Language and the Jedi [Think Tank]

The Overthinkers puzzle out the linguistic nuances of Star Wars.

Something a little different for Think Tank this week. The following was a thread on the OTI writers’ email list, which I’m reproducing here to make two points. First, we never stop overthinking. And second, guys who would prefer root canal to turning in their articles on time will spend half an hour writing an email if they think they’re procrastinating.


When Luke goes to confront Jabba in Return of the Jedi, he speaks English, and Jabba speaks what I assume is Hutt. They both understand each other perfectly.

Two questions:

  1. At what point did Luke learn Hutt? You’ve got to assume this is not something he would have picked up moisture farming. So did Yoda have him listen to a bunch of “Intro to Hutt” learning tapes? Or perhaps being a Jedi gives you the power to understand any spoken language, through mind-reading?
  2. What can we say about the tactics of refusing to speak your adversary’s language? Presumably, Luke could have spoken Hutt, and Jabba could have spoken English. But instead they have this odd, bilingual conversation. Sheely, I believe you have some knowledge of diplomacy–is this a common thing in sensitive negotiations? When the United States and North Korea negotiate a missile treaty, I can’t imagine the US ambassador speaks Korean, right?


Actually, Luke learning Hutt growing up makes a fair amount of sense.  When Luke talks to the Jawas in Episode IV, they do it the same way (Luke speaks English, Jawas speak Jawa), so we know that this is a pretty standard way of doing things (perhaps because human vocal apparatus can’t produce Jawa and Hutt phonemes, and vice versa?), and that Luke can kind of get by in at least one language other than English, for trade purposes. Come to think of it, doesn’t he pick up R2D2’s language by the beginning of the second movie?

Think of Tatooine like Afghanistan:  yes it’s a backwater, but most people are going to have to acquire a working knowledge of several languages precisely because it’s such a backwater.

The only remaining question is whether Hutt is one of the languages that people on Tatooine would have to know… and the answer is yes, because according to Wookiepedia, rival Hutt crime families were the de facto temporal power on that backwater desert planet.  Kind of convenient, but there you go…


My take? It is not a coincidence that Luke displays the ability to speak several languages at the beginning of Jedi, but not sooner. He is a Jedi, which means he is an official Apostle of the Force, and is thus given the gift of speaking in tongues.

And nobody has a tongue like Jabba.


I don’t actually know a ton about diplomacy, but your intuition seems correct: speaking the other party’s knowledge would be a bit of a concession.

However, I think in diplomatic practice, the strategic problem of language choice has been resolved more through the use of a third language to conduct both bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Historically this was French; more recently it has become English.  Thus, the situation where one party to a negotiation has to speak the language of the other side has happened whenever one of the negotiating parties was France (or England, or the United States), all of which, not coincidentally. have been great powers at some point in history.

So I guess one conclusion that you could make (and this is similar to Jordan’s point) is that Luke only would have spoken Hutt if it were a regional lingua franca of either trade or diplomacy.

I wonder if there would be any interesting comparisons to Star Trek here. I don’t know anything about the Star Trek universe, but given that the central premise involves a federation of planets, I imagine that language issues must have come up at some point.


Star Trek has a universal translating device, so language doesn’t usually come up.

Also I recently watched an episode of DS9 in which a character watched a holovideo and asked it to turn off the translation filter to hear what type of alien grammar construction was being used.  Apparently he used some sort of passive voice, which suggested something about what the character really wanted.


Don’t forget other key examples of odd bilingual conversations in star wars:

  • Han and Greedo in Episode IV
  • Han and Chewie in all of the movies
  • Han and Jabba in the special edition version of Episode I
  • Lando and his copilot in Return of the Jedi

And that’s just what I came up with off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty of others.


So here’s a question: with the exception of C3PO, does anyone actually speak a foreign language in any Star Wars movie?