Deaf Language and Culture in Avatar

This is follow-up to “If language in Avatar was more realistic.”

For decades, the rule of thumb for language (specially spoken language) in sci-fi/fantasy television has been: make communication between characters and easy. From Japanese shōjo anime like Sailor Moon and American shows like Superman: The Animated Series, for example, you see aliens species and races from far outside our solar system coming to Earth and having no problem communicating in perfect Japanese or English.

In keeping with this tradition, it makes sense that the creators of Avatar: The last Airbender chose blindness as the “disability” to feature in the show. Toph Beifong, the master earthbender who teaches Avatar Aang the art, is a new spin on the old cliché of the Blind Weaponmaster or (and I hate this name) the Handicapped Badass. Because it’s her eyes that don’t work, and not her ears, she can communicate with the other characters with no problem.

Toph on the last airbender

But what would it be like for deaf people living in this world?

There are no deaf characters in the franchise (shows or comics) that I can think of. And the only reference that I can think of to deafness is, funny enough, from Toph herself, sarcastically telling her daughters in The Legend of Korra that she is blind, not deaf. (Which, by the way, lets us know that there is indeed deafness in the Avatar world.)

And so, following last week’s speculative post, we must again speculate. Toph, though, provides us with a very good clue. Growing up, she was isolated from the world by her parents.

The fact is: neither language nor culture can develop when someone is in isolation. Because of the shame people have about disability in their families, and ignorance about how to treat disabled/differently-abled people, deaf people of our world have been historically treated like Toph; locked away from other hearing people, and (most importantly) from each other. An individual who is profoundly deaf and born to a hearing family will have no access to language. Because of this, sign languages and Deaf cultures are only a few centuries old in many parts of the world. In some places, they may be just decades old.


Deaf-blind artist Arnaud Balard signing with the Sign Union Flag, a flag he designed for Deaf culture all around the world

So… unless there is a group of deaf people together, possibly because of a genetic condition that results in a large incidence of deafness in village or other community (like Top Hill in Jamaica) there isn’t likely to be much of a Deaf culture in the time of young Toph.

That, though may change by the time Korra is born and the events of The Legend of Korra take place. Toph’s rise to prominence as Chief of Police may (and I have to emphasise may) have improved the treatment of other “disabled” people in the Avatar world. Just as a technologically advancing Japan developed the first school for the deaf in 1878 (as I read here), there may have been schools set up for deaf people in the different nations of the Avatar world. And so, with deaf people coming together for the first time, even in schools based on audist or oralist ideals, the seeds are planted for a truly Deaf culture, and the natural sign language that goes along with it.

So… honestly, because of the bending arts that are a part of the Avatar world, the question is now raised: What a Deaf bender look like? How might deafness affect bending? How might bending affect deafness?


Korra demonstrating waterbending

Bending, in most cases, is enacted through movement. That might mean that a person’s ability to communicate in sign language is reduced when that person is bending, since the body is otherwise occupied. Or perhaps signing could be modified so that it can be done while bending, somehow through reduced signing space…?

However, I can imagine that signing could actually be incorporated into bending. This would add another element to performance bending such as Master Pakku‘s  does with his students when Aang and his friends visit the North Pole. In other words, it could be very useful in artistic bending.

I think the best person to speculate about what Deaf language and culture might be like in a fantasy world such as Avatar is a culturally Deaf person. I’d love to see someone else tackle this question!

About Ken Kwame

Jamaican writer and aspiring fantasy novelist.
This entry was posted in JSL, Miscellaneous Language Issues and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Deaf Language and Culture in Avatar

  1. Pingback: How linguistics has affected my (creative) writing | Mr Multilingual

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