If you’re trying to build a world for your movie universe, you’re going to want to make things as real as possible, and one of the quickest ways to make things seem real is to create a new language for your characters to speak. And you can go through all the trouble of getting a linguist to make a fake language, like Lord of the Rings, Avatar, or Game of Thrones. Or, you can take it easy, grab an ordinary, real-life language, and just call it something else. Apparently, as long as it doesn’t sound at least vaguely familiar, no one gives a crap.
4. Clockwork Orange’s slang is almost entirely just ordinary Russian
While Stanley Kubrick was notorious for being a perfectionist, Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange’s author, was apparently not that particular. He wrote the novel in just three weeks, and that includes coming up with the book’s futuristic slang language, Nadsat.
Now, it’s probably pretty clear that most of Nadsat is just re-appropriated Russian. Tolchock (hit), malchick (boy), those are obviously regular Russian words. But then you’ve got words like rooker (hand), gulliver (head), gloopy (stupid), lewdies (people), rot (mouth), and the ever-popular horrorshow. Surely those are clever wordplay straight out of the English language, right?
Not even close. They’re all plain transliterations of everyday Russian. They just don’t sound as Russian as, for example, devotchka (girl). Ruka (hand), golova (head), glupiyi (stupid), lyudi (people), rot (mouth). Even horrorshow, one of the movie’s most iconic words, is just ordinary Russian: Khorosho is simply the Russian word for good. “Real horrorshow” is just “real good.”
In fairness, they’re extremely clever transliterations, but Burgess obviously didn’t spend much of those three weeks working on the language aspect.
3. Dune features one mostly made-up language, one not so made up
Whether you’re a fan of the books, the David Lynch film, the TV films, Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation, or just like making jokes about how the spice must flow and riding sandworms, Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune series can be experienced in a ludicrous number of ways. And that means that you, too, can enjoy all the work that Herbert put into his fictional universe. Especially those languages. Er, language, anyway.
There are two primary languages in the Dune universe. First, there’s Galach. It’s a mix of Russian and English that barely resembles either of those. For example, to say “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” you’d say, “baradit nehiidit beed gwarp tau nubukt.” I’m sure you understand completely.
Meanwhile, the other big language mentioned in Dune is Fremen, which is said to be a futuristic version of Arabic. But “futuristic” is probably a bit optimistic, because it’s mostly just modern day Arabic. Hajj, ilm, jihad, and several other commonplace Arabic words and phrases, completely unchanged, feature prominently. Here is a giant list. Even Paul, one the main characters, gives himself the name Muad’Dib. Meanwhile, mu’adib is the Arabic word for teacher, which is pretty on the nose, even for science fiction.
2. Blade Runner’s Cityspeak is barely a language at all
Remember that scene at the beginning of Blade Runner, where Deckard is sitting at the noodle bar when Edward James Olmos comes up and starts speaking to him in some unidentified foreign language?
Well, the original cut explained a little bit. We’ll let Harrison Ford take this one:
“That gibberish he talked was Cityspeak, gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you. I didn’t really need a translator. I knew the lingo, every good cop did. But I wasn’t going to make it easier for him.”
In linguistics, that’s called a pidgin – a simplified mix of languages that arises when people who speak different languages don’t have one in common. Eventually, this can turn into a creole, which is a single, stable language made up of several others. Cityspeak is somewhere between those. And it also includes Hungarian, Chinese, and French in addition to the languages Deckard names.
It’s worth noting, also, that Cityspeak was not in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book upon which Blade Runner is based. It was invented for the film by world-famous linguist Edward James Olmos. (I was lying about the world-famous linguist part.) Such a committed actor is he, Olmos just straight-up invented both the concept and language of Cityspeak while preparing for the role of Gaff. Ridley Scott liked it and used it. You probably already suspected that Edward James Olmos was our greatest living actor after seeing him in Battlestar Galactica. Now you can confirm it.
(If you’re curious, some intrepid folks have tried their hand at translating Gaff’s lines in the noodle bar scene, which you can read right here.)
1. Star Wars borrowed from several obscure real-life languages
George Lucas may have screwed up some stuff with Star Wars, but one thing he did absolutely right (with a lot of help from others) was creating the vast and incredible universe in the movies/books/video games/novelty drinkware/whatever. And with such a vast and incredible universe, you need a lot of alien languages. That’s easier said than done, of course.
Pretty much right off the bat, Luke and Obi-Wan encounter a bunch of weird sounding aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina, where we’re also introduced to Han Solo, who is speaking with his, uh, compatriot, Greedo. Turns out, Harrison Ford was there for two knock-off languages, because the dialect that Greedo speaks, ostensibly Huttese, is actually Quechua, a real language spoken in Peru.
Greedo’s voice actor, Larry Ward, was a Berkeley-trained linguist and Ben Burtt, the movie’s sound designer, stumbled across Quechua and showed it to Ward, who was able to pick it up pretty much right away (though Burtt claims that the dialogue wasn’t quite real Quechua, it’s apparently very accurate according to several translations). Later, Burtt and Ward would develop a “real” Huttese language for the later films, which used Quechua and other Peruvian languages as a basis, but wasn’t an exact clone of them.
Later, in Return of the Jedi, Lucas and his team dipped into real languages again. The Ewoks mostly speak gibberish, but several words and phrases are actually everyday Tagalog, a major language in the Philippines, and others are Kalmuck, a Mongolian dialect.
Meanwhile, Nien Nunb, Lando’s jowly co-pilot…
Yeah, him. Nien Nunb speaks unchanged Gikuyu, an African language spoken in Kenya and Tanzania. According to reports from the time, Kenyan audience were so thrilled by this, they cheered every line of dialog that Nien spoke.
Related Topics: Blade Runner