Editor’s Note: The following contains Avatar: The Way of Water spoilers.Avatar: The Way of Water opens with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed in voiceover, filling us in on his new family and his challenges learning the Na’vi way of life. He explains that although it took him some time to learn the Na’vi language, after a while, it sounded just like English to him. As he says this, the Na’vi people on screen switch from speaking Na’vi to speaking English, and we understand that although they’re actually still speaking Na’vi, we hear it as English like Jake does. This is an impressively subtle transition and a good excuse to film the movie almost entirely in English, but unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.
The English Worthington does a fair, though not entirely consistent, job of maintaining Jake Sully’s working-class east coast American dialect, while the indigenous Na’vi speak English with foreign accents. The problem, though, is that every actor seems to be using a different accent, when they should all sound the same, since they’re all native Na’vi speakers. It might make sense for the Omaticaya to sound different from the Metkayina, since their cultures are significantly separated from each other and they probably speak different dialects of Na’vi. But the individuals within each culture should sound consistent with each other, and that is far from the case in The Way of Water.
Origins of the Na’vi Language in ‘Avatar’
The Na’vi language was developed by linguist Paul Frommer. According to him, James Cameron had already created a base of 30 or 40 Na’vi words–names of people, places, and animals–which he gave to Frommer as a starting point, and from there Frommer constructed the rest of the language. Na’vi isn’t based directly on any one human language, but Frommer says the base words created by Cameron “had a bit of a Polynesian flavor,” so he started with those sounds and added to them. However, almost none of the actors in the film manage to pull off the pronunciation we would expect from authentic Na’vi-accented English.
Aside from Jake, who doesn’t even attempt a Na’vi accent, the Sully kids are really the stars of The Way of Water; they have more screen time than Neytiri and most of the other Na’vi adults. Jake’s sons, the elder Neteyam (James Flatters) and the younger Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), sound more West African than Polynesian, with hard American-style r‘s. Lo’ak’s accent also tends to fade in and out from one scene to another. Jake’s adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), on the other hand, has no accent aside from some especially emphatic t sounds, nor does his youngest daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). And Zoe Saldaña‘s Neytiri sounds more Slavic, with sounds pronounced lower and further back in the mouth than a native English speaker–it’s especially noticeable on the l‘s.
In contrast, most of the Metkayina sound generically European, with European-style vowels and that hard American r, including chieftess Ronal (Kate Winslet). Only chief Tonowari, played by Cliff Curtis, achieves something consistent and close to what a Na’vi accent would probably sound like, though his oldest son Aonung, played by Filip Geljo, is making a valiant effort.
So how would a native Na’vi speaker actually sound speaking English?
Na’vi Accents in ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Are All Over the Place
Na’vi differs from English in both its consonants and its vowels. One of the most significant differences is that it doesn’t have th, sh, or ch sounds, so a Na’vi speaker who learned English as an adult would have difficulty pronouncing those sounds–think about how a native German speaker often pronounces the th sound as a d. (Na’vi, though, also doesn’t have a d sound, so Na’vi speakers would probably pronounce both th and d as t.)
The r sound in Na’vi is also different from English; it’s what linguists call a “flap,” like the Spanish r, and it can be trilled. The English r is one of the most difficult sounds for non-native speakers to learn and often one of the most noticeable features of a foreign accent, so all those hard American r‘s sound particularly out of place. In fact, Tonowari is the only one who nails the Na’vi pronunciation of r sounds. This makes sense, since Cliff Curtis is of Maori descent and grew up around Maori elders – Maori is a Polynesian language and its sounds, including its r sound, are very similar to the sounds of Na’vi. (Curtis also has experience playing characters of a range of nationalities and is famously good at adopting accents other than his native New Zealand English.)
However, all of this begs the question: if the Na’vi people aren’t really speaking English – we and Jake are simply hearing it as English – then why do they have accents at all?
It’s possible that the accents are meant to replicate how they would sound if they were actually speaking English. This is pretty common in American film; foreign speakers speak English with an accent rather than their native languages to make things simpler for English-speaking audiences. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a classic example: Daniel Day-Lewis‘s womanizing Czech neurosurgeon speaks English with a Czech accent rather than actually speaking Czech because, let’s face it, American audiences probably aren’t going to turn out for a movie filmed entirely in Czech.
This theory explains why Kiri has almost no accent – she probably spends more time in the English-speaking human scientists’ lab than her brothers do since her mother’s avatar is still in stasis there. Assuming that Na’vi kids learn languages like human kids do, she would then grow up speaking both English and Na’vi natively. But the human boy Spider (Jack Champion) also speaks English without an accent, and he spends nearly all his time with the Sullys; he doesn’t seem to spend more time in the lab than the Sully boys do, so why do they have accents and he doesn’t?
The answer is that foreign accents in film don’t just help us understand where a character comes from or what language they speak – they also serve to Other the characters who have them. British villains in American film are so common that they’ve become cliché because a British accent communicates to American audiences that the character is Not One Of Us. In this sense, then, The Way of Water is telling the audience that although Jake looks like a Na’vi, and indeed thinks of himself as a Na’vi, he is, in fact, still human. Like Spider, he sounds like us, so even though he’s 12 feet tall, has stripey blue skin, and fights against the invading humans to protect Pandora, deep down, Jake Sully is still one of us.