The Languages of Star Wars
“Over 6 Million forms of Communication”
While some of the 50-plus languages in the Star Wars universe exist only as fun-to-say phrases, others are impressively constructed with consistent phonology and syntax.
There are approximately 6,500 languages still being spoken in our modern world—pretty amazing, considering how the average person is, at most, only fluent in a handful of these. In theory, if deep space travel, the exploration of new worlds, and the discovery of new species were to become a reality, that number would balloon exponentially. However, in quite a bit of popular science fiction, this element is often woefully underplayed. In many properties—most notably Doctor Who and Star Trek—we see the use of a clever (and convenient) convention: the universal translator.
While this easily avoids the need to delve into the intricacies of how a multilingual society might actually work, it also eliminates some of the depth, verisimilitude, and rich story opportunities such a situation could naturally bring. Fortunately, not all storytelling follows this path. Today, our eyes are trained on the expansive world of Star Wars. From the beginning of the series on screen, we are introduced to C-3PO, who makes his first appearance at the start of Episode IV. As a protocol droid, he claims to be fluent in “over 6 million forms of communication.” How’s that for our exponential language balloon? In his role as translator throughout the films, C-3PO exposes us to a cornucopia of languages—Bocce (a trade language), Huttese, Shyriiwook, Ewokese, Ithorian, Geonosian, Tusken, Jawaese, Ryl, Rodian, and Hapan, plus the many droid communication systems, such as binary. And that’s just a few; at least 50 different languages can be identified in the Star Wars universe!
Linguistically, there’s good and bad where these languages are concerned. The good: we actually get a chance to hear most of them spoken aloud. So often in literature we can only imagine what the songs and speech of the fictional languages sound like, whether the dialogue is written out or the language is only just described. (I’m in the middle of reading Raymond Feist’s Riftward Saga at the moment, and there’s constant allusion to at least two languages—but unfortunately, only one of these is written out on the page.)
When the languages in popular fiction are only described, usually the only real indicator we get of what they might sound like are the names of the characters who speak those languages. But with Star Wars, the films and video games give us access to direct audio, which is really pretty cool, particularly when you consider the bad: few of these languages have any actual intentional linguistic construction. So you’ve got a film crew trying to consistently represent specific languages without much to go on and, though you might expect that they would crash and burn, they actually do a great job of making everything on screen believable and fluid.
First, let’s talk about the Star Wars languages that weren’t intentionally constructed or based on existing languages. Although none of these have a consistent phonology or syntax to analyze, there are some phrases you might enjoy learning. Take Bocce, for example. When in doubt, you can just say, “Bazi batza Bazic?” (“Do you speak Basic?”) That should bring the conversation back to whatever language you normally speak! I recommend checking out the Star Wars wiki and trying out some of these phrases aloud, as the experience of sounding out this language (and feeling it as it comes off your tongue) is far more fun than just reading it [ 1 ]. Fantastic phonetics, really. Go and do this. It takes you out of just reading about the language and gives you a live sample immediately. Vitex fo gobaj ka zu zux. (I will get back to you on that one.)
Undoubtedly, you’re also familiar with some iteration of Chewbacca’s language. As a language of roars and growls, it’s easy enough to imitate—although I freely admit to my accent being terrible. But did you know that there are actually three different dialects of the Wookiee language? You have the most common, Shyriiwook (otherwise known as Wookieespeak); Thykarann, the technical language; and the much rarer dialect of Xaczik, which is used as a secret language to guard against eavesdropping from the Galactic Empire. As Shryiiwook is the most common, most of the phrases you’ll find on the Internet will be in that dialect. So the next time you hear someone imitate the complex Wookiee language, feel free to critique them on the length of their vowels or the clarity of the words they use. Rhawk-Arrgh, rrrooaarrgghh! (May all the forces be with you!) One of the more interesting occurrences regarding this language in the Star Wars universe is that, because Wookiees physically cannot pronounce Basic but can understand it, the communication between Wookiees and non-Wookiees usually happens in two languages, Shryiiwook for Wookiees and Basic for everyone else. Understanding goes both ways.
A few more languages to mention in this category are Ithorian, a stereophonic language of which we hear little in the films but occasionally in the video games; Geonosian, a clicking language (perhaps inspired by Southern Africa’s Khoisan language); Tusken, aka the grunts and growls of the Sand People; Jawaese, the Tatooine-based language of the Jawa (perhaps inspired by Zulu, but with a much higher pitch); Ryl, the language of the Twi’leks; Rodese (Fna ho koru gep. Kras ka noota); and Hapan, of the Hapes Cluster, which is comprised, apparently, of mostly single word phrases.
Few of these contain even the basic structure of language to draw from when we aim to study them academically, but the words and phrases we do know are all fun and interesting to hear (and speak) regardless.
Now for the pseudo-constructed languages, which have been carefully created with a strong semblance of consistent phonology and syntax. Huttese could qualify for this category because its phonology is supposedly based loosely on Quechua, an ancient Incan language (although some sources disagree) [ 2 ]. Probably my favorite and most distinctive attribute of Huttese is that it frequently repeats words or parts of words, such as “Chut Chut!” (“Greetings!”), “baatu baatu” (“brother”), or “Kee chai chai cun kuta?” (“What are you doing here?”) Second to that in fun (but only by a slim margin) is the fact that Huttese contains a plethora of insults. If you’re feeling sneaky and want to slip more snark into your day-to-day speech, try working in a little Huttese. Dopo mee gusha, peedunkey? Huttese also borrows words from other languages, which is something it has in common with many Star Wars languages that aren’t beeps, howls, or yowls. The main pragmatic function behind this (for a writer/filmmaker) is that it helps viewers understand much of what is being said even if it isn’t in a language they understand. This can also be done with tone and intonation; you might not be versed in Shryiiwook enough to understand it, but you can tell a lot from the tone that Chewbacca uses.
The language of the Ewoks (Ewokese) also falls into my pseudo-constructed language category. According to various records on how the language was created, it is based most significantly on the dialect of the Kalmyk—a people of Russia’s North Caucasus territory—with some additional influence from other languages. However, the influence is limited mostly to the phonetics, as the creators essentially recorded a speaker of Kalmyk and then imitated her speech to create Ewokese. Even with that limited origin, though, the language is still very fun. Yun yum! Yub yub.
One of the least talked about but most present languages in Star Wars is actually the one we hear being spoken constantly: Galactic Basic. Often in literature you’re introduced to the idea that the dialogue you’re reading is being spoken in another language, but there are few tangible signs of it. For the Star Wars films at least, it’s actually the opposite: an entire alphabet was specially created, called Aurebesh, which is used throughout the universe [ 3 ]. Though sometimes applied retroactively (good old George Lucas, always tweaking his work), most written language in the films appears in this alphabet. If you’ve seen much in the way of fan art or perhaps the 501st Legion logo, then you’ve seen the distinctive Aurebesh. But what you may not know is that Galactic Basic is meant to represent whatever language the viewer hears. So when someone watches Star Wars dubbed in Spanish, Galactic Basic is actually Spanish. If they are watching in English, Galactic Basic is English. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the language, and an interesting approach to incorporating it into the expansive Star Wars universe.
So, there you have it! Hopefully this will spark your interest and convince you to learn a few Ewok or Huttese phrases. Use them at home, teach then to your kids, you name it. And then don’t forget to check out part two of my series where we delve into the linguistics of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Coona tee-tocky malia?
- “While not having had the out-of-universe time for development as, perhaps, Star Trek, the individual languages of Star Wars have been given massive development beyond their initial intent, with Durese/Durosian, Hutteese and others developing their own dialects.” Source: https://aminoapps.com/c/star-wars/page/item/huttese-canon/nKFK_In22xMgq4wPrW2Ro6VlKYQYEa and http://www.completewermosguide.com/huttese.html
- “In watering holes such as the Mos Eisley, or Seezelsak’s cantinas, a collective din of many different tongues interacting is part of what grounds the setting in exotic realism.” Source: www.pe.com/2021/11/05/new-downtown-disney-vr-experience-expands-star-wars-galaxys-edge-universe/
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.
- Wookieepedia: The Star Wars Wiki. starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Main_Page. Accessed 13 Jun 2021.
- Hutchinson, Sean. “‘Star Wars’ Languages Owe to Tibetan, Finnish, Haya, Quechua, and Penguins.” Inverse, BDG Media Inc, 8 Dec. 2015, www.inverse.com/article/8880-star-wars-languages-owe-to-tibetan-finnish-haya-quechua-and-penguins.
- Aurek Besh—Star Wars Font.” Star Wars Font, starwarsfont.com/fonts/aurek_besh/. Accessed 13 Jun 2021.