Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away, you’ll know that May 4th is celebrated as Star Wars Day, playing on the catchphrase “may the force be with you”, where the change of a single sound segment gives a different word (known in linguistics as a minimal pair).
Language matters in the Star Wars universe, where interspecies communication is addressed by droids such as C-3PO that are fluent in more than six million forms of communication, and by an interplanetary lingua franca, Galactic Basic (“English” to film-goers). Most characters display multilingualism in the form of mutual passive bilingualism – understanding the languages of their interlocutor, but continuing to speak their own. Notably, though, the code mixing and translanguaging practices that are widespread on planet Earth are not reflected – not even in that marvellous multilingual marketplace of Mos Eisley Cantina.
It is also notable how several of the alien languages were created for the films based on existing human languages or patterns that sound designers considered “exotic” – in comparison to a Western, anglophone norm.
Huttese, spoken by Greedo and Jabba the Hutt, was based on Quechua, a family of languages spoken in South America’s Andes region. Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot Nien Nunb’s Sullustese is a mix of Kenyan languages Kikuyu and Haya. The Ewoks’ language was improvised from Tibetan as the main source, with several recognisable short phrases, and an extended stretch of dialogue actually a Tibetan Buddhist prayer.
The most well known must be Yoda’s speech pattern. Striking it is because it markedly differs from our subject-verb-object word order – for example, “A Jedi must have the deepest commitment” – the default pattern in many languages of the world, including English, Chinese and Romance languages, and from subject-object-verb, the unmarked pattern common in even more languages, as in Japanese, and Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages.
Verb-subject-object is a rare construction, found in Hawaiian and some Celtic languages. But most unusual is object-subject-verb as an unmarked word order – a handful of languages in the Amazon basin use this – and this is Yoda’s generalised pattern: “Much to learn, you still have”, or “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is” (with adjunct rather than object in initial position).
Such alien languages and patterns were cleverly devised to create “otherness”, foreignness, and thus social distance – but it is worth reflecting on how this is nonetheless on an ethnocentrically Western, English-speaking basis.