Translation and Fictitious Languages – Part Four: Star Wars

Posted on October 12, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics

Eyhghrghrghrghr! Do You Speak Shyriiwook?

You might be forgiven for not recognizing this as a fictional language, since it is one which has never been written down, but you would surely know it if you heard it. It’s a vague imitation of something dearly beloved to every Star Wars fan, the Wookiee roar. The sound itself is in reality an amalgamation of wild animal calls (including badgers, camels, bears and walruses), which were recorded and manipulated until Chewie’s voice sounded exactly right.

Whatever it is that Chewbacca is saying, it pretty much always sounds like this, and it needs no transcription, for his meaning is always transparent to Han Solo, or whoever he is roaring at. So you want to speak Shyriiwook? No need, either, since Chewie understands Galactic Basic as well as the next Wookiee.

Common Language

Since George Lucas’s film franchise is based on the concept of a unified galactic empire, a common core language is a prerequisite – hence the idea of Galactic Basic. This is spoken by the characters as English (or translated into the language of each particular audience). Subtitled translation was not really necessary in the first trilogy either, since intermediary characters would interpret what was being said in Droidspeak or Ewok, and there was very little interaction between non-Basic speakers.

Language Development

The Star Wars team approached the question of alien languages in a completely different manner to Professor Tolkien and other linguists, in that they did not set out to construct language on fundamental linguistic principles, but on auditory perceptions. The sound designer for the original trilogy, Ben Burtt, based his first alien languages only on how they sound, and some of his best inventions are purely auditory, like the ‘speech’ of Chewbacca and R2-D2.

As with Chewie, R2-D2’s intention is always mediated by his interlocutor, more often than not C-3PO, the golden protocol droid who is “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” But others seem also to understand R2’s series of clicks, beeps and whistles, which are produced on an analog synthesizer from vocal and other sounds. For some alien characters, Burtt played with sound distortion, recording originally English speech and modifying it electronically until it was unrecognizable.

Non-English Language Sounds

He also did some research into other real Earth languages which sounded unusual or exotic, and which could be electronically synthesized and modified to sound even more alien. The inept bounty hunter Greedo, for example, speaks Huttese, the language of Jabba the Hutt and others in Hutt Space, which was composed from phrases in Quechua, a South American native dialect originally spoken by the Incas.

In ‘Return of the Jedi’, Burtt again found and adapted an obscure but real language, the Mongolic dialect spoken by the nomadic Kalmyk people in the Russian steppes, with possibly some elements of Tibetan. He created a whole culture around this foundation for the Ewoks, the sentient teddy-bear creatures who help Han and Princess Leia on the forest moon of Endor.

In later franchise developments, the Finnish singer Sara Forsberg listened to obscure Euro-Asian languages, focusing solely on their sound in order to simulate a believable structure for alien grammar and vocabulary.

Translating Aurebesh

Aurebesh is a specially designed alphabet consisting of simple linear shapes, like the prehistoric written languages of the Mediterranean. It was commissioned by George Lucas, who wanted a written script that would look as different as possible on screen from Earth languages and would be equally indecipherable to all viewers. With a breadth of vision that in hindsight seems uncanny, Lucas envisaged a global popularity for the films and designed them accordingly.

(Illustration: Phumjai Fc/Shutterstock)