Posted on Friday, September 24, 2010
Category: Films, Languages
Like many sci-fi or fantasy movies, the “Star Wars” universe contains many artificial languages that were created for the films and are essential to the storylines.
Like the fictional languages used in “Star Trek,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar,” “Star Wars” languages are based heavily on real-world languages — sometimes in surprising ways!
A Small Sample of “Star Wars” Languages
Unlike languages like Klingon (from “Star Trek”) and Na’vi (from “Avatar”), none of the “Star Wars” languages have been developed into full working languages with grammar rules and a syntactical structure.
However, Karen Traviss, a British journalist and author of several “Star Wars” expanded universe novels, is currently working on making Mando’a — one of the lesser-used “Star Wars” languages — into a working language.
Other “Star Wars” languages are more familiar to fans of the films and have some interesting linguistic origins:
Binary was the primary language of many droids, most memorably R2-D2. It was mostly a series of beeps, whistles and low tones. “Star Wars” sound designer Ben Burtt created the Binary sounds by combining electronic noises with whistles, water pipes and even vocalizations.
While viewers can’t interpret R2’s language word for word, the sounds of Binary could convey happiness, sadness, fear or anger to the audience.
The language of the furry inhabitants of Endor’s forest moon was another one of the “Star Wars” languages developed by Ben Burtt. Burtt was inspired by a BBC documentary that featured the Tibetan, Nepali and Kalmyk languages. He taped portions of the interview and also spoke to native speakers of the languages, then worked with voice actors to develop Ewokese based on words and phrases from the languages.
Geonosian is the language of the insectoid Geonosians seen in “Attack of the Clones.” While the Geonosians are minor characters, their few lines of dialogue are memorable for their use of click consonants, like those used in Xhosa, Zulu and other languages of South Africa.
Huttese isn’t spoken just by Hutts like Jabba — it is something of a lingua franca of the “Star Wars” universe and is one of the most widely spoken languages on Tatooine and other Hutt-controlled worlds. Huttese is based on the Quechua language, spoken primarily in the Andes region of South America.
Galactic Basic & Accents
Though it isn’t mentioned in the movies, the real lingua franca of the “Star Wars” universe is Galactic Basic. While a viewer might assume Basic is the same as English, it’s safer to assume that Basic is simply heard in the vernacular of the audience, in the same way that “Lord of the Rings” is translated into the vernacular of the reader/viewer from Westron, the lingua franca of Middle-earth.
There are various examples of accents in the “Star Wars” films. In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Imperial officers often had British accents, while members of the Rebel Alliance had American accents. However, the accents may have been used to denote class, instead of allegiance — high-ranking officers on both sides often spoke with British accents, while stormtroopers and Rebel soldiers almost always had American accents.
In the prequels, there were even more examples of characters with accents:
- Senator Palpatine and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s faint Scottish accents could be interpreted as Coruscanti accents.
- Anakin Skywalker’s mother, Shmi, spoke with a slight Swedish accent.
- Many of the Nemoidians, best known for running the Trade Federation, spoke Basic with distinct Japanese accents.
Real Languages in “Star Wars”
There were several instances where existing languages were used verbatim in the “Star Wars” films. The Ewoks, whose language was already heavily influenced from Tibetan, addressed C-3PO with a Tibetan Buddhist prayer at one point in “Return of the Jedi.”
“Return of the Jedi” also features Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot Nien Nunb speaking Haya, a language spoken mainly in Tanzania. Nien Nunb’s dialogue was reportedly recorded by a Tanzanian foreign exchange student.
Finally, viewers who listen carefully can catch a snippet of Finnish in “The Phantom Menace.” During the pod race, the characters Watto and Sebulba can be heard yelling “Kiitos!” and “Ole hyvä!”, meaning “Thank you!” and “You’re welcome!” respectively.
So how did all the “Star Wars” characters talk to each other?
C-3PO was a protocol droid who was “fluent in over six million forms of communication” and acted as an interpreter throughout all of the “Star Wars” films. With all of the languages encountered over the course of six movies, it’s a good thing that one of the films’ most beloved characters was an interpreter for all of the “Star Wars” languages !