The Languages of Star Wars (Part 2): Human Languages Used in the Films

(This is Part 2 of a series on language in Star Wars. Part 1 is here.)

If you read Star Wars trivia for pleasure or browse Wookieepedia long enough, you’ll eventually discover that some of the languages in the Star Wars films were sourced from real human languages. 

Ben Zimmer recently wrote at both The Wall Street Journal and Language Log to explain the differences between constructed languages or conlangs, which are carefully crafted with their own vocabulary and grammar, and what conlangers have called the “fake languages” of Star Wars, which were created mainly for their sound. There are video examples of some famous conlangs at the WSJ piece, including Klingon, Quenya, and Dothraki.

Zimmer’s article is one of several I’ve seen that briefly mentions that languages from Earth are used in the original films. Many of the other brief pieces I’ve seen (including here, here, and here) contradict each other, or they mix in-universe information (e.g., “The droid language was developed thousands of years before the Battle of Yavin…”) with our-universe information. Others mix in tantalizing references to actual details with… nonsense. Remember, kids, just because your conlang has clicks in it doesn’t mean it’s “based on Xhosa.” 

So, I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this. What did it actually mean, in the production of these films, for an alien’s speech to be “based on” a human language? In this post, I’m presenting specific details of the cases of Greedo, the Ewoks, and Nien Nunb. I am mainly trying to assemble what documentary evidence is out there in order to clear up some of the confusion out there, but beyond those details, I also want to explore some of what the Star Wars language work suggests to me about how some languages are understood as ‘exotic’ or ‘strange.’ There are many ways of understanding how human languages ended up in Star Wars, and I hope interested readers will comment with their thoughts! 

Greedo’s Quechua

Greedo is the bounty hunter who has a bilingual conversation with Han Solo in a bar on Tatooine. Here’s a video of their conversation:

What human language is Greedo speaking? It’s Quechua, a language (or family of very closely related languages) spoken by millions of people in the Andes region of South America. Well, it’s sort of Quechua, but not exactly. How do you end up with an alien language sort of being a human language? You put your sound designer in charge of coming up with it. Here’s Ben Burtt, sound designer for all the original Star Wars films, describing the process in an essay published with The Star Wars Galactic Phrasebook & Travel Guide:

Part of my research was to identify interesting real languages to use a basis for alien ones. The advantage of using a real language is that it possess built-in credibility. […] I found that if I relied on my familiarity with English, my imagined “alien” language would just be a reworking of the all-too-familiar phonemes of everyday general American speech. To this end I searched and found several fascinating possibilities. First came Huttese which I needed for Greedo… I heard some recordings of Quechua… There were smacking sounds and clicks not part of common speech or of any of the familiar Romance languages. I collected recordings of Quechua and search for someone who could speak the language.

Out of this research came a linguistics graduate student from Berkeley. Larry [didn’t speak Quechua, but he] could listen to Quechua, and then reproduce a stream of sound that would convince you he was speaking fluently. In fact, it was all double-talk…

I got together with Larry and reviewed all I had in Quechua. We wrote down the sounds phonetically, invented and derived new sounds based on what we liked, and did some free-form recording sessions. From this activity, Huttese emerged. Once a collection of favorite words and phrases existed, I sat down and carefully studied Greedo’s mouth movements in the cut scene. I wrote out phrases and recorded with Larry specific sentences that were timed to Greedo’s movement.

The term double-talk, which Burtt uses for this effect, is usually reserved for performances in which the audience is in on the joke. They recognize the language that performers are mimicking and marvel at their ability to sound like the language without making much sense. Sid Caesar, a comedian with a decades-long career beginning in the 1940’s, was famous for this (his work was discussed on Language Log after his death). Italian singer Adriano Celetano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol is well-known example of double-talk in English. The short film skwerl or “How English Sounds to Non-English Speakers” is another I’ve seen making the rounds.

But Greedo’s performance is crucially different from usual double-talk because it was never intended to delight speakers of Quechua, as Burtt’s references to a general American audience indicate. Quechua is objectified as as set of unrecognizable weird sounds, scrambled up to stand in as alien speech.

Another key difference is that Greedo’s dialogue has more Quechua left in than a typical double-talk performance would. Just how much recognizable Quechua is left? It’s a difficult question to answer but YouTube user Inkarricamac has tried. Watch this Spanish-and-Quechua-subtitled commentary on the the Spanish-dubbed version of Greedo’s scene:

Of course, given the treatment that Quechua got in the sound design process, it’s possible that some of the resemblance is accidental. In any case, it’s clear that contrary to the expectations of Lucasfilm staff, Greedo’s use of Quechua went far beyond the general American audience and reached the ears of actual Quechua speakers.

Nien Nunb

Nien Nunb is only onscreen for a few seconds in Return of the Jedi, as Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot:

Nien Nunb only has two unsubtitled lines. Both are read by Kipsang Rotich, a Kenyan exchange student who was a friend of Pat Welsh, the voice of E.T. and of Princess-Leia-in-disguise-as-a-fearless-and-inventive-bounty-hunter (don’t remember that part? think “yató. yató.”) Rotich was given lines in English, which he translated to another language he spoke.

In Burtt’s Phrase Book essay, the language is named “Hyah.” The fansite The Complete Wermo’s Guide, citing Star Wars Insider #67, also identifies this language as Haya, just with a more conventional spelling. A newspaper article describing the release of Return of the Jedi in Kenya labels the language as Kikuyu, as do two clips of the scene on YouTube, one of which was used above. Another clip identifies Nien Nunb’s first line as Kikuyu and his second as Kalenjin. In an interview of Burtt conducted by anthropologist Marcia Calkowski (about Ewoks, discussed below), he referred to the language as Swahili. 

Now, I’m certainly not going to put myself in charge of determining what language somebody is speaking (though that seems somewhat of a minority position among linguists). Not only because I’m not knowledgeable about the sociolinguistic context of any of the languages Nien Nunb is supposedly speaking, but also because it’s not at all impossible for a single sentence to be understood by different people as belonging to different languages. That being said, the Swahili reference is certainly suspect—even though Swahili is spoken in some of the same regions as Kikuyu and Haya, the Calkowski-Burtt interview is the only reference I’ve found to Nien Nunb speaking Swahili.

One reason Nien Nunb is so notable is that Rotich became a celebrity in his home country for his work on Star Wars. His brief performance in a language supposed to be alien and incomprehensible was of course perfectly intelligible to the millions of people who spoke it. While possibly unknown to some on the production team, it turns out there are movie theaters in Kenya! Rotich even returned to voice Nien Nunb for his brief appearance (oops, spoilers!!!!!) in Episode VII:The Force Awakens, as did Mike Quinn, the puppeteer/actor who physically portrays Nien Nunb.

The Tibetan of the Ewoks

The Ewoks’ language can be heard here, in a scene where they first meet some of the heroes and believe C-3PO to be a deity (it’s a clip from a French dub of Return of the Jedi so don’t be alarmed when you hear from Luc Cielmarcheur):

To hear Burtt describe the process, the Ewok language was developed as a result of a process very similar to that of Greedo’s pseudo-Quechua. It has several source languages instead of just one. But accounts differ as to which ones, apparently because it wasn’t seen as very important to keep track. In his Phrase Book essay, Burtt describes his use of Tibetan (“for I had seen a documentary on public television that gave me a tantalizing sampling”), ‘Kalmuck’ (spoken by “an eighty-year-old Mongolian tribeswoman… who we called Grandma Vodka”), and “a bit of Native American Lakota.” The website Film Sound, summarizing a now defunct magazine, claims “Tibetan, Mongolian, and Nepali” were used as sources for Ewok language. The problem of language-naming was already discussed above, but to be clear, Kalmyck and Mongolian are not interchangeable terms. A YouTube video I found searching for “ewoks” a hundred times says Tagalog is part of Ewok speech as well.

A brief 1983 article in Tibetan Review doesn’t seem aware of the other sources and declares, “Much of what the Ewoks speak could very well be nonsense or even Tibetan spoken backwards. However, the rest are definitely Tibetan spoken by real Tibetans.” This article points to recognizable Tibetan phrases, for example, one they translate as “No, it’s not him. It’s the one over there.”

Another report goes further. On the basis of an interview with Burtt and her own proficiency in Tibetan, anthropologist Marcia Calkowski identifies Ewok dialogue as “rendered almost entirely in Tibetan,” sourced from nine Tibetan informants recruited by Burtt. Shedding light on the accounts of other languages possibly used, Calkowski reports that Burtt recorded samples of several Native North American languages, not only Lakota, but didn’t use much of them because he believed they had “a limited range of expression” for his purposes.

The Tibetan used for Ewok speech doesn’t only consist of short phrases. According to Calkowski, the spoken dialogue in the scene above in the scene with 3CPO is a Tibetan Buddhist prayer for sentient beings:

For all sentient beings who are at peace,

It is in peace we value life.

For all sentient beings who suffer,

It is in suffering that we discover the suffering of life.

From the nearest [to us] to the furthest,

We should treat all sentient beings equally.

Based on Calkowski’s interview, it doesn’t seem like Burtt or others on the team were much aware or concerned with the content of what their informants were saying. Similarly to the case of Nien Nunb, the more glaring ethnocentrism seems to be in the assumption that no one would ever really know or care, mainly because the speakers of these source languages were so removed from the film (except, you know, the ones who lived in California and were recruited as voice actors.)

When gathering sources for this post, I found that Star Wars has also been noted for its use of artistic and personal styles from actual people around the world to stand in for alien or otherwise exoticized locales. This is arguably not very different from cases of clothing manufacturers copying and selling indigenous designs. We can call what was done to these real human languages a kind of appropriation as well. This seems especially blatant in the case of Greedo’s Quechua. To craft Greedo’s alien voice, live discourse became appropriated as “a language,” and “a language” became mere sound—to stretch, cut, and mimic.

A similar concern was present at the production of the very first film. In a 1999 article in Anthropology News, linguistic anthropologist Jim Wilce reports a story from Kathryn Woolard, who said that Allen Sonnefrank, a fellow grad student at the time Star Wars was being produced, was asked to record Quechua dialogue for the film. According to this report, Sonnefrank heard the filmmakers planned to run Quechua backwards and use the result as Greedo’s dialogue. Sonnefrank refused to cooperate, citing the demeaning effect he thought this use of Quechua would have. An archived linguistlist post from Wilce includes another report from Susan Niles, a student who was also studying Quechua with Sonnefrank, who noted “We were also especially leery of any movie that might promulgate any kind of theory that ‘primitives’ were aliens, rather than humans.” Burtt’s account in the Phrase Book essay doesn’t mention Sonnefrank or Niles.

Perhaps in far belated response to these critiques, Lucasfilm took a different approach in the latest entry in the Star Wars saga. They hired YouTube star Sara Maria Forsberg, recently internet-famous for her doubletalk montage “What languages sound like to foreigners” to create an alien language from scratch. Apparently this was to happen without using a real human language as a basis—at least not in the way Burtt used Quechua, though another report quotes her explaining “They asked me to listen to Euro-Asian languages, so I listened to Gujarati and Hindi and languages from different islands in Asia.” (Ben Zimmer’s article mentioned earlier includes an interview with Forsberg.) This approach, while seemingly as sound-focused as Greedo’s constructed Quechua, produces a result not so clearly attached to a single human language.

To me, this approach seems fundamentally more decent and certainly could have been employed just as easily in the 1970s as today. However, what it ultimately means for Tibetan, Quechua, Kikuyu, or any other language to end up as alien speech in a film produced in the US is not something any sociolinguist could fully explain or define. To call the Star Wars treatment appropriation might give too much credence to the idea that languages are things at all, able to be moved or taken. For as many languages as there are in the world, there are many more ways that people relate to the languages they speak. Does my language belong to me, or is it not something possible to own? Is my language my treasured history? Are my languages my heritage, and my ways of understanding the world? Is language just what I do when I sign, speak, or write with others and nothing more? Different answers to these questions would lead to different understandings of the human languages appearing in Star Wars.


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