Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review: "Star Wars: Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide," by Ben Burtt

A few weeks ago, while re-watching "Episode I" for no good reason, I turned the subtitles on and realized how much of the dialogue for that film is in Huttese. That stream of utterances emitted by the alien characters was intended to represent a consistent, coherent langurage. With a reasonably large corpus (for a language constructed for a film) and a number of well-known, easily recognizable phrases, could it be made to function as a more full-fledged conlang?

For anyone investigating Huttese as a conlang, the Star Wars Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide is an essental reference. It is a relatively small book, published after the release of "The Phantom Menace", and certainly not a complete reference. The book is divided into two parts: a phrase book by the "in-world" persona Ebenn Q3 Baobab, and a reminisce on the sound design for the original trilogy and other films by Ben Burtt.

Ben Burtt was a sound designer for Star Wars, creating special dialogue and sound effects for the original movie and the franchise from then on. He wrote for the cartoon series "Star Wars: Droids", in which the Baobab Merchant Fleet makes its most notable appearance, and made several cameos, including Baobab Merchant Fleet leader and traveler Ebenn Q3 Baobab in "The Phantom Menace". Burtt was thus significantly responsible for much of the alien dialogue in the series.

The phrase book and travel guide is light-hearted and often very funny. The travel guide section is very brief, offering only a glimpse at bars, hotels, saunas, and other facilities in Mos Eisley on (post-Rebellion) Tatooine, as well as more general advice. The phrase book offers guidance on communicating in Bocce, Huttese, Ewok, Shyriiwook, Droidspeak, Jawa, Tusken, Gungan, and Nemoidian, as well as getting a haircut in Sallustan. The longest chapter is Huttese, followed by Ewok and Bocce; the Droidspeak and Gungan chapters are mercifully short. Bocce is briefly mentioned in the first "Star Wars" movie; it is here described as a trade language created by the Baobab Merchant Fleet. This book must be its most significant corpus.

There are some oddities in the languages; "song peetch alay" is a well-known Huttese phrase meaning "it's too late". Elsewhere, it is described as a Jawaese rallying cry (following their battle cry "Utinni!") to the Jawa band to converge upon their hapless victims. It could have easily been borrowed from one language into another, of course.

Burtt's reflections on his sound design work for the franchise is very interesting, and describes the efforts to create Greedo's dialogue and other Huttese, Chewbacca's varied utterances, and R2D2's beeps and whistles, among other sounds. Greedo's dialogue, the first appearance of Huttese, was largely improvised by linguistics gradute student Larry Ward in an imitation of Quecha; Ward later provided the voice of Jabba the Hutt.

Many of the languages of the movies were roughly inspired by the phrases and sounds of existing natural languages, as Quecha influenced early Huttese. Some of the Sallustan dialogue in "Return of the Jedi" was spoken by a Tanzanian in his native Haya language, which was comprehensible to viewers of the film in East Africa.

Burtt is not always the most artful prose stylist in the latter section, but the information he relates is certainly engaging.

The book concludes with "Selected Alien Language Scenes from Star Wars", which includes transcriptions of the Huttese dialogue from "Star Wars", and Ewok dialogue and the Ewok Celebration Song from "Return of the Jedi".

From a philological perspective, there are several important sources of Huttese in the films. "Star Wars" includes Greedo's dialogue as well as dialogue by Jabba in the Special Edition. "Return of the Jedi" includes significant dialogue in Huttese at Jabba's palace. "The Phantom Menace" also includes long passages of Huttese dialogue. "The Empire Strikes Back" offers a single Huttese phrase, uttered by a droid, and "Attack of the Clones" has a single brief dialogue in Huttese between Watto and Anakin. Huttese has also appeared in the many other games, books, and media that portray the Star Wars universe.

This book offers canonical transcriptions of significant examples of Huttese speech: all of the Huttese dialogue from "Star Wars"; isolated Huttese phrases drawn from "Return of the Jedi" and "The Phantom Menace"; and the single Huttese insult in "The Empire Strikes Back".

Much of the Huttese dialogue in the prequel trilogy was written in the script (in Huttese and translation) and is available there. However, the Huttese dialogue in "Return of the Jedi" is largely lacking a canonical transcription or translation. Notable phrases such as "bo shueda" have no translation. Nevertheless, Burtt's book does fill in some of the gaps in the "Return of the Jedi" corpus.

Clearly, Huttese is a language created to have a certain sound, without attention to lexical or grammatical consistency. Such inconsistency may make sense for a creole or patois cobbled together from dozens of alien languages and spoken by villainous scum across the galaxy. Assembling a grammar, or even a dictionary, of the language would be...challenging. But we can know and use at least some of its evocative sayings.

The Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide is a fun book for people interested in fictional languages, the speech of Star Wars, or just curious about how Chewbacca's dialogue was made. For those more specifically interested in Huttese linguistics, it is essential, and a source for online resources such as the Huttese language page on Wookiepedia and the Complete Wermo's Guide to Huttese (and other Star Wars languages).

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