As is typical of many fantasy and sci-fi franchises, especially those geared towards a younger demographic, Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, don’t have much language diversity. Though both Avatars Aang and Wan travel the world, they never have any problems communicating with other people. The spoken language that viewers hear (or read, in the comics) is English, at least in the American version. The characters of this universe, though, write using mostly the traditional Chinese characters of our world, with a few simplified (modern) ones.
From a linguistic standpoint, this makes the language of the world quite confusing. The use of spoken English means that puns are English-based: “My name is Toph, ’cause it sounds like ‘tough’!” Is this a simple case of translation convention, so that the audience can understand what’s going on? Is English the language of the Avatar world, even though they write with Chinese characters?
The inspiration for the language of Avatar is represented well in the names of its characters, places, and concepts. What’s interesting is that these names are mostly not actual Chinese names. Many seem to be Anglicised pronunciations of Mandarin (a Chinese language) words, though there are exceptions: Avatar Kyoshi‘s name is based on the Japanese pronunciation of the characters 虛子, rather than the Chinese.
Hindi was also the inspiration for some Avatar names. The name of Guru Pathik (पथिक) means ‘traveller’ in Hindi. (We never see how his name is written in the Avatar world.)* The ‘agni’ (अग्नि, fire) in ‘Agni Kai’ is also Hindi, though the ‘kai’ (会, meeting) is Japanese. In fact, the word ‘avatar’ is a word taken from Sanskrit, another Indian language.
Momo gets his name from the Japanese word for ‘peach’ (モモ), but the Chinese characters of his written name (模模) in Avatar means ‘imitate’. Princess Yue is one notable character whose name quite directly relates to Mandarin. Her name (月) means ‘moon’. Hope, a baby born after Aang guided her parents through the Serpent’s Pass, is the only character I can remember with an English given name (except, maybe, Jet), but I chalk this up to translation convention.
So… now that we’ve established the linguistic framework of the Avatar world, what might language in this world look like if it was more realistic? As a fantasy writer, and a lover of languages, I decided to try my hand at a conjectural blog post. Let’s look at the world in general before we look at the individual nations.
Fasten your seat-belts. We’re in for quite a ride.
To the show’s credit, it does make some reference to language evolution, with Aang using hundred-year-old Fire Nation slang such as “hotman” and “stay flamin'” when he tries to blend in with the natives. But it’s basically absent otherwise. (Flashbacks that feature Sozin and Roku don’t feature this slang at all, for example.)
But there should be more. Aang was frozen in ice for a hundred years! Twenty years ago, ‘bil’ wasn’t used in Jamaica as a slang to mean ‘relax’. (And, despite what Americans may think, we don’t really say ‘irie’ (‘airi’) anymore.) How many Americans still say ‘peachy keen’?
Aang should have used more terms that his friends didn’t understand. And there should be some phrases that they use that he doesn’t understand, too.
By the time Wan is banished to roam the Spirit Wilds, his city has been separated from the rest of mankind for long enough that he was completely unaware that there were other lion turtle civilisations out there. I think it is reasonable to deduce that Wan’s ancestors first started living on the lion turtle’s shell many generations before Wan was born. Possibly, lion turtles had started their benevolent vigil, caring for mankind atop their shells, for very close to 10,000 before, soon after the previous Harmonic Convergence.
10,000 years… It takes a fraction of that for a language to differentiate enough that it has descendants that count as completely different (mutually unintelligible) languages, rather than just dialects of the same language. When the New Testament was first written (let’s round it up to 2,000 years ago), there was no such thing as the English language. But now, English has arisen from its Germanic ancestry, and has numerous dialects (Cockney, British Standard, the various American ones, Jamaican Standard…) and accents, and even other languages like Jamaican Creole have come about that have been lexified by it!
So, when Wan happens upon people on other lion turtles, he should have had trouble understanding them because they spoke a different language, even if his language and theirs had the same ancestry.
This should have continued throughout the world as time moved on. When Aang comes on the scene, we should be seeing many, many languages being represented in the world.
This one is kinda tricky. We don’t know when writing was first developed in the Avatar world. I recall no direct evidence that it existed in Wan’s time… Although, for cities to be established, there does need to be some form of writing for coordination purposes, I think….
As we already know, the Avatar world uses Chinese characters for writing; whatever the explanation, every nation uses the same writing system. Anyone who’s studied Chinese or Japanese knows how complicated these can be. Take the character for ‘dragon’, for example: 龍. It’s pretty crazy!
Many Chinese characters started as clear pictograms, (word pictures) bearing close resemblance to what they depicted, but over time became more ideographic (representing ideas) as they become more abstract.
The point I’m making here is that writing systems (and the individual letters/characters that comprise them) change over time. The letter ‘W’, for example, was originally written as “uu”! And don’t get me started about Hebrew!
Anyway, back to the character for dragon: In traditional Chinese, it’s written like 龍. This character has diverged to two different simplifications that I know of. In Simplified Chinese, it is written as 龙. But in Japanese, the character was simplified to 竜.
Taking all this into consideration, it makes sense that the different nations would have different ways of writing these characters. And there should be characters that came to being in one nation that the others wouldn’t use.
To illustrate, I should explain something: Many Chinese characters are compounds. There are ideogrammic compounds that combine two or more pictograms and ideograms to represent new concepts: like the character meaning ‘tree’ (木) doubles up to form the meaning of ‘forest’ (林). And there are phono-semantic compounds, in which one section provides the sound of the character, while the other provides the meaning. I’ll use the Japanese example of the suffix 寺 (じ、ji) which means ‘temple’. When combined with the character for sun (日), you get 時, which means ‘time’ and is also sometimes pronounced じ.
The meaning of these compound characters can often be guessed at based on their components, but… not always. As proof of this, the Chinese character for ‘good’ (好) combines, of all things, ‘woman’ (女) and ‘child’ (子). In Japanese, though, the character has the related, but somewhat different meaning of “fond”/”to like”.
I think that, over the many years that the individual nations existed, there may very well be compounds created that might not be understood by the other nations.
The Earth Kingdom is essentially the China of the Avatar world. It is the largest, just as China is the largest Asian country. The wall around Ba Sing Se is a clear reference to the Great Wall of China. And I’ve read that Earth King Kuei is a nod to Puyi, the last Emperor of China.
The China of our world “is home to a multitude of languages and dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible.” (“What Are the Different Types of Spoken Chinese?”) Both the traditional and linguistic classifications list seven varieties of Chinese!
So, it makes sense that the Earth Kingdom should have quite a few dialects (and possibly distinct languages) within is borders, even if it has one official language and lingua franca.
The existence of earthbenders and their special connection to earth may also have given rise to various distinct names for different kinds of rock and soil; more than any other nation. We can imagine that the characters for earth (土) and rock (石) would have been combined with others to create new written characters that people from the other nations would not recognise.
And there’s also a class system in the Earth Kingdom that’s unique in the world. The rich and poor are quite clearly delineated in a way that doesn’t seem apparent in the other nations. This would give rise to names for each social class that the other nations might not have names for.
Once again, the nation’s bending art may have influenced the language. For example: Although there is no direct evidence that there have been other human firebenders who could produce fire of a unique colour apart from Azula with her blue fire, the rainbow of flames that dragons Ran and Shaw show Zuko and Aang is a possible example of a concept that might exist in the Fire Nation language, even if it is lost by the time Zuko is born.
Like Japan of our world, the Fire Nation is an archipelago. The individual islands could easily have developed quite distinct dialects, if not languages. And, of course, even within the islands, there could be a few as well.
The Fire Nation colonies in the Earth kingdom are a unique situation in the life of Aang. They could have given rise to pidgins and creoles as the Fire Nation language imposes itself on Earth Kingdom languages/dialects.
As the most spiritual of all the nations, the Air Nomads strike me as having many words that are directly related to their… hmm…. is it a religion? And, of course, their unique vegetarian diet would likely influence their language, too.
As “nomads” who flew around the world on their bisons, they likely would have had a lot foreign influence on their language; more so than any other nation. And they’d be the most likely to place an emphasis on being multilingual, perhaps teaching the world’s other languages to their children.
When the Harmonic Convergence resurrects the Air Nomads as the “Air Nation”, though, it’s likely their language would be that of the Earth Kingdom. After all, most of new Air Nation citizens come from the Earth Kingdom, from what we see in Korra.
Both the Northern and Southern Water Tribes are no stranger to snow and ice. Just like the cliché that there are many Eskimo words for snow, they would probably end up having many words for these concepts: newly fallen snow, compacted snow, melting snow, re-frozen snow… The fact that ‘sleet’ is such a foreign word to me as someone who lives in the tropics is evidence for this, I think.
With the separation between the Northern and Southern Tribes, it makes sense that there would be linguistic differences between the two. This is especially true of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, which is said to have been established by tribesmen from the Southern Tribe thousands of years before the time of Avatar Aang. Just as their style of waterbending is different, the Foggy Swamp Tribe should have a very unique language, having forgotten all about snow and ice, for example. Even though this tribe is technically within Earth Kingdom territory, there is no evidence that they had much, if any, contact with Earth Kingdom citizens after the tribe came into existence. So, their language may have evolved completely independently.
What to say about the United Republic…? Honestly, this one is perhaps the trickiest.
At less than 100 years old, it’s the youngest of all the nations (save the reborn “Air Nation”), so it’s not likely to have its own language yet. As a melting pot of cultures from all three previously thriving nations, it more than likely would have more than a few pockets of communities that largely have the same nation of origin, and so the same native language from that nation.
But what would be the official language? There are two options, I think. The Republic was borne out of a unification of the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. As a result, either the language of the former colonial power (the Fire Nation), or that of the people who had been claimed by that power (the Earth Kingdom) would be the official language, and lingua franca. The Earth Kingdom, as a country that was always so geographically close to the colonies, and is still right next to the United Republic, could end up having its language chosen over the Fire Nation’s.
I suspect the creators preferred to ignore the language issue because of convenience, or just never thought of it. After all, linguistics is a largely ignored science in both sci-fi and fantasy. A world of Avatar that has language issues like that might be more work than the creators would be interested in, and maybe would be more confusion than the viewers would care to watch…
I’m sure there could be lots more to consider. But let’s end there. Do you have anything to add? Let me know!
*Pathik is a special case in another way, too. He bears no racial/ethnic resemblance to any of the established nations. We don’t know where he came from, what his nationality or ethnicity is, why he has an Indian accent… Anything.