Commentary: Everything Everywhere All At Once and other Oscars 2023 films show trend towards linguistic realism in Hollywood
This is especially noticeable when contrasted with the protagonists, the mostly-anglophone Wakandans. Although the language of Wakanda is the real-world language of Xhosa, spoken in South Africa, in Wakanda Forever, it was mostly relegated to greetings and asides.
Instead, the protagonists speak a kind of pan-African accented English. Unlike in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, viewers are never explicitly told that what the audience hears has been “translated” for us.
REFRESHING TO SEE, HEAR MORE LANGUAGES
In Avatar, which took the Oscar for best visual effects, the protagonists all speak Na’vi, the language of the species living across the fictional Pandora.
Most of the language has been “translated” in the mind of the narrator, Jake Sully. In a neat expositional trick, the main character narrates the beginning of the film and explains that he learned the alien language well enough that it just sounds like English to him.
This way, audiences won’t have to read for the entire film, and the heroes (and actors) can speak only English without sacrificing the “realism” of the science-fictional universe.
It has been refreshing to see, in recent years, many productions in film achieve critical and commercial success in the anglophone world despite being in non-English languages and using subtitles. There’s much more room for films to highlight both linguistic diversity as well as authentic characterisation of characters who speak and sign without resorting to potentially harmful tropes.
And I’m sure audiences wouldn’t mind hearing more Na’vi in Avatar 3.
Andrew Cheng is a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics at Simon Fraser University. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.