I love languages. That doesn’t mean it is easy for me to learn new languages (just ask my old French teacher) but I do love studying them.
Here are some statistics for you:
- There are over seven thousand recognised languages spoken on Earth today.
- Out of these seven thousand languages half of the world’s population speak at least one out of the most popular twenty three. The most popular languages include, Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindustani, Spanish and Arabic.
- Words that exist in one language but not another are called lacunas or lexical gaps. My favourite example of this is the fact that in the Romanian language they don’t have a word for shallow. If you was talking about a swimming pool in Romanian you would say “the deep end” and “the not so deep end”.
Fictional languages are common place in films, most notably Fantasy and Sci Fi. While the casual audience member may believe that the other races or species seen in these films are speaking gibberish with their dialogue subtitled beneath, in many cases the actors have learnt and are speaking an actual language.
The following are all languages you can study if you have the time on your hands:
- Alienese from Futurama.
- Na’vi from Avatar.
- Dothraki from Game of Thrones.
- Klingon from Star Trek.
- Elvish from The Lord Of the Rings.
These languages are popular at comicon, it isn’t unusual to hear two strangers speak to each other in Dothraki in the convention corridors. You can even take a degree in Klingon at a select few universities in America.
While all these languages are fascinating and I suggest that you investigate them at a later date, today I want to talk about the languages of the Star Wars universe.
The phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” is at the start of most Star Wars films (Footnote 1) and to create the impression of an endless galaxy the many different species of the Star Wars universe speak their own languages.
Due to the sheer number of different lifeforms and languages, protocol droids such as C3PO were created, to act as guides and translators (Footnote 2). While C3PO claims he is “fluent in over six million forms of communication” today I just want to focus on just one language, Binary otherwise known as Droidspeak.
My question is this: Who exactly can understand R2D2 and other non verbal droids?
R2D2 is one of the most ironic characters in Star Wars and along with his golden companion has appeared in every main Star Wars film. He is unique in the fact that the audience (and most characters) don’t understand what he is saying and have to rely on C3PO or computers R2 is connected to, to translate for him. While some characters such as Anakin and Luke can seemingly understand R2 others such as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Grandmaster Yoda are unable to translate his whistles and beeps. Today, I’m looking at why.
There is a common trope in Fantasy and Sci-Fi to have a language that everyone speaks in addition to their own unique languages. In the case of Star Wars it is called Galactic Basic (footnote 3). While characters do speak with accents, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin are described as having Mid-Atlantic accents in contrast to Nute Gunray’s Asian accent, they are all able to understand each other. Even Yoda who speaks his sentences in the wrong order has been shown to understand and communicate in Basic. It also seems that most of the Star Wars population can read Aurebesh, a written language seen on equipment and monitors. It therefore stands to reason that droids such as R2D2 can also understand Basic and Aurebesh.
While it is true that R2D2 has no problem understanding his friends, it does not explain why R2 can not respond in the same language. Even though droids like R2 do not have a mouth or vocal cords it doesn’t seem impossible (in a universe where there are space wizards) to install a voice box, similar to General Grievous. R2 can already speak Binary to other machines and uses Binary when he is fixing ships or hacking the Death Star so teaching or installing a new language shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Some have argued that you can learn Binary from droids if you spend enough time around them. For example, Anakin grew up around droids on Tatooine and then spent most of the Clone Wars with R2 and it does seem as if he can understand his companion. Likewise Luke spent several years with R2 fighting against the Empire and has a similar relationship and understanding with the droid (footnote four). Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens seemingly understands BB8 perfectly. An organic example of this can be found between Han and Chewbacca. Han seems able to understand Chewbacca’s Shyriiwook although he can’t speak it himself. The idea of Binary has also been liked to that of Morse Code. While someone who understands Morse Code hears a message, everyone else just hears beeping.
While this is a good point it doesn’t stand to reason. If this were true than almost every character would be able to understand Droidspeak due to the sheer number of droids in the galaxy and their close proximity to other lifeforms. There have also been occasions where characters who have worked with droids for long period of time fail to understand them. The following transcript is from a deleted scene in Episode Three:
(For context Anakin is holding a communicator device and both him and Obi-Wan are standing in a lift.)
Anakin: Artoo, where are they holding the Chancellor?
Anakin: No text.
[Anakin hits the communicator]
Anakin: It’s broken. Can you understand what he’s saying?
Obi-Wan: I’m not a protocol droid.
The final argument is that force sensitive characters have the ability to understand droids via the Force. If they are unable to get exact translations the Force is able to give them the gist of the message.
While the Force might give Force users a general gist of what is being said, coupled with the context of the situation, it doesn’t explain why Jedi such as Obi-Wan need to rely on a communication devices as seen above.
I think the real answer is… The lazy English tourist.
Whilst on holiday abroad the British are often stereotyped as being lazy and uncultured. This is due to their insistence that non-English speakers address them in English rather than the language of the country they are in. Although this is a stereotype, the principal of this can be applied to the Star Wars Universe. With a method of communication already in place there is no need for most lifeforms to learn Droidspeak.
That… and the fact that R2D2 has a unique method of speaking makes him more memorable, mimicable, and marketable for fans.
That concludes my Rant and Rambles. I hope you enjoyed. May the force be with you… always.
Footnote one: This has always bothered me. If Star Wars is set a long time ago then why do they have futuristic technology such as spaceships and lightsabers? Was it before the Big Bang? Adding to this point, if the events of Star Wars take place in a galaxy far far away… how did we come to hear about them? Does Earth exist in the Star Wars universe? Is Earth secretly Coruscant or is Earth some distant planet in the Unknown Regions? Maybe I’m overthinking it?
Footnote two: Apart from being a translator, what is C3PO’s purpose? Is he a butler? The official Star Wars Wikipedia page, Wookieepedia, states that he does event planning but I don’t think we’ve ever seen that on screen. Where did C3PO learn six million forms of communication? Did Anakin download all of the languages into him, including Ancient Sith? If that’s true, wouldn’t Anakin know the languages thus removing the need for C3PO in the first place?
Footnote three: Galactic Basic is a language in itself and far removed from any language we speak on Earth. If a human from Earth somehow arrived at the Jedi temple they wouldn’t know what was being said. The reason Galactic Basic is shown as English or whatever language you choose to watch the film in, is for the audience’s benefit.
Footnote four: Sorry but I have lots of thoughts on Star Wars. Are droids… alive? They tend to have different personalities, C3PO being timid and R2D2 being (according to C3PO anyway) rude. They can feel pain as we witnessed a droid being tortured in Episode Six at Jabba’s Palace. If they can feel pain and have personalities… are they effectively alive? Do they have souls? When you turn a droid off are you killing it or putting it to sleep? These are the questions that keep me up at night…