What would an alien language sound like, anyway? In the Star Wars universe, it might sound like Indonesian, or maybe Finnish. Here are some of the most interesting Star Wars languages, along with the real-world languages that inspired them:
In the real world, the Quechua language family is an indigenous language spoken in the South American Andes. It was the language of the Incas, and currently has 8.9 million native speakers. In the Star Wars universe, however, it sounds an awful lot like Huttese, the language of the Hutts.
When sound designer Ben Burtt was trying to come up with dialog for the bounty hunter Greedo, he drew inspiration from a Quechua language tape. As a result, Huttese shares sounds and even a few words with Quechua.
For example, tuta means night in Quechua. It appears to mean from in Huttese, as in the phrase “Sebulba tuta Pixelito.”
Indonesian and Sundanese inspired Kanjiklubber, a new language that appears in Star Wars, The Force Awakens. To create the Kanjiklubber dialogue, director J.J. Abrams turned to Sara Maria Forsberg. Originally from Finland, Forsberg became “YouTube famous” last year when her video “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners” took off.
In her video, Forsberg manages to imitate the sounds of various languages without speaking any real words. It’s exactly the sort of talent needed to create the little bits of alien dialogue required for Star Wars: the ability to make gibberish not sound like gibberish.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
“Because the actors were from Indonesia, Ms. Forsberg said that she was encouraged to base her linguistic concoction on the sounds of the national language, Indonesian, as well as of the actors’ native language of Sundanese, spoken in western Java. She studied clips of those and other Asian languages to come up with something suitably exotic-sounding. Ms. Forsberg said that she sought to create alien words that would “sound credible” and “not like gibberish.”
Haya and Kikuyu
Lando Calrissian’s pint-sized pilot, Nien Nunb, speaks primarily Sullustan. Since the voice actor who portrayed him was from Africa, the Sullustan language sounds suspiciously like a mix of two African languages, Haya and Kikuyu.
Oh wait, that’s right…that’s because he is speaking Haya and Kikuyu!
Kikuyu is a Bantu language spoken by around 6 million people in Kenya. Haya is spoken by the Haya people of Tanzania. You can hear a little bit of Kikuyu in the video above.
Kalmyk Oirat and Tibetan
What about the Ewoks? The “very primitive dialect” spoken by these furry little warriors is heavily inspired by a combination of languages, including Tibetan and the endangered Kalmyk Oirat language.
According to The Lost Yak, the Tibetan words used are clearly distinguishable, but don’t always pertain to the action on screen:
“Among words the Ewoks are heard employing are Tibetan for “Hurry! Let’s move,” “No, it’s not him. It’s the one over there,” “There is lots of money here! There is lots of money here!” (in a scene where no money of any kind is in sight!), and a brief prayer.”
When the Ewoks pray to C3po, they are actually using a piece of Tibetan Buddhist prayer, according to Wikipedia.
Kalmyk, the other main language used, is a Mongolic language spoken by the nomadic Kalmyk people of Russia. With only 80,500 native speakers, it is classified by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.” After World War II, the entire Kalmyk population was deported to Siberia and the language was forbidden to be taught in school. In was not until the 1980’s that the language was given co-official status with Russian in Kalmykia and efforts were made to revive it.
What about that weird language spoken by those insect-like Aliens in Attack of the Clones? The Geonosian language is about 90 percent penguin mating calls (no joke) and 10 percent inspired by the Xhosa language of Africa. The Xhosa language is one of only a few human languages to use clicks as consonants. You can hear similar sounds when the Geonosians speak in the video above.
(By the way, if you prefer to pretend the prequels never happened, please accept my humble apologies.)
In the The Phantom Menace’s pod-racing scene, Anakin’s owner Watto and competitor Sebulba inexplicably speak back and forth in Finnish, saying “Kiitos!” (Thank you!) and “Ole hyvä!” (You’re welcome!)
I’m not quite sure what language they were supposed to be speaking, given that the two aliens come from different planets altogether. But hey, I’m sure most movies could be improved with a little bit of gratuitous Finnish.
But why Finnish? As Scandinavian studies professor Ilmari Ivaska explained to Inverse.com:
“You would want a language that has a relatively small native speaker community and that would still be documented well enough to have accessible resources and grammatical and lexical descriptions,” Ivaska said. “Finnish all of a sudden is not such a bad bet.”
What’s your favorite alien language in Star Wars? Let us know in the comments!