lì’fya leNa’vi tì’ì’avay krrä!
    May the Na’vi language live forever!

  15. Corey Scheideman (Tirea Aean) says:

    Ma Plumps, säfpìl ngeyä eltur tìtxen si nìtxan… I am so much in the habit of :

    instead of oe wem tsawla wä sute

    oe wem wä sute atsawl…OR oe wem tsawla sutewä.

    just because I know those two are right…BUT it COULD be that your original suggestion is also correct…and if it is, its just gonna make things a bit more loose, but as a result possibly more confusing. We shall see where this goes…

    I wonder why Pawl doesnt comment? (Tho im sure he has many other things to attend to.) It feels like we are discussing without him though his posts do bringing things to light. just an honest question cuz I kinda feel bad.(just me because I guess I’m a tad weird.)

  16. Kemaweyan says:

    Ma Plumps,

    lam oer fwa tsalì’fyavi lu keyawr 🙂 San tsawla wä sute sìk – fpìl oel futa zene livu san wä tsawla tute sìk fu san tsawla tutewä sìk (fu san tsawl sìk zene livu maw san tute sìk).

    Ulte tsatìpawm a polawm Wm Annis, oeyä eltur kop tìtxen si…

  17. Corey Scheideman (Tirea Aean) says:

    Come to think of it, It seems Kemaweyanur lu tìyawr.

  18. Plumps says:

    Ma meylan Tirea Kemaweyansì,

    well, of course I know what we all do to avoid ambiguity. I also resolve to putting the ADP or adjective behind the noun if that reduces the risk of being misunderstood. Still, it was just a thought that came to mind when I read William’s question — we judge by our usage of languages already known to us, and we tend to apply their rules to our usage of Na’vi… Now, if relative free word order means that logical constituents can be arranged in free order then it should at least be possible to say *tsawla wä sute, the -a making it clear that this adjective modifies the next noun to the right. I don’t say I am going to use it but I was just wondering about adjective/ADP usage in general.

    I reckon, the same can be said of the possessive. Personally, I tend to put possessive pronouns (as well as attributive adjectives) behind the noun — I think that’s a habit I took over from Irish. But that can lead to ambiguity as well, a possessive pronoun between two nouns. Can’t think of a good example right now, but I hope you know what I’m getting at.

    Eywa ayngahu

  19. Muzer says:

    I’ve noticed a few more possible ambiguities, though probably quite rare.

    When you have two nouns next to each other and a genitive in between, you can’t tell to which noun the genitive belongs. This could be more of a problem with sentences with two objects and a subject. The same occurs with “apxa”.

    When you have a clause created by “a” in the middle of a main clause, it can get a bit hairy about exactly where it returns from the “a” clause to the main clause, especially when “lu” is one of the verbs, or when more complex structures are used (see above).

  20. Kemaweyan says:

    Ma Muzer, fpìl oel futa fì’u lu txantsana tìkenong. Srane, tsun livu ke law san Tsmukan oeyä kelkumì zola’u sìk. Ke law lu fwa oeyä tsmukan fu oeyä kelku 🙂

  21. Gisle Aune says:

    Isn’t it a bit safer to put the genitive in a sentence where it doesn’t have a noun on both sides, Tirea Aean?

    like: säfpìl ngeyä eltur tìtxen si

    Wouldn’t the genitive, ngeyä fit better before säfpìl?

  22. Prrton says:

    «Frrfen» wä «frrfen» kop ke lu law nì’änsyem, kefyak? Txo l‹counterfactual-infix?›u tìfusrrfenä kemlì’u a ke ’oli’a na san« ferfen »sìk, fpìl oel futa tsun tslivam nìftue nì’ul. Ngian, nìlì’fya, lam oer fwa renu lepam na san« ferfen »sìk ke slilvu nìtrrtrr taluna «fer-»to latsu «frr-» txur, ha nìfya salew san« frrfen »sìk slu a fì’uri tsun fko tslivam nìlun.

    “Frrfen” (to visit) vs. “frrfen” (in the process of visiting) isn’t unambiguous either, huh? If the imperfective form were “ferfen” I think it would be easier to distinguish. However, linguistically speaking, since I take “frr-” to be phonologically stronger than “fer-”, it makes sense that we get “frrfen” in the imperfective instead of “ferfen”.

  23. Marta says:

    Kaltxì, ma Pawl.
    I’m a young Linguist, studying Na’vi, trying to build the essentials generative syntactic tree structures of this surprising language.
    I’m not nearly proficient, but still I am trying to deepen my knowledge, hence I’d love to meet those of you who are learning (who have already learnt, I guess) Na’vi with a generative approach. I developed a few trees myself, but I’m not sure they’re correct: I’d be extremely pleased to have the chance to compare them with others.

  24. A C Flory says:

    Forgive me for butting in but I was hoping that someone might be able to point me towards an application that would allow me to create my own, fictional dictionary. I’m working on an alien language called Vokhtan for a novel I’m writing.

    I’m currently using a Word table but I’d like to produce something that would look like a real dictionary. Any help would be much appreciated!

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