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Instead of using Written Chinese as done in the original animated series, the writing in the movie is a made-up language influenced by Chinese calligraphy, similar in concept to developing the Klingon language. This emphasized the story taking place in an Asian-inspired "alternate world", rather than an "Asian world". While the Klingon writing systems are similar to the Latin system (e.g., 26 characters with one-to-one grapheme-phoneme correspondence, reading left-to-right, etc., etc.), this alien writing system has similar traits to the Chinese writing system (e.g., thousands of character glyphs, each with its own sound and meaning but combined to mean something else, reading not necessarily left-to-right, etc., etc.) In some cases, the writing is translated as English subtitles. The grammar and vocabulary for this alien language is yet to be published.

"We ended up making up our very own language influenced by Chinese calligraphy. When the characters do their moves at the beginning, there are letters that represent the element behind them. So we have a vocabulary. It is [a functional language]. They’ll take the symbol for water and the symbol for table, and together they mean something else. It might mean someone who is wishy-washy because they don’t come from a hard place. We were making it up - what these symbols mean together. When we were analyzing the ones that they used (in the show), it was the exact conversation: it’s influenced, but it isn’t it."
Roundtable discussion with M. Night Shyamalan

This made-up language is not well-received by many fans of original series, preferring actual written Chinese instead. Professor Siu-Leung Lee, who helped with Chinese calligraphy in the original series, was also unhappy with the direction the producers have taken.

"I just received words from the movie producers. They are not going to use Chinese calligraphy at all, replacing it with unreadable symbols. I won’t be participating in the movie. It is not only a disappointment on the cast. They are removing all the successful elements of the original TV series. I think that would keep a lot of Asian audience away. I am disappointed to learn that the Avatar movie has removed the successful cultural elements of the original Avatar TV series. Whether this is a right decision will be seen in the box office."
— Professor Siu-Leung Lee, cultural consultant, Avatar: The Last Airbender.[1]

References

  1. Avatar Calligrapher Professor S.L. Lee Shares A Statement. racebending.com (2009-07-29). Retrieved on June 29, 2011.

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