Everything Everywhere All At Once is a fairly insane experience in many ways.

There is an enormous and sometimes very rapid flow of images, for example. But, less remarked, there is also a wide variety of languages being spoken. (English cinema releases have a lot of subtitles.)

The lead characters switch between Chinese and English, sometimes mid sentence. But which Chinese languages? I've heard they use both Mandarin and Cantonese in different contexts. I suspect there are other languages as well, including some that might be made up (there is a subtitled scene where Michelle Yeoh seems to be using a language that involves only whistling).

So what have I missed? How many distinct languages are spoken by the characters in the movie (and does whatever rocks speak count?)? Is there any rationale for why they switch?

1 Answer 1

  1. English
  2. Mandarin
  3. Cantonese

There was also

  1. Bird calls/Bird tweets
  2. Dialogue between rocks

Source: Script

I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese and here are some of my observations/speculations:

Both Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) use both Mandarin and Cantonese (though mainly Mandarin and only a little Cantonese). Both speak Mandarin with "non-standard" (non-Northern/Beijing) accents.

Evelyn's Cantonese is more close to "standard Hong Kong"; Waymond's much less so.

Gong Gong speaks only Cantonese (though Alpha Gong Gong also speaks English).

Joy speaks Mandarin and not Cantonese. She speaks Mandarin with a distinctly "standard" accent--so one possibility is that she learnt Mandarin in school in the US and didn't pick up either of her parents' Mandarin accents.

I'm pretty sure the flashback/multiverse scenes are to Hong Kong based on these clues: (1) When Evelyn is born, the doctor speaks to Gong Gong in Cantonese; (2) There was a shot with a Hong Kong taxi; (3) Some shots had traditional (rather than simplified) Chinese characters; (4) The movie-within-movie credits were in the style of 1970s-90s Hong Kong cinema.

That Evelyn and Waymond speak both Mandarin and Cantonese to each other (and in non-standard accents) suggests they do not share the same strongest (or "native") language.

So, one possibility is that Waymond is not a native Cantonese speaker; was from some other part of China or the world, moved to Hong Kong, where he learnt Cantonese and also met Evelyn.

A few more notes:

Mandarin and Cantonese are completely distinct languages (as different as English from say German).

Michelle Yeoh grew up speaking English and Cantonese (source: Financial Times interview, 2023). She only learnt Mandarin when preparing to film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (source).

Ke Huy Quan is Chinese-Vietnamese, but I'm not sure when/how he learnt Mandarin and Cantonese and whether he would consider one of these two his stronger or "more native" language.

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