The Language of the Stars

Ultimate Star Wars, by Patricia Barr, Adam Bray, Daniel Wallace, and Ryder Windham – I saw this fully illustrated guide to the series mentioned online, and decided to check it out at the library. It’s divided into sections on characters, places, technology, and vehicles, all including information not directly stated in the movies.

The book has a 2015 copyright date and was likely released in conjunction with The Force Awakens, yet it doesn’t include anyone or anything introduced in that film, for good reason concerning how spoiler-conscious modern audiences tend to be. It does briefly note in the entries for Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Millennium Falcon that they’d be showing up in Episode VII, but I suppose everyone already knew that at the time. Admiral Ackbar’s cameo is not mentioned, nor, oddly, is the reappearance of Luke’s lightsaber. In addition to the movies, it has information from the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, which I still haven’t watched and probably should. I don’t think I realized that Naboo was Palpatine’s original homeworld, but in retrospect it makes sense that Padme would have gone to her own planet’s Senator for help. I also would have figured Lando Calrissian was from Corellia since he owned the Falcon before Han did, but apparently he’s actually from the planet Socorro. I wonder if there’s a single origin world for the humans who ended up basically dominating the galaxy. For that matter, are they related to humans on Earth, or is that all just a coincidence?

Speaking of Star Wars, I watched this spoiler-filled review of The Force Awakens by James “Angry Video Game Nerd” Rolfe some time ago, and found that there was one thing I particularly wanted to comment on, which isn’t a spoiler, but I couldn’t figure out how to work it into a longer post. Specifically, when being interrogated by the Empire, Princess Leia names Dantooine as the location of the rebel base. She turns out to be lying, but what’s interesting is that James and Mike Matei apparently thought she was saying “Tatooine,” and I either thought that myself or wondered what the connection was. The thing is, the planet Tatooine isn’t named at all in the movie, although it is later used in the opening crawl for Return of the Jedi. Tataouine is the French name of a city in Tunisia not far from where the Tatooine scenes were filmed, but I’m not sure when George Lucas decided on the name. It’s possible that Dantooine was actually named first, even though it’s a planet we never actually see in the films. The name Tataouine apparently derives from the Berber for either “eyes” or “water springs.” Perhaps there’s supposed to be some etymological connection between the Star Wars planets, but I don’t think we find out what “-tooine” means in the language of a galaxy far, far away.

We know that Lucas was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, and as a linguist Tolkien put a lot of thought into his names and fictional languages. Even so, it seems like he backpedaled somewhat when introducing The Hobbit into the world of The Silmarillion, claiming that the sometimes silly names for the hobbits and the ones for the dwarves taken straight out of the Poetic Edda were for the readers’ convenience rather than what they actually called themselves. While I appreciate Tolkien’s attention to detail, it strikes me that he ruined it somewhat for other writers who come up with names based simply on what sounds good, or draw from a variety of sources. It’s interesting to speculate about the old language of Oz, and whether there’s a common linguistic root to L. Frank Baum’s Oogaboo and Mangaboo or Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Zamagoochie and zazagooch, but I doubt they really put that much thought into it. Baum is known for his two-letter place names: Oz, Ev, Ix, and Mo. Many of his other names are plays on English words or in a nursery-rhyme-like style, and his successors tended to follow suit. I’ve noticed a tendency of authors who want to write a less light-hearted Oz to make some of the names slightly less silly, like how Gregory Maguire refers to the Winkie Country as the Vinkus and Oogaboo as Ugabu. There are hints of roots in several different languages, as “Munchkin” sounds pretty German and “Quadling” Latin. Despite one person’s theory that the language of Oz is derived from Irish Gaelic, however, I think most of the made-up terms in the books are just ones that sounded good to the authors.

Star Wars names also seem to come from a mix of origins, but then, we ARE looking at an entire galaxy. I doubt we’re meant to take the language all that seriously when Admiral Ackbar is a member of an aquatic species called Mon Calamari and two of Jabba the Hutt’s mechanics are now officially named Klaatu and Barada, but it’s fascinating to look at the origins for various names (some confirmed and some not) from the franchise.

This old FAQ has some information in that respect, as do this more recent site and this article. Some of the names have specific in-joke origins, like “R2-D2” being an abbreviation for “Reel 2, Dialogue Track 2.” Even the more obvious ones might have some additional cultural significance, like how Han Solo is a loner (well, aside from always being accompanied by Chewbacca), but his surname might also be referencing Napoleon Solo from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. We can question how conscious it was that a guy with the last name Lucas would name his hero Luke, but the name is also similar to the Greek for “light.” The FAQ offers an interesting theory that Leia’s name could come from leila, meaning “night,” but it’s probably not that likely. She’s not associated with darkness, and I’m pretty sure Luke and Leia were named before anybody decided they were related. Similarly, Darth Vader being Luke’s father wasn’t decided on until later on either, so I don’t know that the “dark father” connection was conscious, although I guess it could have been. I always noted the similarity to “invader,” which would fit with the other Sith names we know (Bane, Plagueis, Sidious, Maul, Tyranus).

The term “Jedi” might come from either the Jeddak of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series or the jidaigeki films of Akira Kurosawa, both of which were known to be influential on Lucas. I’ve written before about how Endor is likely a Biblical reference but also has a connection to Tolkien and Naboo comes from the Babylonian god of writing. And the recently revealed name of Lando’s original home can mean “help” or “relief” in either Spanish or Portuguese, and is the name of several places on our own planet.

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7 Responses to The Language of the Stars

  1. Tolkien did actually bump fantasy fiction up a few notches, though in fairness, I think a lot of credit belongs to Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft for world-building in ways that feel very authentic. When I conceive of Oz, I think of it in those terms, even though I know many of the authors didn’t put that much thought into names (and some of Thompson’s have made me pull my hair out). Yet, we live in an era where fans are accustomed to worldbuilding, so I think that with a little thought and effort, prior Ozian names can be retconned in such a way as to give them a degree of verisimilitude that they may not have originally had.

    In one of my upcoming Star Wars essays for Sequart Books, I wrote on the origins of names used by Alan Moore and Steve Moore in their Star Wars Marvel UK stories, which was fascinating because they (especially Alan) put a LOT of thought into names, which each one having layered meanings. As to the origins of humans in the galaxy, there was a novella I wrote many years ago for Hyperspace (which had been a paid portion of the official online site) which delved into the origins of the galaxy, as seen through the eyes of one historian and his droid as they traveled into the hidden alternate dimension known as Otherspace. Now that I mention it, I’m reminded that I actually need to polish that up.

    Nathan, you’re the kind of person who would enjoy the Expanded Universe, although it’s a LOT to collect. But if you ever find yourself with a good chunk of disposable income, you’ll really get a lot of of it!

    • Nathan says:

      While I do wish Baum had been more consistent at times, I do think the anything-goes feel and wordplay are part of the fun of the Oz books. I try to maintain somewhat of a balance in my own stories.

      • I wonder how much of our approach can be traced to when we discovered Oz. I think if I’d read the series earlier, I’d see it in ways that were amusing, but I didn’t come to it until after having read Tolkien, Lewis, Howard and Lovecraft, so I tended (and still tend) to see punny and silly names as babyish and unimaginative. I reconcile them in my head as nicknames that the inhabitants gave their communities, which works most of the time, but then I come across names like Badmannah (because he’s a bad man) and the Scares (because they’re scary) and it makes me roll my eyes and want to fling the book across the room.

      • Nathan says:

        That could have something to do with it, although I’ve always liked puns, so I might still like such names even if I’d started reading the books as an adult.

        I figured “Badmannah” was a play on “bad manner” rather than “bad man,” although it could be both. I’m not even sure it’s that far-fetched of a name, if he’s from a culture that values toughness and ferocity.

      • For me I guess it’s how it’s used. I was just reading the transcript of the McGraws’ appearance at an Oz con, and they point out how Baum used places for whimsy, whereas Thompson used places for puns. That to me is crossing a line because it sacrifices the believability of the story for the sake of a gag. The McGraws noted that fantasy has to be even more “real” than reality in order for the reader to suspend disbelief. One could argue that a village can rename itself with a punny name, and that’s fine if not overdone. But when one’s dealing with villainous characters or monsters (the Scares come to mind), it’s just lame and drains all the tension from whatever conflict is about to ensue.

      • Nathan says:

        Well, the Scares don’t seem to be concerned about much other than scaring people. That does make me wonder what they do when there’s nobody to frighten, or how their community functions.

      • Exactly, that’s how a good writer thinks! And that’s how a good story is developed.

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