Language and the Jedi [Think Tank]

Language and the Jedi [Think Tank]

The Overthinkers puzzle out the linguistic nuances of Star Wars.

Belinkie (cont’d)

Oh wait, I’ve got one: little Anakin in Episode I speaks some sort of alien to his boss in the Tatooine junk shop. Anything else?


I’m pretty sure that everyone who works for the Empire speaks English.  Like Latin for the Romans or English today, the Empire’s language is a tool for imperialism, crushing indigenous forms of communication along with individuality (clone army being the ultimate expression thereof) and representative government.

It is clear that those at the fringes, the rebels and other underworld figures, like many native tribes today in the USA, the Basque in Spain, or the Uighers in China, are holding on to native languages as one part of their struggle against oppression.

With droids like C3PO around, the Empire’s intelligence agencies probably don’t have trouble recruiting enough Hutt translators, but anti-droid prejudice may be getting in the way there.

Also, I think the only time C3PO translates for anyone but R2D2 is when he becomes the golden god of the Ewoks.  That seems to be one alien language that not everybody knows.


A related observation: it strikes me as interesting that Jabba lives on the exact same planet Luke grew up on. A odd coincidence, given what a desolate hick planet it’s suppose to be. As far as I can tell, there is no plot reason for this. Maybe it’s to provide some thematic sense of “return.” Luke literally comes back to where he was born, now significantly less whiny. (Although famously, the movie wasn’t called “Return” of the Jedi until only a few weeks before its release.)


Given Sheely’s observations on diplomacy above, I think at least half of the bilingual conversations make perfect sense now – it’s all about jockeying for position.

Take Han and Greedo as an example. If someone speaks to you in a language you understand (Rodian), but you respond in your own language (Corellian English whatever humans speak), it’s a subtle power play. Like putting lifts in your shoes or wearing pinstripes to make yourself look taller. It says, “I know what you’re saying, but I choose to respond in my native tongue. Try and keep up.”

Now the other party has to choose to either start speaking in your language (conceding that you’ve set the terms) or responding in their original language. Of course, among such alpha males as smugglers, bounty hunters and Hutt crime lords, no one’s ever willing to back down. So it turns into a bilingual conversation that no one outside can follow.

But what about the pilot/co-pilot relationship, like Han and Chewie or Lando and Nien? Easy – it’s two guys giving each other grief! It’s like calling your best friend an asshole or a pansy.


Of course, this makes Jar Jar Binks even more problematic.  Why have him speak a cartoonish patois when all the other aliens just speak their own languages?

Reminds me of a silly scifi novel I read back in the day where there was a big warthog alien that everyone thought was stupid because he spoke broken English (“Me… friend” kind of stuff), but it turned out that he was the smartest guy around, and just refused to use the universal translator because he wanted to show off his fancy degree in xenolinguistics.  Maybe the same is true of Jar-Jar? Or maybe not.  After all, the Gungans speak patois even to *each other*, which suggests that their original language has been lost.  Someone (Sheely, I’m looking in your direction) could probably write a complicated exegesis of the power dynamics this suggests. I can think of two possibilities right off the bat:

  • the English speaking Naboo elite are not native to the planet, and have basically eradicated the native culture

or, more troublingly but also more plausibly, given the various Jamaican referents in Jar-Jar’s character design

  • the Gungans are not native to Naboo, but were instead imported as slaves, and their culture and language were lost during captivity


Is it fair to characterize the Gungan’s language as “broken English”?  It sounds bad or broken to our ears, but they seem to have a standard Gungan vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.  Which makes it not a “broken English” but merely a new dialect of it.  That does suggest that, at some point, the Gungans spoke a different language and then had to learn Star Wars “English” (or Common or whatever they call it).  I do think the theory that they were brought in as slaves makes a lot of sense, because it gives them a reason to learn English as well as a reason not to learn the proper grammar for it.  Then, over time, like Earth’s creole speakers, the Gungans developed a true, complex language when their children grew up and their little brains made a true grammar for it. [Editor — I believe that Mlawski is implying that their brains were little because they were children, not because they were Gungan.]


No, you’re totally right, we should think of Gunganese as a legitimate language. To claim that Jar-Jar Binks speaks “bad English” is racist. (Or speciest? Or wait, is that racist? Gah!)  The question is, though, is this:  were Lucas & company thinking of the language as a creole, and using it to subtly point out that the Royal Family of Naboo must have some ugly skeletons in its closet?  Or were they just thinking “we’ll have him speak in broken English, and sell a million dolls!”

(By the way, that Star Wars wiki does offer an official explanation for Gunganese. It is excessively dorky.  As part of the explanation, we learn that – alone out of all the Star Wars species as far as I’m aware – the Gungans have a rich literary tradition.  This is what is known in layman’s terms as “overcompensating.”)

So to recap:  most people in the Star Wars universe speak their own language in conversations with alien life forms.  There are several possible explanations:

1) Jedi gift of tongues.  Unlikely, seeing as how more people than just Luke do it, but possible and thematically appropriate.

2) Alien phonemes cannot be approximated by human vocal apparatus, and vice versa.  This makes sense with some of the weirder ones, like Jawa and Wookie (there’s gotta be some subtle-ass variations in all those “Meeearhhs”). But on the other hand… look, it’s not like the sounds of the alien languages are THAT hard to reproduce.  Say it with me now, “Kuna to chuta, Solo…

3) It’s a way of establishing control over a situation.  The general consensus backs this option, and the evidence does seem to support it.  Most of the bilingual conversations in Star Wars involve some kind of tense face-off (or, as Perich notes, broseph-esque jockeying for position), and the only people who do speak languages other than their own – C3PO, young Anakin, the Gungans – are marked as personally, professionally, or culturally servile.  Oddly enough, this reading turns R2-D2 into a rampaging alpha male who tries to take control of every conversation he ever has… but I think I can live with that.

To close it out, let’s return to McNeil’s point:  if insisting on your own language is a way of assholishly asserting your dominance, then the Empire is the biggest and most dominant asshole of all.  (No great surprise there, I suppose.)  After all, these bilingual conversations have been going on on a larger scale all over the universe for decades centuries a long, long time, and you know what? Eventually, the Empire wins, and the other worlds break down and start speaking “English.”  And there’s not much evidence that the death of Palpatine will have positive impact on the situation:  after all, the Empire only existed for about twenty years!  Whatever happened to Old Gungan happened on the republic’s watch.  I’m guessing the Ewok’s are next.  Sure, their slingshots and deadfall traps can take out AT-AT walkers.  But let’s see how they face up to cheap liquor, big-box stores, and a 24-hour all-Ewok soft-core pornography channel… broadcasting in Galactic Standard.

Don’t even get me started on how John Williams’ orchestral score is hegemonically normatized vis a vis the “ethnic” music of the Mos Eisley cantina band…

22 Comments on “Language and the Jedi [Think Tank]”

  1. DaveW #

    There is one other spot I can think of where someone speaks in a language not their own – Leia pretending to be a bounty hunter delivering Chewie to Jabba. Of course, that was probably just to further disguise herself, and certainly not to have a common tongue between both sides of a dialogue.

    In fact, come to think of it, that conversation’s bilingual between two alien languages, with C-3PO translating into English/Human (Presumably for the onlookers, since I’d assume he’d translate into Huttese if he was doing so for Jabba).


  2. Jim Doughty #

    @ Belinkie:

    Of course Luke wasn’t literally born on Tatooine — Kenobi placed him there with Owen and Baru shortly after he was born somewhere else — but the point about returning to where he grew up is still valid.

    The really stupid coincidence, and here I’m departing a bit from the scope of this thread for a Lucas-bash, involves Anakin/Vader. Consider these scenes you never saw in Episode IV:

    “Hmm, those droids have just escaped to — and I’ve dispatched a ton of armed guys to — *the place where I was born.*”

    “Lord Vader, we still haven’t found the droids, but we did locate and destroy their last known location. As you can see from this report, *it’s the very home where your mother lived, and where you buried her after killing all an entire village of Tuskens when you were a kid.*”

    Patton Oswalt + shovel = solution.


  3. donn #

    If you count the Phantom Menace as a Star Wars movie, then yes – Anakin has conversations with Watto and Sebulba in Huttese.


  4. Jonathan #

    The members of the Trade federation also speak with an accented English, even among themselves, and the various races that form the Coalition(?) also speak English when they have their meeting in the second film. Do they do that to show deference to Dooku?


  5. James #

    Whenever you hear English in Star Wars this means the character is speaking galactic basic. It’s the language of commerce and of the empire and the republic. A lot of the beings of the star wars universe therefore understand it even if they cannot speak it. Also, there are electronic translators that some beings have in order to communicate with those who cannot speak basic. I don’t believe they’re ever mentioned in the movies but they are in some lucasarts video games. This was likely a way for Lucas to cover himself and explain why Jabba and Luke can speak to each other in a bilingual conversation.


  6. Mark #

    When I was living in Italy, I was partially fluent in Italian and I knew lots of people who were partially fluent in English. I had these sorts of bilingual conversations all the time. Your speaking ability takes off much more slowly than your listening ability, so I would speak in English in order to express myself precisely, when I couldn’t say that in Italian. But I could understand something of equivalent complexity spoken in Italian by my Italian friends. So, if everyone in the room is bilingual and you know everyone in the room is bilingual, it’s often best to use your native tongue rather than trying to get your point across in the non-native tongue and risk screwing it up – especially important in delicate negotiations.


  7. Wordsworth #

    I, for one, am going to back up the alpha male jostling argument. As pointed out, there is either a tense power play or a superiority complex involved. And considering that most bilingual conversations happen amongst criminals and backwater, status and reputation are key to bolstering your place in a constantly shifting society. And this is, of course, confirmed by the lack of bilingualism in anything relating to the Empire.

    On a side note, however, why must English be the common tongue? Of course, there’s the logistical issue of mass-marketing, but I’m curious if anyone knows of a film shot entirely in a fictional language. Not just scenes of Huttese for the sake of providing a sense of ‘another world’, and not just subtitled scenes of Aragorn and Arwen speaking in Elvish. I mean full-on – no English whatsoever.

    Logically, it makes sense. I mean, the Star Wars galaxy isn’t our own. And that long time ago, far, far away stuff: this all happened before the English language even developed. So if you were to be serious about it, Han, Luke and Leia should all be conversing in another language (unless the Star Wars universe is so advanced that it invented English early – which raises all sorts of issues regarding the supremacy of English).

    But would any film-maker be pretentious enough to do that?


  8. DaveW #

    I seem to recall the Clan of the Cave Bear movie being done entirely in grunts and cave-man sign language, with subtitles at the bottom. Though it’s been 10 years since I last saw it, so I may be wrong.


  9. Mark #

    And wasn’t The Passion of the Christ done all in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin? Not fictional, but a break from the tacit ‘everyone in movieverse speaks the language of the country that made the film’ rule.


  10. lee OTI Staff #

    Wordsworth: “I’m curious if anyone knows of a film shot entirely in a fictional language….But would any film-maker be pretentious enough to do that?”

    Yes. That would be Mel Gibson.

    Mark: “And wasn’t The Passion of the Christ done all in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin?”

    Add to that Apocalypto. Done entirely in Mayan, from what I understand.


  11. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Does Incubus, the William Shatner movie made completely in Esperanto, count?


  12. DaveW #

    I’d say yes. Esperanto is certainly close enough to a fictional language to count :p


  13. RageTreb #

    Two important notes:

    1. The Hutt’s language is called Huttese and is the planet Tatooine’s dominant language.
    2. Certain races are unable to speak Galactic Basic. For example, Wookies and Jawas.


  14. Wordsworth #

    Hmm. I think that films like PASSION OF THE CHRIST and APOCALYPTO don’t quite fit what I’m getting at. In those films, the foreign language is used for authentication – to further enhance the sense of it being another culture. Of course, there are elements of pretentiousness since the cast and crew are making a movie in their non-native language, but the actual outcome is no different than a foreign language film.

    Meanwhile, films like VALKYRIE and BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS are accused of not sounding German enough. Well, you can’t have both worlds – either you force your audience to pretend that they’re watching the entire movie from inside the TARDIS, with its multilingual translator, or you attempt to recreate authenticity. Either can work well – and in many ways, taking a bit of linguistic liberty can make it easier for the audience to relate. I suppose it’s similar to the way modern music is used in STAR TREK, as you guys discussed in the podcast a few weeks back.

    What I was interested in, though, was the use of fictional languages as the dominant tongue, particularly in sci-fi or fantasy. I suppose very few people would attempt a film entirely in an alien language simply due to the fear of turning off the popcorn munchers who flock to the big blockbusters, but I’d be very curious to see someone actually try it. Writers, directors, etc. go to such lengths to establish a fully visceral and all-encompassing world, so why not extend that to language too? Surely not every futuristic society or alternate universe or fantastical world has English as its common language.

    That said, I don’t like the idea of having EVERY movie covered in yellow and white words.


  15. lee OTI Staff #

    @Wordsworth: Sorry, forgot about the “fictional” language part. Way to underthink it, Lee.


  16. Dan from Canada #

    Don’t underestimate the possibility that for a lot of these movies, maybe they would have considered having the entire thing done “in language” with subtitles, except that a fairly large number of these actors and actresses don’t strike me as particularly able to even pretend to speak another language and still give a reasonably good performance.

    In fictional worlds like Star Wars, they certainly could have created their own version of Basic and film the whole trilogy in basic and subtitle it, but what a headache that would have been.

    I mean, today they could make a science-fiction or fantasy epic done that way, and it would probably do pretty well, but that’s mostly -because of- the widespread appeal of Star Wars, an appeal that probably would never have been there if the movie hadn’t been filmed in english except when obvious “aliens who don’t even have to make noises recognizable as language” are talking.

    It is interesting though, that it seems like the majority of western made cinema where everyone is speaking the same foreign language, they tend towards having them all speak english with either accents or not as the cast is able (See also: Most every german-centric world war 2 movie) but for movies where half the cast is speaking english and half the cast is speaking something else, they tend towards having the foreign language actually portrayed with subtitles. (Most “Asians in America” martial arts movies, “War” comes to mind right now just because I watched it last night.)

    I can see the benefit to an ‘all or nothing’ approach for language in film, it would be pretty jarring to cast anglophone actors alongside actors who speak another language and just have to say “Pretend both people are speaking the same language, but only one of them actually will because the other one doesn’t speak the language”

    As regards the specific example of Luke and Jabba the Hutt, I’m also willing to consider the possibility that they’re doing the Obi-Wan Mind Trick dodge. (This is where at Mos Eisley, Obi-wan does the “You don’t need to see his identification” bit, clearly the mind-trick loses some efficacy if the guard next to him actually hears him say that and the guard just parrot it back, so the only reasonable conclusion is that he’s saying it so we the viewers can go ‘ooh, he’s using mind powers and telling him what to say’)

    So it might be the case for Luke that his ability to communicate with people when he might not be expected to know the language does actually, as was perhaps jokingly described above, gain it as a force power. Though it is also the far more likely reason that yes, as a native of Tattoine, he just speaks Hutt because it was useful for a trader to be able to speak it.


  17. Gab #

    My personal interpretation: I think it’s situational. When there are two parties negotiating, it’s the jockeying for power. When it’s Han and Jabba or friends speaking two languages, it’s because their throats can’t make the right sounds for the other’s language. When it’s between races encountering each other day-to-day (be they direct employees of the Empire, Jedi, or two aliens in a bar) speaking English, it’s a little complicated. The purely UNDER-thought explanation is that’s easiest for production and for execution of the plot (think “Common” in the languages of D&D or _LotR_- it would take A LOT of time during a session to roleplay translations or for an author to describe them as they happen; and subtitles are one less thing to fix later); the OVERthought version is because it’s the language of the Empire and proof of the power of said Empire (and the Republic beforehand- and yes, arguably, the Empire is just the Republic with a different name).

    Note how “bad guys” are the ones usually speaking different languages, especially to each other. Commands are given in “foreign” tongues, as are conversations between/among the races/species/whatever of the enemies. This happens in other genres/movies, too (orcs in _LotR_ or pretty much every baddy in a James Bond movie- although no, I haven’t seen *every single one*, so prove me wrong, by all means!). It Otherizes the bad guys, making it easier for us to cheer for their demise. (Although it’s sometimes kind of funny, too, like some of the droids in _Star Wars_.)

    Oh, but as for the “good” androids, I’d say both are tools for the influence of the Republic/Empire. C-3PO speaks English/Common, the (literally) universal language of the Empire. And he was programmed by a slave of said Republic/Empire. Yes, that slave also spoke his direct master’s language, but THAT master is/was subject to an even higher power that speaks English. And it appears as though R2-D2’s model of android is totally understandable by any race, which says it its little bleeps are so universal that even the most rudimentary, “backwater” (as described earlier) communities are exposed to it and everybody can understand them. Remember, R2 isn’t the only android of its kind, and nor is C3PO, for that matter. In R2’s case, we have a unique SECOND language of the Empire used EXCLUSIVELY by a specific kind of android but understandable by anyone/anything. R2 may be A.I., but it’s still programmable, so why not program it to actually speak like a C3-PO model unless it isn’t MEANT to be as relatable? It isn’t the dominance of the androids being depicted, but that of the Republic/Empire.


  18. Jack Hare #

    Stokes – you’ve read Phule’s Company? So YOU’RE the other one…


  19. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Gab – Wait a second, are we SURE people can understand R2’s beeps? Because I’m pretty sure they can’t. In the first film, I remember at least one scene where 3PO translates R2’s news about Leia being scheduled for termination.


  20. Gab #

    @Belinkie: I haven’t seen the older movies in ages, so I don’t doubt your accuracy there. I was basing my argument on what was in my memory, and I have seen the prequels more recently than the originals; so those are (sadly) more influential in my thought process. So, for example, Obi-Wan seems to talk *with*, not at, his android, which he calls “R4,” in the first scene in _Episode III_ (while he’s flying and shooting and such). And the way both he and Anakin interact with R2 as the rest of the stuff on that particular cruiser takes place could certainly be interpreted either way (when they’d actually be able to hear his bleeps). So perhaps there are inconsistencies among the films themselves? That, frankly, wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I’ll admit, though, that I very well could be giving it too liberal of an interpretation- perhaps I just want to see them understand that plucky little robot…

    If R2 is in fact un-understandable, that part of my argument is invalid. But this un-understandability is still somewhat elitist of the Republic/Empire, for again, if they can program other androids like C3-PO to “speak” languages used by living races, why program an android that deals with these races on a day-to-day basis without communications skills? It isn’t like every R2-D2-type model comes complete with its very own pocket C3-PO translator (and a free booklight if you call within the next ten minutes!). The first explanation I can think of is that maybe one has to learn how to understand it, like any other language? Who does R2 translate about Leia to? Had they lots of experience around other androids of that make/model/what-have-you?

    Oh, and a slight correction to my original post: “Han and CHEWIE,” not, “Han and Jabba.”


  21. donn #

    I’m pretty sure in the original series R2 was not explicitly understandable, but you could get a general feel for his mood:

    Luke watches Artoo’s words as they are translated and
    screened on the computer scope.

    LUKE: (into comlink) Yes, that’s it. Dagobah.

    Artoo beeps a hopeful inquiry.

    LUKE: (into comlink) No, I’m not going to change my mind about this.
    (getting a little nervous) I’m not picking up any cities or
    technology. Massive life-form readings, though. There’s something
    alive down there…

    Here, Luke has a pretty involved conversation with R2, but he’s seeing the words translated on screen. Later, after they’ve landed and are out of the X-Wing:

    Luke helps Artoo to his feet and begins wiping the mud and
    roots from his round metal body. Artoo responds with feeble,
    soggy beeps.

    LUKE: If you’re saying coming here was a bad idea, I’m beginning to
    agree with you. Oh, Artoo, what are we doing here? It’s like…
    something out of a dream, or, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going

    Outside of the X-Wing, without the translated words on screen, Luke has to guess at what R2 is saying.



  22. zeratul #

    in the return of the Jedi it took several years for them to form the plan and deploy it to rescue han from jabba in which it probably took luke no time to learn hut


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