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Speech Acts

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At age ten, the fire sages proclaimed her fully fluent. At twelve, she spoke in blue.




"You mean, you'd teach me the Southern dialect?"

Hama smiled. "Of course, child."




"Right now, you only need to know one adjective. 'Rock-like.' Got it?"

"Rock-like, Sifu Toph!"




The water in the little pot went cold, pure solid. Katara let her hands relax and the ice was fluid once again, but a thin, white ring still hung in the lip of the cook-jar. Frost. She should be more eloquent than to leave frost.

The Avatar hadn't noticed her mistake. Aang had been watching her.

"A pond," Katara began, "Or, a puddle, is like a conversation. This isn't a pond, but it's the right amount of water for you to get the idea." Katara began to gently rock the water, moving her hands back and forth above the surface, leaving the phrase of the pattern open. She nodded to Aang and he answered the lull of her motions with his own and soon the water was awake with little waves. "It's more water than you would drink at one time..." Katara spread her arms in a wide ellipsis; Aang pushed the sentence back. "But less water than you could take a bath in. You can give it all your attention all at once."

"So bending a lake would be like... giving a speech?"

"You have to listen to the water too, and bending only some of the water from a lake or a river is like... listening for one voice in a crowd, and then starting a conversation like that. Rivers can be especially tricky, because they're already moving."

"And what about the ocean? What if the body of water I'm bending is so huge it has its own tide??"

Katara laughed. "I don't think anyone's ever done something like that before!"




"You can't just ask the earth to do something. That's your problem. You've gotta demand it." Toph thrust her palms outward, thumbs in, and the boulder wall shook with attention. "You've gotta be forward. Blunt. Direct." The stone cracked as she jammed her foot into the ground and Aang would've sworn then that he'd never seen a phrase change intention so abruptly. She hadn't even moved her hands! The upper edge of scarp fell off in chunks.

"And at times..." Toph smiled, as if searching for the right word. "Crass." She clapped her hands, and the stone was dust.




The clouds on the low border of the valley broke with thunder.

"This harmony can help you in your own life, and it can help you in battle. The technique I am about to show you I developed by studying the language of waterbending." Iroh handed Zuko the stick he'd been writing with and took up the first high-sun pose.

"Lightning is paradox. To create it, what you communicate must carry two opposite meanings at the same time. The energy in the world becomes separated, and then comes crashing back together. Once this energy is released, all you can do is guide it. You cannot control it. You cannot speak to it. Now, watch."




"What is bending?"

The answers are old in Aang, remembered from the dead century.

"Bending is communication."

"Who speaks? Who listens?"

"I scream with the wind. I whisper with the breeze."

Aang cradles an idle cyclone in his hands, a whirling loop of implication. He could change the context if wanted to, from Space Between The Fingers to Space Between The Palms, but he is meant to be paying attention to the echo mantra, and he hates being split between two tenses.

"Who speaks? Who listens?"

"The air speaks, and I listen."




Master Pakku had a way with words, it was true. He spoke to the water like it was an old lover, a trusted friend. He shifted his elbow and the great wave curled inward, following the movements of his body. Katara could read the meanings of the positions, stance to shoulder to arm to fingers: swell, surge, rush, flood, freeze.

Katara raised her hands and disagreed.




"True firebending isn't imperative. The fire is yours, if you can control it, but a firebender must have breath and heat and energy of his own. It's the difference between 'burn'," a brief flare ignited on the edge of Zuko's knuckles, "And 'burning'." Zuko moved into the next pose and his fists lit up with yellow flame.

"No commands?"

"No commands."

"This is great!"

Zuko blinked. "It... it is?"

Aang grinned. "Yeah! I hate being told what to do."

"Twenty hot squats. Now."

"Hey! It was just a joke!"




"Boy, this is an authentic waterbending dictionary. Not the largest sample of vocabulary, no, but those diagrams are hand drawn, and you won't find a clearer breakdown of irregular tenses anywhere."

"Okay, okay!" Aang exclaimed. "Two copper pieces."




"The Avatar State. Lifetimes upon lifetimes of linguistic knowledge! Lucid communication with the elements! Just think of the possibilities!" General Fong's eyes were bright and eager, and Aang almost took a small step back.




"They met on the mountain that divided their two villages. The people on one side of the mountain spoke one language, and the people on the other side of the mountain spoke another, and the two villages had been fighting for generations, unable to find truce or communicate. But the man thought the woman was beautiful and strong, and the woman thought the man was brave and kind, and each decided then that their own languages were useless if they could say nothing to the other."

"Wait, why didn't the man and woman just point at things and say what they were called?"

"Well, I... I think their giving up their languages was meant to be symbolic. Didn't some monks take vows of silence?"

"Well, yeah, but they weren't really vows of silence at all, 'cause they could still speak to the air using airbending! That was the whole point. This one monk? Xin Bai? He went a whole month only---"


"Oh... right, yeah! What happened next?"

Katara moved the circle of torchlight along the row of stone carvings. "They were silent for a long time, but they met on the mountaintop whenever they could, each being careful to keep their love a secret from their villages. They watched how the badgermoles dug their tunnels into the earth and tried to copy them. Because they'd given up their human languages, it was easy for them to figure out how to speak to the earth, and they became the first earthbenders.

"Together, they began to create a new language, for speaking to the mountain and to eachother. They carved their own tunnels and met deep underground. But then, the man was killed in the war between the villages. Devastated, the woman unleashed a terrible display of her earthbending power. She could have destroyed them all. But instead, she tore down the mountain and united the villages into one great city."

"What were their names?"

The torchlight, dim and fading, flickered out.




"Speak a word of Earth and it moves for a word. Speak a word of Water and it moves for a word. But speak a word of Fire and it burns and burns and burns until it can burn no more. That is what is means to firebend. I will not teach you."




Aang spun, slowly, trading his weight from one foot to the other, drawing his hands up over his head, ducking, tracing a sweeping curve with his fingertips. Katara had been the only waterbender in her tribe growing up, but she couldn't imagine what it would be like to know you were the last person in the world to speak your language. To know that you would be the last to truly listen to your element, to understand it. To know that when you died, it would be some inhuman color of the world again, mute and meaningless.

A breeze stirred the high treetops as Aang breathed out, finishing the phrase.

"Was that an exercise Gyatso taught you?"

"No... it was a poem."