May the language be with you – Multilingualism in Star Wars and other fictional stories

It's 4 May. Star Wars Day, a holiday for fans. However, not only the plot and the philosophy behind it are interesting, but also the multilingualism.

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Star Wars and multilingualism? Yes, that fits together wonderfully, because in the Star Wars universe (alugha is also quasi its own universe) many non-human beings speak another language. An example of this are the robots, the Wookies or the Ewoks. Humans often understand this language, but prefer to speak English (or the language into which the film was dubbed). What is striking here, however, is that the non-English speaking beings are highly marginalised groups. 

Star Wars and languages that influence each other

If a child grows up bilingual, linguistics assumes that the two languages influence each other. This is called cross-linguistic influence. Even if a foreign language is learned at a later stage, learners often fall back on the structures of their first language. This may also be the case with a being from the Star Wars saga: we are talking about Master Yoda. Yoda is a non-human being who is able to speak English, but does not adhere to the typical structure of this language. Even for laypersons, Yoda's sentence structure is striking. His preferred word order is unusual in English: object-subject verb (OSV).

  • "Your apprentice Skywalker will be"

This word order is rare in English, but not impossible, for example to emphasise elements. However, Yoda is not consistent with this word order. It is not entirely clear why he prefers the OSV position, perhaps to emphasise his non-human existence and idiosyncratic character. 

Another non-human being from the saga who can also speak English is Jar-Jar Binks. His linguistic idiosyncrasies are used more consistently than Yoda's. Moreover, they extend across all sub-areas. To some, Jar-Jar Binks' linguistic characteristics seem racist. 

Multilingualism in other science fiction stories

Besides the Star Wars saga, however, there are other science fiction sagas in which several languages are thematised. Some only superficially, like that of the droids or the Ewoks in Star Wars, some in more detail. An example of this is Klingon from Star Trek. Klingon was developed by a linguist and is much more complex than English. In the meantime, Klingon has a terrestrial speaker community. 

One of the most famous language inventors is the writer and linguist JRR Tolkien. His most famous languages are the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin, written in the Tengwar alphabet. Tolkien developed a linguistic history around his languages. However, such artificial languages do not evolve in use. For this reason, languages from science fiction films are not very dynamic. 

On the other hand, there have already been attempts to create a language outside the science fiction world. Examples of this are Volapük or Esperanto. 

Do you speak an artificial language? Would you like to give us your voice in whatever language? Then start your project here. We are looking forward to it!

Your earthish-speaking alugha team





Cora Buhlert (2010): Science Fiction und die Zukunft der englischen Sprache: Neologismen, Vereinfachungen, Kreolisierungen oder lieber gleich Klingonisch? In: 10. Norddeutsches Linguistisches Kolloquium (2009): 1-39 Said Sahel & Ralf Vogel (Ed.) (04.05.2022, 08:20)

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