The Languages of Dune
Languages Add Richness to Herbert’s Fictional Universe
Dune is a legendary piece of science fiction. Much as Tolkien did for Lord of the Rings, Herbert created several new languages, adding richness to his fictional universe.
In the massive collective mythos of all nerds and geekdom, it can be easy for fans to feel overwhelmed by the many different fictional languages in use. Sometimes these languages are complete enough that they can be linguistically broken down—such as Star Trek’s Klingon and Tolkien’s Elvish—and sometimes they’re not much more than a passing thought, a simple detail the creators have inserted to add depth to their story.
In the linguistic journey of fictional space travel and exploration, there are many possible routes to take. For example, there’s Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which posit that space exploration will uncover many different races, cultures, and languages. Alternatively, there is space colonization, where time and distance between planets causes languages to fuse and change from their original sources—often with real-world historical Earth languages serving as inspiration. Two notable examples of the latter are the universes of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover.
Today we explore Dune, aka the desert planet of Arrakis, and the lore that extends from and around that planet. Herbert’s language fusion in the series is similar to the way real languages on Earth have fused and changed over time, but the increased time and distance in Dune (mixed with Herbert’s rich imagination) causes variations and alterations that are very fun to explore.
The Language of the Imperium
There are several languages used in the Dune universe. Though fewer in number than those found in Star Wars—which I touched on in our first installment of this series—the languages of Dune generally have more substance. This is because Herbert used real Earth languages as the bases, toying with them and changing them to help portray the millennia that had passed since they might have been the languages we know and recognize today. Among these are Galach, Chakobsa, and Fremen [ 1 ].
The most used language in the Dune universe is Galach, the language of the Imperium [ 1 ]. Galach is referred to in two ways in Herbert’s world of Dune. The first is that it represents whatever language in which the reader is reading the series (just as the main language of Star Wars, Galactic Basic, signifies whatever language in which the viewer hears or sees those words). But we can actually find some phrases of Galach with actual translations, which are clearly not the language the reader reads or viewer views. This indicates that the reader is likely reading in many languages rather than just Galach—each culture’s language becomes the main speech.
This constructed language, or conlang, has so captivated fans that they have created the Galach Conlang (constructed language) Project [ 2 ], an unofficial compilation in which they have tried to recreate the language and expand on its history. Though it exists outside of Dune’s official canon, the project is very entertaining!
“Galach is the name given by Frank Herbert to the official lingua franca of the space empire, the Imperium, in his novel Dune and its sequels,” the Project explains on its site. “Described as ‘Hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialization terms adopted during the long chain of human migrations,’ Galach is most likely the descendant of a ‘mixed language’ created primarily by speakers of English and Russian during the initial colonization of the Solar System” [ 3 ].
The Language of Battle
Next, we have a fictional language created from a fictional language. Chakobsa, known as the “hunting language” or battle language, originated during the War of Assassins, the origin period of the feud between Dune’s two noble families, House Harkonnen and House Atreides. Speakers of the Bhotani (Bhotani Jib) language rooted it up and created the new language Chakobsa so members of House Atreides could keep their communications secret. In the real world, Chakobsa is actually a combination of several elements. Herbert borrowed the name for the language from the Caucasus, while the examples of the language we see in print resemble the Roma language. He took pieces here and pieces there, and then twisted everything across the passage of time. In the Dune universe, Chakobsa and Bhotani are both considered two of the ancient tongues, familiar both to the Fremen and to the Bene Gesserit across the universe, even with Chakobsa’s origin being as late as the first few Wars of Assassins [ 3 ].
I want you to picture this for a moment. You’re in the heat of combat. Stealthy assassination went out the window twenty minutes ago. You’re pinned down and you have no way to silently signal the rest of your party (you’re all role-players, quit pretending you didn’t have an all-assassins game during college). The shots don’t ring out loudly, however, so you can acutely hear your surroundings. You cry out in a tongue that you understand, “Get over to the sewer grate!” Hearing the movement of your colleagues, you upright yourself to give covering fire. “In this order! Purple, straight run!” A pause. “Orange, grenade then dive!” Another pause. “Blue, strafe then dive!” Another pause. The enemy has no idea what you’re telling your crew. You grin, at last hopping down the hole once the enemy starts to reload.
And people think linguistics is a boring subject!
Now, we have an example of this in real life. During World War II, the Allies (particularly the USMC) made use of the Navajo language on the front [ 6 ]. It’s not really that surprising that Herbert would make use of this concept a scant two decades later for his own work [ 7 ].
Obviously, the scenario was different on the front. Those speaking the language would have to deal with the din of artillery, and time what they said accordingly. Transmitters would most certainly be necessary.
The Language of Arrakis
Of all the languages of Dune, Fremen (which is also the name of the people who speak it) is certainly the most fleshed out. Fremen derives much of its structure and key elements from Arabic, and it also borrows words from other Semitic sources [ 8 ]. I’ll admit openly that while I studied the syntax and phonology of Arabic sentences in case studies, Arabic is not one of the languages I studied to fluency. So, it would be most interesting to hear from a fluent Arabic speaker what their thoughts are on the comparison of Fremen to Arabic. That aside, there are still many features we can look at within the language.
Because of the expanse of the planet Arrakis that the Fremen people inhabit, there are multiple dialects of the Fremen language, a feature that is common to most real-life languages. In Dune, Fremen has both an Eastern and a Western dialect. The language is written from left to right, and even occasionally in boustrophedon, which is written left to right on one line then right to left on the following line with individual letters reversed or mirrored (many ancient Earth languages were written this way). The phonology is mostly like Arabic, while the morphology bears traces of original Arabic but is more a fusion of Arabic and Semitic language. And like Arabic (and many other Earth languages), the syntax of Fremen follows the SVO pattern: subject-verb-object [ 9 ].
One of the most interesting events regarding the Fremen language in Dune involves the powers of the Bene Gesserit, the series’ seemingly superhuman sisterhood. Bene Gesserit have the capacity to look back through the lives of their ancestors; at one point this occurs and the sister undergoing the process realizes how much the language has changed from its roots. This spurs a revival (of sorts) of the original language.
We have records of past languages here on Earth, but nothing like the recall process of the Bene Gesserit. We have writings, but often have to guess at how ancient or dead languages might have sounded. Wouldn’t it be incredible to turn the clock back thousands of years and hear how people really spoke? And with the technology we now have for recording and distribution, it will be interesting to see how Earth’s languages continue to change and grow. Will the globalizing effect of instant communication slow that process, or help to goad it on? Interesting thoughts. Since we don’t yet have the capacity to turn back the clock in such a way, we can only speculate on what would occur.
Just from the perspective of English alone, imagine the changes you see! As it stands, you can’t say “23 skiddoo” anymore and expect people to know what you mean. Now take that back into the nineteenth century. A lot of Dickens’ language is simply too archaic to use! Take it back to the earliest modern usage of English in Shakespeare’s era, and many words can seem entirely different. And then you hit Middle English and the age of Chaucer. What is seen as English then comes off as an entirely different language once you enter this era. I’ve been the sole speaker of the language in a live-action game, and learning just enough of it to pass off to a casual listener (who never read any of Chaucer’s work) taught me that it’s only like English in the most superficial way.
As for Old English? If you go back that far, nothing would be familiar. Certainly, if you paid attention to every instance of change, making painstaking note of every nuance, you’d perfectly understand how every alteration came to be, and how each dialect might have formed apart from the others. Though at that point, you’d probably be in a position to create your own languages from scratch based on the principles you’d learned. Or you’d go mad. You know, like a whole lot of Bene Gesserit, reliving past lives of ancestors and all (just ask Aila) [ 10 ].
So … you really should read the books. They’re fantastic. And if you are fluent in Arabic, you must read the books, because you’ll enjoy them on a much deeper level than those of us that aren’t Arabic speakers. Oh, and the appendices are full of a ton of information that make those written by Tolkien look clumsy by comparison [ 3 ].
In the next installment of Cracking the Cypher we’ll be examining the languages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover. The series is (like Dune and Star Wars) a science fiction story involving space travel. Similarly, to Dune, the languages presented are once again based on real world languages which have drifted and merged over time. However, it’s a very different mechanism by which these fictional languages develop in-universe, and therefore a different perspective on evolutionary linguistics.
Until then, let me leave you with a Fremen saying: Sallamaka al-lahu wa-nasaraka (may God protect you and grant you victory).
- Galach-NewDune.png “The Galach language, a fan compiled conlag to actually encourage fluency in this ‘Hybrid Inglo-Slavic’. It even featured briefly on screen in the new Villanueva film.” Cancerix1700. “I Just Noticed Some Galach Language in the New IMAX Spot.” Reddit, Dune (2021), 17 Sept. 2021, www.reddit.com/r/dune/comments/ppviwq/i_just_noticed_some_galach_language_in_the_new
- Fremen.png “While the Fremen script derives from Arabic, and is largely written from left-to-write, some dialects such as in the Sihaya ridge, wrote using boustrophedon, or alternating directions every line.” Editors, Dune Wiki. “Fremen Language.” Dune Wiki, 20 Jan. 2022, dune.fandom.com/wiki/Fremen_language.
Geneva Woodmansee was raised in the Midwest where she studied linguistics, world dance, and TESOL; she currently works in project management. A lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy and media, Geneva spends time exploring the great outdoors whenever she’s not working, reading, or gaming. As a Contributing Editor to both The Living Multiverse, and The Unconventional, we are proud to share Cracking the Cipher, her series on fantasy linguistics and constructed languages.
- McNelly, Willis E. and Frank Herbert. The Dune Encyclopedia. Berkley Books, 1984.
- “Welcome.” The Galactic Conlang Project, 11 Jun 2009. Archived at web.archive.org/web/20180227105044/http://galach.hairyticksofdune.net/index.html Accessed 14 Jun 2021.
- Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Ace Books, 1965. The 40th Anniversary Edition (Ace, 2005) features a “Terminology of the Imperium” section.
- Herbert, Frank. Whipping Star. New York, Putnam, 1969; New York: Tor, 2009 (ebook).
- Herbert, Frank. The Dosadi Experiment. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006.
- “American Indian Code Talkers.” The National WWII Museum. nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/american-indian-code-talkers.
- “Frank Herbert’s Battle Language.” Technovelgy. technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=531 Accessed 14 Jun 2021.
- Conley, Tim and Stephen Cain. Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
- Baheyeldin, Khalid. “Arabic and Islamic Themes in Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ | the Baheyeldin Dynasty.” Baheyeldin.com, Baheyeldin.com, 22 Jan. 2004, baheyeldin.com/literature/arabic-and-islamic-themes-in-frank-herberts-dune.html.
- Herbert, Frank. Children of Dune. New York: Putnam Books, 1976.