Thoughts on ambiguity

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Thoughts on ambiguity
Release date July 1, 2010
Source Naviteri
Link: 1

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[edit]

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

Pre-Nominal Lenition-Triggering Adpositions and Short Plurals[edit]

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 wä+—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.

Comparison of adjectives with to[edit]

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:

Po to oe lu koak. 2010-06-30 Po to oe 1 Poto oe lu koak. 2010-06-30 Po to oe 2 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!!