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Treatise: Translating the Avohkii, pt. 1

Posted by Tolkien , in linguistics, Movies, Long Entries, Bionicle, Matoran Language, Language and Etymology Nov 29 2013 · 1,467 views

[also hey look a tumblr]

Treatise: Translating the Avohkii

: Part 1 :

It has come to my attention that the novelization of the Mask of Light film includes the following passage:


mapaku una-kanokee wehnua-hakeeta ah-keelahe hanoni rahun-ahk toa-nak panokeeta makuta-tahkee ohnah-koo

This is supposed to be Nokama’s reading of the inscription found on the Avohkii. Interesting, no? Even if the novelization is only semi-canon, this could provide material for expanding our (admittedly completely made-up) knowledge of the Matoran language. Where to begin?
I began by seeking out the scene from the film itself where Nokama translates the inscription. I remember watching this years ago and hearing her utter some gibberish, but it never occurred to me that it might have been meaningful gibberish. Unfortunately for linguists attempting to reconstruct Matoran, the comparison of the film and the text from the novelization raises some problems. The bad news: The passages aren’t completely identical. The film-version is definitely truncated. The good news: While the film-version is shorter, it actually shares many elements with the novel-version. Both of these passages clearly come from the same source, and it appears that the film-version may be a pared-down form of the version presented in the book.
So which one do we use? Maybe we can use both. First off, however, we need a transcription of the passage from the film. Here’s mine:


ma'paku <break> [??] ke'wenuka'kit[?] <break> 'akila <break> [?]'hano <break> 'nano <break> 'atuana <break> ma'kuta'tak[?]

- ' indicates stress on the following syllable. This won’t play a huge role, but it does help in determining some of the word breaks.
- <break> indicates a brief pause, which I take to indicate a word-break in most cases.
- ? in brackets [?] indicates an indistinct sound. The first [??] indicates that there may have been something within the break, but it was indecipherable.
If we compare this transcription with the text from the novelization, we can further refine the analysis to include the more well-motivated word-breaks:


mapaku [?]ke wenu-kakit[?] akila [?]hano nano atuana makuta tak[?]

I’ve put a dash between wenu and kakit[?] based on the orthography of the novel-version (wehnua-hakeeta). Likewise, for now I’ve kept [?]ke separate from wenu based on ...kanokee wehnua...
[Real world intrusion here—this strikes me as very Maori, and I would not be surprised if we were dealing with a non-phonetic version of Maori text in the novelization, with the actress who voiced Nokama in the film just reading it off the script phonetically (hence the extreme reduction). That doesn’t work for everything, of course, since the novel-version includes words that don’t seem likely to be completely lost through pure phonological reduction: rahun-akh, panokeeta, etc.]
Anyways, now that we’ve compared both versions a bit, the next question is: Which one is canon? As far as I know, the novelization is only semi-canon, while the film is full-canon, at least when it comes to events. It would be easy to just drop the novel-version, but then we’d lose a significant piece of potential data. Ideally, we should be able to come up with an analysis that accounts for and is informed by both.
So here’s the plan: I will start with the film-version, taking it at face value, rather than as a truncation of the “full” version in the novelization. If we can come up with a bare-bones translation for that, the translation of the novel-version should come easily. With that in mind, I’ll revise the transcription from the film:


mapaku ke whenu ka kitu akila ahano nano atuana makuta taka

Full disclosure: In anticipation of the final analysis below, I’ve filled in the [?]-gaps from the original in a way that I think is plausible (kit[?] > kitu, [?]hano > ahano, tak[?] > taka). I’ve also modified the spelling slightly (wenu > whenu). There is definitely some potential for error here, and there will be a few more modifications before we’re finished, but this should work for now.

Next step: What could this possibly mean? We never get a straightforward translation. Here’s what Nokama says after translating the passage (taken directly from MoL): “This is the great Kanohi Mask of Light. A mask to be worn by a seventh Toa...A Toa of Light.”
That’s pretty much it. Main points: The inscription may identify the mask as the Mask of Light, but then again, it may not, since the Turaga already knew what it was—they were the ones who hid it, after all. Likewise, the fact that it can only be worn by a “Seventh Toa” wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense in the inscription, since a seventh Toa isn’t all that special—there were hundreds (more on that later!). I think it’s likely that most of the dialogue related to the inscription was, in fact, theatrics. The Turaga simply revealed to the Matoran that the mask was the MoL and that there would be a “seventh” Toa—all of which the Turaga knew beforehand.
Instead, in attempting to translate this inscription, it may be more useful to look at the origins of the MoL itself. Who wrote this inscription and why? The MoL was made on Artakha, and it was created for the specific purpose of combatting the Brotherhood of Makuta should they ever leave the straight and narrow. Artakha himself may have been the one to write the inscription, but regardless, the mask had a purpose from the beginning, and it would make sense for the inscription to pertain to that purpose: If the Makuta ever go bad, take this mask and find an Av-Matoran. I think it makes sense, at least! But we won’t know until we’ve got a translation, will we? This post has set the stage for just such an endeavor...
Next time.


  • 6

Since the Matoran language was never intended to have the elaborate rules you've managed to interpret from it (not that I'm not impressed with your work; it's just that most names and words from back then were either plucked from real-world languages or fabricated from parts of previously-selected terms), I'd venture to say that Nokama's words in Mask of Light were either a real-world foreign language or pure gibberish.

The former is somewhat unlikely given that the LEGO Group had not long before Mask of Light gotten into hot water for using real-world languages in BIONICLE. The latter is entirely possible, and in fact not unheard of in animation (compare Zecora's faux-Swahili in her first appearance in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic). Then again, the fact that the spoken version in the film is so close to the clearly Polynesian-inspired version in the book suggests that maybe it WAS a real-world language.

There's also the possibility that differences between the novel version and the movie version are a result of one or the other being edited after-the-fact to eliminate recognizable bits of real-world language, in order to prevent legal complications. In that case, the original screenplay that the novel and movie were both based on would probably contain the original, real-world passage, though possibly still in a simplified phonetic form.

Whether or not you can apply your word-formation rules to this passage will depend primarily on whether it is simply an archaic version of written Matoran or an archaic version of written AND spoken Matoran. We know the writing is archaic, or Nokama wouldn't need to translate. But then again, there exist real-world written works that, despite being close to modern English in terms of spelling and syntax,are not immediately legible to modern readers — just think about how a lot of English works four centuries ago used to have the lowercase letter S written more like the lowercase letter F minus the cross-mark, and multiply that difficulty by a thousand.

Note that in real Maori (and some related polynesian languages) "whenua" means "land", "country", or "homeland". The overall statement could mean something to the effect of "this is the mask of light, which will be worn by the hero who will save our homeland from the Makuta."
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Good points all around. As you said--we know that this text is either taken from a real-world language (as most of the earlier names/terms in Bionicle were), or it's real-world gibberish.


...But, of course, it's not Bionicle-world gibberish. That's my assumption, at least. If it wasn't my assumption, I'd have no reason to be goofing around with this stuff. xP

Whether or not you can apply your word-formation rules to this passage will depend primarily on whether it is simply an archaic version of written Matoran or an archaic version of written AND spoken Matoran. We know the writing is archaic, or Nokama wouldn't need to translate.

This is an interesting problem to deal with. I've been working under the assumption that the text from the novelization is, in fact, an "archaic" stage of Matoran, i.e., one that would require translation, but that the version spoken by Nokama is "modern" Matoran. That seems to be working so far. A related, but different, issue is the fact that Nokama (and the other Turaga) were most likely already aware of what the Avohkii said. They had the Avohkii in their possession a millenium before the events of MoL, and it's a pretty reasonable assumption that they did the translation work back then, before they hid the mask. So was Nokama actually quoting the text word-for-word in the film, or did she give an "amnesiac-Matoran-friendly" version? Food for thought.


Note that in real Maori (and some related polynesian languages) "whenua" means "land", "country", or "homeland". The overall statement could mean something to the effect of "this is the mask of light, which will be worn by the hero who will save our homeland from the Makuta."

If there's any guiding principle behind how we ought to fabricate a translation for this or any other language in Bionicle, I think it's safe to say that avoiding direct connections to Maori and other human languages is the best route. And beyond the initial stock of 01'-03' words, we've been given no reason to assume that the meanings of real Maori words should have any bearing on the translation of Matoran words. And even then--Mata means (among other things) "face" in Maori, and that's clearly not the Matoran definition that we're given, for obvious reasons. Something to keep in mind.


Thanks for your comment!



    • 1
Makuta Luroka
Nov 30 2013 10:37 AM

I greatly concur with that last point. If your translation has 'whenua' meaning 'hidden underground,' then perhaps the text refers to the makuta's lair as a place the mask or its wearer must go, being that Takanuva did go to the mangaia and he did defeat the makuta

    • 1

It makes more sense that Nokama is speaking the archaic language. After all, Tahungi (as I lovingly call it) is "translated" into English for the rest of the movie. Also words like "Kanokee" sound incredibly similar to "Kanohi."


This, then, offers us more than just a few more words or grammatical rules in Tahungi - it offers us insight in the way the language developed. Which inflections became more or less pronounced? Which consonants replaced others? What sorts of vowel mutations occurred? Has the language always generally followed the same sentence structure, or is that too different?


Also, for context. Although drawing from the entirety of the matoran universe for information, I think a certain degree of focus should be kept on context - even what was happening in the real world as far as development. At this point the idea of hundreds of toa past was only being deliberated by LEGO, not to mention the concept of a completely different backstory. The Metru Nui story radically redirected the mythos from a world of mysticism to one of manipulative, but very solid, forces.


I would argue that it is in our best interest, therefore, to take a perspective that the former is true simply because it is better suited to linguistic development and it's study. Personally, I also think it presents a better mythos and is more suitable for the writings of new stories, legends and myths. 

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I think it's pretty cool when fan stuff explains storyline conveniences better than the storyline ever did. Can't wait to see what happens next.

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Chapter I

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