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…