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Headscratchers / Avatar: The Last Airbender - Linguistics

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  • Do all the elemental nations speak the same language? I know we have a trope for easy translation but Katara and Sokka could understand Aang the moment he woke up even though the Air Nomads have been extinct for 100 years not to mention when Zuko or Azula and friends were trying to blend in with the people of the Earth Kingdom nobody mentioned something about accents plus I'm not sure but I think everybody uses the same writing system?
    • You can read a book from 1910, no? Scratch that, you can even read the Declaration of Independence, which was written 234 years ago, and, with a little practice, read the plays of Shakespeare, which are at the most 421 years old. In short, in a literate society, language does not change that quickly.
    • Given the whole "Avatar maintaining the balance" thing, it's likely the entire world, which has got to be a fair bit smaller than the real world, dissolved its language barriers fairly early on. There is only one language now; the rest would have fallen out of use.
      • Though still, it seems unlikely that that same language wouldn't have evolved at all in 100 years. It's only even indirectly addressed when Aang tries to blend in at the Fire Nation.
      • Language is more likely to evolve and diverge in a changing world like ours. This is not the case with the Avatar world. By all accounts, the existence of the Avatar has helped to stagnate the world, because one ever-present force has been keeping the world in check. Only in the last hundred years in his absence have things begun to change again, but even then the change is only territorial, not really social.
      • Not to mention the art of bending itself kind of removes the need for certain technological advances that brought along social change with them in our world. And even then, look at what technology is developing...All bender dependent, like the tanks, balloons, the gates of the Northern Water Tribe, the submarines, and so forth. (granted, the inventor did make an engine too, but it will probably be cheaper to hire a bender than buy and maintain an engine, so don't expect many non-miliary to use those.)
      • Language is probably just one universal language, but there are still changes to the slang used from day to day. "Hotmen"? "Flameo"? "Stay flaming"?
      • The four nations have different naming conventions (c.f. Piando catching Sokka as a water tribe member). They ought to all have different accents.
      • You could choose to name your child something from an old culture and not have an accent. Sort of how a person born and raised in Chicago might have the last name Fitzpatrick and another person might be named Lowenstein. You could guess where their family is from but they'd have the same accent. Different naming conventions doesn't necessarily mean different accents, just ability to recognize patterns.
      • The sequel series disproves that the culture of the Avatar world is stagnant. There is nothing within the series to justify a universal language and writing system. In a world with presumably millions or even billions of people, the fact that they all speak the same language is a disgustingly cheap but essential tool for a children's show. It's simply for convenience. There is no naturalistic explanation for it.
      • Even if the cultures aren't stagnant, the world has been for thousands of years one where the different cultures regularly interact. The Avatar cycle depends on them interacting. Over time, that sort of thing is going to meld the languages together.
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    • Also, given how much Aang traveled, it's not impossible for him to speak Water Tribe, even if they did have their own language.
  • Just looking for a bit of clarification here: What language do these people speak? On the one hand, as noted in the Aerith and Bob entry on the main page, the names are mostly Chinese or Japanese, with a bit of out-of-place names here or there. They apparently speak English but they write in Chinese calligraphy. I would call that Translation Convention, but Yue was explicitly stated to be named after the [Chinese word for] Moon. And then there's the fact that "Hope" was considered a unique name, but in the beginning of that same episode, they read a sign that said "Abandon hope." Just color me plain confused.
    • I could have a friend named "Wald" (for the [German and] [archaic] English) word for "forest" (or un amigo se llama "Rio" [for the Spanish word for "River"], and I apologise for my incredibly rusty Spanish). "Fortitude" is such an unusual name these days as to be called unique, but you could still see a sign next to a cave that says "enter only with fortitude". It's not that strange, especially since "Yue" was spoken and not written, and thus could have used a character tthat sounded like "Yue" but meant, I don;t know, "polar bear-platypus" or "swamp" had it not been specified. They could have explained it, but I doubt that the ten-year-old target audience or the older Periphery Demographic (which I assume you are a part of) would have stood for a three-minute As You Know explaining Chinese characters and homonyms.
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    • On the subject of Yue, I don't think he meant, in universe, that he gave her a name that means "moon" in another language. More likely, it could be the name the culture had given to the moon/moon spirit in its mythology. Just watched the episode again, and Yue says she was named "for the moon."
    • We have to assume they're all speaking one language. They named her Hope, because it be easier than saying "We'll name he Xi Wang, meaning Hope", because that would imply there's a difference between Chinese AND English. We are to think they speak "Avatarian" or something, and that the English words are for our understanding. Thus, it's all interchangeable.
    • Or alternatively, some nation in their past developed a language similar to English as a spoken language, and it spread all over the world, while another nation had a character writing system similar to Chinese. For whatever reason, now, their spoken and written languages are both from different societies from an earlier time.
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    • Hey, in the modern day, we use Roman letters and Arabic numerals to represent languages that derive from both and neither.
    • I see it like this: You could name someone Luna and say she was named for the moon (Or Terra for the earth, etc.) I know Luna isn't English, but it's not like the language of Avatar couldn't have evolved from something different in the past.
    • A theory I had was that the Fire Nation was already in a lot of control by the time Sozin went to destroy the Air Nomads. The Air Nomads probably spoke whatever the Fire Nation language was because they had a lot of cultural history and it was something like a "classic" the same way classics students learn ancient Greek and Latin, even if those are dead languages. Much like Britain taught English to just about every colony, the Fire Nation taught their language. The show couldn't do a lot of accents because then children wouldn't understand everything if not with the Midwestern accent, but you do hear differences. Aang has a pronounced lisp, but my theory was that he didn't have a firm grasp of the Fire Nation language at the time, as it is gone when he is an adult. By the time we reach the current show, it's just become the standard.
    • I'm inclined to think that the language spoken is English, but with a different identification because it would otherwise look awkward. It's like how in Star Wars, the common tongue spoken is English, but it's instead identified as "Galactic Basic" yet written in Aurebesh characters as opposed to Latin characters. I think it's the same deal in the Avatar-verse, where the English spoken would be given a different name, while being written in Chinese characters.
  • On that note... The names for all major characters are given in Chinese characters at some point or another. The thing is, more than one language uses these characters. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, etc.) Each language pronounces these characters differently. Some characters' names go by different languages. Mandarin seems to be the default, but this is not always the case. "Kyoshi" is written as "京士”, for instance, meaning that this name uses Japanese pronounciations.In Mandarin the same characters would read "Jingshih". On top of that, not all names fit into their prescribed languages: As noted above, Iroh's name would actually be pronounced "Ailuo". And then there are names that fit into more than one language, or would fit better into one language but are written in another; "Katara" is written in Mandarin but would be easier to pronounce in Japanese. How does this work?
    • "Iroh" would be pronounced as "Iroh" still. The "l/r" problem comes from the fact that neither sound is used in the Chinese language and instead the "r" would be a glottal stop, like the double "t" in "better".
    • In-universe, the linguistic system might have simply outgrown the writing system (happens all the time in the real world), so that people are using sounds that didn't exist before, or the sounds are otherwise changing from what they were when the characters were created. E.g. Katara has to approximate her name because there aren't really characters for the exact sounds. Maybe the characters in Iroh's name are read as "Ai Luo" in the Earth Kingdom but as "Ai Rou" in the Fire Nation because of dialectical differences. Kyoshi could have been written using an alternative writing system, which would line up with the island being isolationist.
    • As you said, Mandarin is the default. Only when names are clearly from another kanji-using language are they written in that language.
  • In The Boiling Rock, Zuko NEVER pronounces Mai's name right, and apparently no one corrects his actor that he can't even pronounce his girlfriends name correctly.
    • Zuko pronounces it correctly, the creators for some reason spelt Mei as Mai.
    • Maybe "Mei/May" is some sort of nickname Zuko has for her... For some reason.
    • To be fair, there's no set pronunciation for Mai's name. They alternate between episodes.
    • Maybe he won't call her "my" when they're not together (and looks forward to when he Mei regain her favor)? Possessive but cute if true.
    • I don't think they've ever pronounced it "my." Even Azula says "May."
    • Maybe that's just the way "Mai" is pronounced in the Fire Nation? Kind of like how words can be pronounced completely differently, even if it's just across country. And then, if non-F.N. people keep hearing "May" and not "My", then they just pronounce it that way as well.
    • If they're going by Mandarin pronunciation as they seem to be, then the entire pronunciation of the name thing is confusing. Her named is spelled 'Mai', which in Hanyu Pinyin is pronounced 'My'. The Chinese character given for her name, however...or at least the one I've seen given for her pronounced 'May.' In other words, either way it's pronounced in the show, it's wrong in at least one way. A writer somewhere screwed something up.
    • It's probably just a mistake, but "Mei" (sounds like "May") does mean "beautiful" and "younger sister" in Mandarin (depending on the tone used), so it could be retconned in as a complimentary nickname from Zuko, and a tease from Azula.
    • I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it was Artistic Lisence, plain and simple.
    • Make note, even Mai's own MOTHER pronounces her name "May". I think its fair to say that's how it's actually pronounced.
    • Sorry, I can't come up with a source atm, but I definitely remember hearing that they show went with the Cantonese pronunciation of Mai. And yes, all the characters say "May" and not "My", so it's at least consistent.
    • Our way of pronouncing it is irrelevant, which was my issue with the movie names. Regardless of the number of parallels in culture to our world, it's not our world. If they wanted to spell her name EEKM and have the characters pronounce it like Susan, they can and that's the right way to pronounce it IN UNIVERSE. The spelling and phonetics of the real world are irrelevant in a fictional world. Friggin M. Night Shyamasnob...If we're going to worry about pronouncing the words the real culture's right way, we might as well worry about the fact that none of the animals in the show will ever exist. Just my opinion.
      • But the roman alphabet doesn't exist in universe. In universe they write with some sort of symbols (I'm not quite sure which). The spelling is something that exits in our universe to give name to something that doesn't use that spelling in their universe. No one in universe would spell it Mei or Mai, they would spell it using it's symbol.
    • Mostly Avatar uses intuitive anglicized pronunciations for names. Iroh is pronounced eye-roh, Sokka is sock-a, etc. and these also are reflected in the Chinese writing. As Iroh is written in the Chinese writing as Ailuo, Mai is written as Mei.
    • "Hi, I'm Mai!" "Mei?" "Eh, close enough." Plenty of people do this and just... aren't overly concerned with people pronouncing their name 100% accurately.
  • How many different ways can people come up with to spell "Ba Sing Se"? It's not that hard!!
    • Chinese/Japanese Calligraphy is not like English at all. Chinese has a symbol for every different word, while Japanese has a symbol for every different syllable. And seeing as English has several letter combinations that can be pronounced the same, such as f, ph, and even gh (as in "tough"), this kind of thing is inevitable.
      • Except that in the show, it is spelled (in English) as "Ba Sing Se." It's even in a couple of episode titles. There's really no acceptable wiggle room.
  • The "Momo" joke from when they named him. They're Chinese, and it's a Japanese joke. Japanese probably doesn't even exist in this world.
    • They aren't Chinese, they just use some elements from Chinese culture and there are elements from many different cultures in the series. The armor used by the Fire Nation resembles the Ottomans, the Water Tribes are clearly based on groups native to the Arctic and the swamp dwellers aren't even remotely close to Chinese culture.
    • Furthermore, Kyoshi Island is very Japanese, and the Fire Nation has some Japanese elements as well.
    • If this tropes is correct, Word of God claims that the joke was completely accidental. They weren't aware that Momo meant Peach in japanese, they thought it was a funny name for a batlemur and gave it to it. What a funny coincidence!
      • AND Momo means "dumpling" in Tibetan, the language that most of the Air Nomads are named in.
  • If the hybrid animals are the most common kind of fauna in the Avatar world, how come they have names that combine the names of two non-hybrid animals, even though non-hybrids seem to be rare (as evidenced by how confused Team Avatar is when they see a regular non-hybrid bear), or even non-existent? For example, people wouldn't start calling an animal "platypus bear" if they've (almost) never seen a platypus or a bear, yet platypus bears themselves were common. The real world equivalent of this would be Europeans calling frogs "lungfish geckos", or something like that. So how did those names come to be?
    • I was wondering this too, until I re-watched the episode you mention with the King's pet bear. Once Katara mentions it the Gaang then start listing off possible bears she may mean such as "platypus bear" and "armadillo bear". These two animals must have one thing in common and since we've seen many a platypus bear, we can assume this is the main body of the animal: big and bulky with fur and claws. The animal scientists of the Avatar world must have named those attributes "bear attributes", and the same just applies for every other animal. Using this logic we can guess that the sheep-like animals that Lee's family kept in "Zuko Alone" were called "pig sheep" and "cow sheep" because they both had the same build and were kinda wooly. Hope that makes sense.
    • To make it simpler: IRL, we have Poodles, Dachshunds, Retreivers, Terriers, etc. that all count as "dogs" because they share common characteristics. The Gopher bear, skunk bear, armadillo bear and whatever-the-hell-else bear share common characteristics and are thus classified different "breeds" of bears.
    • Hybrid animals are more common, yes, but that doesn't mean non-hybrids don't exist. It's my best guess that non-hybrids used to be more common but were either over-hunted (like the dragons) or were just bred together to get the hybrids for so many generations that they still exist but are just rare. Also, note that in The Imprisoned, two of the guards debate whether Appa is a bison or a buffalo, so there have to be some normal animals around somewhere. We just don't see them because the hybrids are more interesting, probably.
    • Helpful explanation: The show was orignaly supposed to be set in the future after some sort of apocalypse to explain all the bending and hybrid animals, but eventually the creators decided against that.
  • They don't use the Latin alphabet in the Avatar world, yet Aang refers to "plan B" at least once. What the heck?
    • Translation Convention. "Plan B" is an idiomatic expression. He's "really" using whatever expression means "backup plan" in their language. Similar to how, for example, we hear characters say "pyrrhic victory" in worlds where Pyrrhus of Epirus didn't exist.
  • On the note of linguistics, why couldn't the writers just give the in-universe common tongue a different name than "English", like what Star Wars does by calling English "Basic"? It's better than having to go into murky details of Translation Convention, and it makes for a better Hand Wave so that the audience doesn't have to wonder why they hear their language as English. The fact that it is given a different identification further reminds us that it is not our earth or our universe.


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