This document is an initial overview of the written symbolic languages seen in STAR WARS, especially as shown in The Phantom Menace. The emphasis is on the logical properties of the symbols. Actually determining what these languages sound like is a much more difficult and speculative problem. Therefore the interpretation of the phonetics of STAR WARS languages, and the deduction of detailed grammar and translations of the available texts will be left for future consideration by other writers. The scope of this document is restricted to the logical, structural content of the symbols seen in STAR WARS.
Thanks are due to, in alphabetic order:
The universal language of the galactic civilisation was named "Basic" in roleplaying game sources. The tractor beam power controls in A New Hope were inscribed in English, and those markings must be regarded as an implicit translation in the movie medium, like extra-textual subtitles imbedded in the scene. However every movie contains explicit, raw, untranslated examples of Basic text.
Basic text involves distinct words separated by spaces, much like text in modern terrestrial languages that use the Latin, Cyrillic or Greek alphabets.
Furthermore, the distribution of lengths of Basic words suggests that vowels are represented by characters as well as consonents, like European langauges and unlike many non-European written languages. A natural language develops in such a way that the most frequently used concepts are represented by few letters, which minimises the efforts of speakers. A message as long as the computer texts in the movies ought to contain some monosyllabic words, and the smallest known words in the Basic texts contain two letters. This hints at the presence of written vowels coupled with consonants. Basic seems more like European languages, with explicit vowels, than Semitic languages with unwritten vowels.
Apart from the principle of efficiency, the scope of the STAR WARS environment makes it necessary for the full phonetic content of personal and place names to be expressed in writing. If Basic had no written vowels then it would be hard for galactic citizens to verbally discuss (for example) newspaper reports about events in unfamiliar parts of the galaxy. Indeed for this reason it seems necessary for written Basic to be much more strictly and explicitly phonetic than English.
Like English, Basic writing is often orientated in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom fashion, however this is not always the case. Basic is most often written horizontally, but it can be vertical, and there are many cases when the text is actually mirror-reversed. The flexibility and variability of the orientation of written Basic is probably explained by the fact that the galactic human-based culture has travelled and lived in space for countless millennia. In a zero-gravity environment, people are likely to encounter text turned in all kinds of ways, since the signs or objects bearing the text are not aligned by gravity. Children learning to read in the STAR WARS society would know how to adapt quickly to scan sections of text in the proper direction. This practice would become as natural as the more restricted modes of reading and writing used by terrestrial languages. Consonants with asymmetric features signify the correct direction for reading Basic text. If there exist simple, single-character vowel words then their orientation does not affect the pronounciation in any case. As a general rule, no word should be spelt using only vowels and symmetric consonents.
In graphic terms,
not all of the roleplaying game
correspond to the movie letters,
and not all of the movie letters resemble any of the RPG letters.
Nevertheless it is useful to transcribe Return of the Jedi texts
to demonstrate the fact that although there are similarities of graphical style,
the RPG assignment of phonemes to characters
does not describe a viable language.
For example, here is the text of the
announcing Lord Vader's arrival at Endor:
F B N E V Y TH ; K F B N E L V
I S Q KH M Z C D G U I S AE KH M
EO L S K Y E X H T EO S K Y E
H M OO AE N A B Z U H M OO AE N G
AE E X Q Z NG T KH S AE X Q Z NG
I H V Q T NG B X D L I H V Q T NG
A F AE E U K G D EO Z A AE E M U
M EO NG M Y ? X AE CH EO NG H M N
where the letters
are assigned liberally to the nearest possible equivalents in the RPG alphabet,
and the letter marked
? is completely absent from the RPG scheme.
carefully devised to ensure a proper density of vowels
and speakable consonents,
can easily turn all of the canonical texts into speakable non-English language.
Some factors that could complicate the study of the Basic language must be noted.
Although the sounds of the letters are not yet known, the conventional order of part of the alphabet could be determined from the graphics of General Veers' AT-AT target scope in The Empire Strikes Back. The dial at the top of the display is alphabetic, and the consecutive letters are different. The display probably uses the ordered letters to indicate another quantity (perhaps the guns' power setting). Arabic numerals at the bottom indicate scalar data, perhaps magnification or light level. By matching different screenshots, a large part of the alphabet can be assembled graphically. Eighteen letters are shown below; they appear to be a repeating cycle of ten. Perhaps they are the first ten letters of the alphabet?
The alphabet contains at least ten letters but no upper limit has been proven. The computer screens in ROTJ contain over thirty distinct characters, but rarer letters could also exist. The only hint of a limited size is seen in what appears to be a keyboard in the control room of the docking bay where Lord Vader debarked into the Death Star II. A guard appears to be typing on a flat grid of bright red squares with dark markings. There are three rows of at least five squares, indicating a minimum of fifteen different symbols, or more if the keys are multi-functional.
There are very few clues to the meanings of the available texts. The shuttle texts are most specific and offer the best chance for realistic interpretation. The amber bullets beside particular paragraphs also appear in boxes on the respective ship schematics. This key establishes a one-to-one relation between components of the shuttle and blocks of text. The text must be structurally descriptive in some way: either dealing with the physical condition of the shuttle or its characteristic emissions.
The cockpit monitors of Radiant VII bear Galactic Basic letters in a type font that is somewhat more decorative than the minimalist sanserif characters favoured by later by the Imperial Navy.
Faintly legible Galactic Basic text appears on the readouts of Darth Maul's electrobinoculars.
Vertically flipped Basic text appearing on one of the large monitors of the Emperor's throne room aboard the second Death Star. The countdown clock uses Arabic numerals and has normal orientation.
Text on Imperial flight control monitors show data pertaining to the clearance status of Lord Vader's shuttle. The first paragraph of the first screen is an abbreviated version of the text of the first paragraph from second screen. [Refer to Lambda-class shuttles.]
Clearance data pertaining to the Tydirium, appearing on a traffic control console on the bridge of the Executor. Two screens of small print are substantially different from each other and from the screens of data shown for Lord Vader's arrival. Amber letter bullets apparently relate sections of the shuttle to descriptive paragraphs. [Refer to Lambda-class shuttles.]
The titles and paragraphs describing Lord Vader's shuttle appear in sequence with highlights on the ship's schematics. Does the text describe specific features of this shuttle? Life-support, sensors, electronic countermeasures, cloaking device, or shields? [Refer to Lambda-class shuttles.]
A variety of status messages flash on the monitor of the Endor bunker. This text is inverted compared to the shuttle security clearance displays.
This crewman appears to be operating a red, touch-sensitive keyboard with at least fifteen keys. Key cominations may yield the 30+ letters of the galactic Basic alphabet.
A style of Basic numerals as shown in The Phantom Menace: Visual Dictionary. This is the font used on the bodies of Trade Federation battle droids.
Mace Windu's graphical tests for Anakin Skywalker are denoted by Basic numbers along with other characters that are more difficult to identify. [TPM:VD]
Text in General Veers' AT-AT target scope.
X-Wing screen translating R2-D2's speech in TESB.
A rebel monitor in the STAR WARS Holiday Special shows what appears to be the first example of Basic text (distinct from the Wookiee script shown at the start and end of the cartoon).
Being physically vast and robust as well as highly intelligent and long-lived, the Hutts have as a species gained enormous influence in some areas of the galaxy. Hutt Space is a region of the Outer Rim Territories which for practical purposes is a sector under the domination of Hutt gangsters. Thus although many sapient species lack the appropriate mouthparts needed to speak Huttese with its full range of nuances, the language of the Hutts is widely understood and serves as an official language in Huttese courts and on worlds within the Huttese thrall (such as Tatooine during the events of The Phantom Menace).
There are two known instances of lettering that may be the written forms of Huttese:
The count-down signals at the Mos Espa racetrack indentify what probably are the numerals for "3", "2" and "1". Other numerals can be identified from the displays on Skywalker's podracer. It is interesting to consider the total number of distinct numerals, because this will indicate the base of the counting system (eg. ten-numeral decimal numbers commonly used by creatures with ten fingers; two-numeral binary numbers used in computer memories). If the base of this counting system exceeds the number of fingers on the hand of a Hutt, then we will be forced to conclude that this language actually belongs to a different species or culture.
Graphics from the control panels of Anakin Skywalker's pod-racer, and logos from its hull appear to be from the same alphabet. Since his homeworld was dominated by the Hutts at that point in history, it's reasonable to guess that the pod's graphics were in Huttese.
Crescent-shaped glyphs on the archways of Jabba's palace on Tatooine may be a formal type of Huttese writing.
Like Galactic Basic, the written form of the language used by the humans of Naboo distinguishes words by spaces. Unlike the military texts in Basic seen so far, the Naboo language appears to contain at least some character accents and perhaps punctuation.
The informal "Futhork" script of Naboo appears abundantly throughout The Phantom Menace. Examples include:
A formalised oval style, called "Futhark" appears on the hull and control panel labels of the Naboo N-1 starfighter. Less can be determined about this script, because there are fewer examples. Although the two alphabets appear very different, it may eventually be possible to guess which letters correspond, by comparing the number of strokes, nodes and other topological features.
An illustration of an hangar engineer's helmet in The Phantom Menace: Visual Dictionary provides a vital key that may permit the deciphering of the Futhork characters. The name "Jabesq" is identified, which permits only two possible readings of the letters: forwards or backwards (because the reading orientation of Futhork script is not yet known). The word appears to contain just five letters with an accent mark between the leftmost and second-left characters. (The phonetics must be "j-a-b-e-sq".) The second and fifth characters are symmetric about horizontal reflections, which hints that they could be the vowels. The rightmost letter also has a horizontal symmetry, but we know that the first and last letters must be consonents. The remaining letters are definitely consonents and have asymmetric shapes. Knowing which of these letters are vowels or otherwise may allow the deduction of the vowelhood of other letters appearing in different words on Naboo computer monitors.
The small scale ticks on the vertical axes of the hyperdrive diagnositc monitor of Queen Amidala's royal starship are tenfold, plus an eleventh mark indicating the top of the axis range. This strongly indicates that the Naboo counting system has a base of ten like the Arabic numerals used most commonly on Earth. This is not surprising since base-ten representations of numbers are most natural for technical societies of ten-fingered beings, like humans.
This informal Naboo Futhork lettering spells the name "Jabesq" according to TPM: Visual Dictionary.
Formal Futhark lettering from Naboo.
Scopes from the Naboo N-1 starfighter and Queen Amidala's transport tend to use the informal script, even though the control panels and starfighter systems have labels using the Futhark characters.
Hyperdrive diagnostic monitor in the bridge of Queen Amidala's transport. The marks on the axes indicate a base-ten number system, even if the digits are too small to read.
The bongo submarine has control panel displays bearing several kinds of interesting symbols. A schematic of the craft is labeled with six different yellow captions containing text consisting of five complex Gungan glyphs. They have at least as much graphic complexity as Chinese characters, so it seems likely that Gungan characters represent entire words or concepts, rather than being phonetic like European languages. What this tells us about Gungan grammar and culture may be an interesting topic for the consideration of anthropologists.
The control panels also show a number of dials. Each of the dials has evenly spaced tick marks to indicate various scalar readings. The number of small ticks intervals per large tick is different for the different dials, ranging from five to ten, so unfortunately these monitors don't tell us much about the Gungan system of counting. However there are several small digits next to some of the dials, which indicates that the Gungan numerals are simpler than Gungan letters. Unfortunately the numerals are too small to read in the available illustrations [from The Phantom Menace: Visual Dictionary]. If we could obtain a closer view then it would be possible to tell at least some of the Gungan digits, their relative order, and perhaps the base of their counting system.
Control panel graphics from Qui-Gon Jinn's bongo submarine display several characters of Gungan lettering.
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