The Languages of Star Wars (Part 1): A Sociolinguistic Investigation

The Star Wars film franchise might just be the most world famous multilingual movies ever–yet hardly anyone ever thinks of them that way. Why?

To answer that question, I’m going to explore the multilingualism of Star Wars a few scenes and characters at a time. I hope there will be surprises here for both linguists and fans of the series. There’s a lot to cover. This post is Part 1. (Maybe in the spirit of Star Wars, I should call it Part 4?)

“I’m fluent in over six million forms of communication…”

Star Wars is famous for its world-building. It introduces its characters alongside glimpses of the complex, messy, old, and diverse universe where they try to get by. We quickly discover that it’s a BIG galaxy out there far far away, with some scary villains, a brave princess, spaceships big and small, and lots of languages.

We can begin by considering the first Star Wars film. The very first conversation in A New Hope, between C-3PO and R2-D2, is in two languages. If you haven’t seen the Star Wars films recently (or more than a few times), you could be forgiven for sort of remembering R2-D2 as just making a lot of kinda random beeping sounds. Sometimes sad beeps, sometimes happy beeps, sometimes very scared beeps. But, you’d be wrong. There’s certainly a carefully designed emotional resonance to R2’s lines, but we can also tell that he’s using a fully elaborated language because the things he says are regularly recast and reported by others. Here’s an example, from shortly after the two droids first crash land on Tatooine:

C-3PO: What a desolate place this is.

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: Where do you think you’re going?

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: Well I’m not going that way.

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: It’s much too rocky. This way is much easier.

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: What makes you think there are settlements over there?

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: Don’t get technical with me.

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: What mission? What are you talking about?

R2-D2: ((beeping))

C-3PO: I’ve just about had enough of you.

R2-D2: ((beeping))

Because C-3PO reports and repeats some of what R2 says, we can tell some of the content of those mysterious and adorable beeps. Both characters have no trouble holding a bilingual conversation. A few scenes later, when the two droids are being sold by some Jawas who captured them, we encounter some explicit talk of the many languages in this galaxy.

Uncle Owen: What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

C-3PO: Vaporators? Sir, my first job was programming binary load lifters, very similar to your vaporators in most respect.

Uncle Owen: Can you speak Bocce?

C-3PO: Of course I can, sir. It’s like a second language to me.

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious…”

About 45 minutes into the movie, we get to the multilingual jackpot of the first Star Wars film: The Mos Eisley cantina. The scene at this bar reveals even more of wider galactic society. Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker meet Han Solo and Chewbacca amid loads of other aliens. Even before we got to the cantina, we’ve heard five other languages, mostly just snippets: from the Jawas (“Ooteenee!”), the Sand People (“HRRR HERR HORR HORR”), and three different droids on the Jawa’s sandcrawler. By my count, we can hear eight different languages spoken by the cantina patrons. Eight! Admittedly, this is a conservative estimate that disqualifies some sounds as being growls or particularly loud burps rather than languages. I should acknowledge my anthropocentric bias here.

Luke gets into a bit of a scuffle that starts with someone apparently insulting him in a language he seemingly doesn’t understand. We hear a “word” or two out of Chewbacca as he leaves–more on him later. We’re up to around 15 languages mentioned or spoken so far in the first 50 minutes. We know there isn’t any near-magic translating technology (looking at you, Hitchhiker’s Guide and Star Trek) and that sometimes you really need a gold-plated farmhand who speaks Bocce. But the multilingualism of Star Wars isn’t just in the background. It’s the main characters who are multilingual too.

We get our first green, bumpy-headed look at this multilingualism when Han Solo meets an unpleasant surprise guest: Greedo the bounty hunter.

I’ll let you catch up. Here’s the whole scene at the cantina. If you want to skip to Greedo, he’s at 5:05.

“Going somewhere, Solo?”

Our first subtitled conversation. This is a lot like the bilingual conversation in the desert except we get all the details of the one “alien” member of the conversation translated for us into Galactic Basic (i.e., what we moviegoers would call “English”). Just like C-3PO, Han can use more than just Basic. Greedo apparently does not speak Basic but knows that Han speaks his language. (I tried to figure out if it was Huttese or Rodese in-universe and gave up after five minutes.) How many other languages does Han understand on screen in the rest of the films? Three. His two main bilingual conversation partners are his dear friend Chewbacca and his former employer and later captor Jabba the Hutt (e.g.). (His third multilingual interlocutor is a droid on Hoth.) 

According to the wider canon of Star Wars media, some beings, like Chewbacca, don’t speak Basic because their vocal apparatus is incapable of pronouncing it. (Here’s a special feature of sound designer Ben Burtt explaining the origins of Chewie’s voice.) This means Chewie understands the conversation around him on the Millennium Falcon but only others who can understand the Wookiee language get the benefit of his insights. Han Solo has clearly learned Shyriiwook since he talks to Chewie all the time. Just like we know R2-D2’s beep boops have specific meaning behind them because of C-3PO’s responses, Han’s conversations with Chewie make it clear that they understand each other just fine. (e.g.) Can’t you just imagine them having warm and fuzzy heart to heart talks in those lonely moments when they’ve shut off the power to evade Imperial scanners?

All the main characters of Star Wars are multilingual. Luke understands R2’s droid language, Jabba’s Huttese, and whatever Jabba’s Twi’lek consigliere speaks. Leia can pass as a bounty hunter with whatever language she used in infiltrate Jabba’s palace. Jabba himself apparently understands quite a few. We’ve already covered R2-D2 and Chewie, and of course Mr. Six Million Forms of Communication. The list goes on, trust me. I watched the whole series with my fieldnotes book in hand. In scene after scene, we see multiple languages being used and understood.

If I’ve established how thoroughly multilingual Star Wars is, my original question still remains. Why isn’t it widely recognized for this? Han Solo has a lot of fans in the world, but I doubt anyone has ever thought of him as a role model for promoting multilingualism. If Star Wars has so many languages in it, why doesn’t it feel multilingual?

Because being multilingual is different from being monolingual in a bunch of languages.

On Earth, the only planet studied in detail by sociolinguists (until now!), we know multilinguals can use their entire communicative repertoires at once. Just because languages are separated by dictionaries, publishing houses, and schools, doesn’t mean multilinguals separate them in real life. Might two bilinguals use one language and another back and forth, each only speaking one but understanding both? Sure. Is that what usually happens? No. If the multilingualism of Star Wars was more like multilingualism on earth, things would look a lot different. Greedo and Han would use both their mutually understood languages to insult and threaten each other. We might overhear stormtroopers speaking the language of the planet where they both trained together, then switching to a standard Basic to speak to a commanding officer. In a city like Mos Eisley, a hub of people from diverse planets and species, it would be easy to find conversations where people flexibly drew on multiple ways of communicating as best served their needs and the specific situation.

Instead, no major character ever speaks more than one language in one conversation. We only get loan phrase or two in Basic from Jabba (“Jedi mind trick”) and a sentence in Basic from his assistant (“He’s no Jedi”)–that’s it. There is no translanguaging in Star Wars. There is no language humor and not a single multilingual pun. Other than 3-CPO the interpreter, nobody in the films talks about learning or knowing languages. 

What I’m pointing to is not just an internal inconsistency with respect to how languages work in Star Wars (though I saw plenty of that too). The multilingualism of the films is huge, but shallow. It’s a familiar issue for sociolinguists: multilingualism from a monolingual perspective. The fact that only some of the languages are subtitled is an indication of how weird this is. Most of the time, everyone on screen understands the languages being spoken, but we only get subtitles for some conversations and not others. Considering subtitling choices points to how language is used as world-building flavor, but not in a way that’s modeled on the complexities of real world multilingualism. 

As I explored earlier for the specific issue of time travel, portraying language in fiction presents many difficult choices for artists. On the one hand, I guess I can sympathize. Star Wars already has audible sound in space and faster-than-light travel, why not play a little fast and loose with how language works too? I can see how sociolinguistic accuracy could sometimes get in the way of the story, or at least the business of big budget movies. Maybe audiences aren’t seen as willing to tolerate Harrison Ford speaking half his lines in Huttese.

I love Star Wars, but ultimately as a sociolinguist, I have to say it’s a shame we get such a multilingual world without much realistic multilingual practice. (If anything linguistically interesting happens in Episode 7, I’ll write an update post once everybody’s spoiler embargo cools down.)

Oh, and, there’s another issue I need to talk about. Those alien languages that add to our sense of wonder about the world of Star Wars? A few are actually real human ones, chopped up by a sound designer and thrown on screen. Find out more in Part 2, coming soon: what will hopefully be the most definitive and well-sourced guide to all the languages in Star Wars that are most definitely NOT from a galaxy far far away. 

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