Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m currently reading the New Jedi Order series of Star Wars books. They’re a series of sci-fi novels for those who enjoy the Star Wars universe and the Jedi, and I’d really recommend them as light, fun reading. However, one unintended fun consequence of them is that I keep stumbling upon new and interesting language usage in the books. Here’s one such example:

Cross-Galactic Communication

In the series, the Galaxy is invaded by a very nasty species called the Yuuzhan Vong, who come from outside the galaxy and speak a very different language than “Basic”, the accepted trade language of Star Wars. As you might expect, the Yuuzhan Vong cannot understand Basic, and the rest of the Galaxy cannot understand the Vong. This language barrier, as you can imagine, can play a significant role in any situation.

Both sides have ways of compensating for this, though. The New Republic (those in charge of the Galaxy after the Star Wars movies) uses technology to overcome the barrier, with translator robots (“droids”) doing the talking and translating for them (one book mentions offhand that the Yuuzhan Vong language is remarkably similar to an existing language, thus, permitting translation). The Yuuzhan Vong, on the other hand, bring with them complex biotechnology (living ships, weapons, even living implants), and to solve the language problems, use a small worm embedded in the ear called a “Tizowyrm”.

A Tizowyrm understands what is said in another language, and then translates it for the host creature. This is strikingly similar to the Babel Fish in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, a small fish that lives in the ear and translates similarly.

The Tizowyrm’s magical Phonological powers

So, the Babelfish in Hitchhiker’s guide only allowed one to understand other species. So, I would talk to the alien in English, the Babelfish would translate for them, and they would respond in their language, which would be translated for me. However, if the other party didn’t have a Babelfish, there would be vast confusion. This is, as far as translation fish go, fairly believable. If a creature such as that could exist, that wouldn’t be an unthinkable way of their functioning.The Yuuzhan Vong Tizowyrm, however, is purported to allow one to speak in the other language as well as understand it. This is where I start to grow more wary.

Sure, in theory, the Tizowyrm could read the mind of the Vong, understand what he wants to say, and then say it in Basic into his ear. However, that doesn’t mean he could instantly say it.

Imagine if I were to whisper a Russian phrase into your ear once. Do you think you could repeat it without speaking Russian? How about Chinese or Thai? Languages all have different sound systems, and just because you hear a given sound or tone, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to pronounce (or even hear) it. Hearing something alone doesn’t allow you to say it. You must train your tongue and mouth to make the required motions (and strings of motions) until it becomes second nature to do so. This is one of the more difficult parts of learning a language, and this is also one of the reasons that children have a far easier time of picking up languages. They’re better able to learn the required gestures.

This also relies on the assumption that the Yuuzhan Vong are capable of producing the language at all. The entirety of the Basic-speaking Star Wars universe flows on the idea that there’s a single language which can be spoken by most species. However, this is fairly unlikely. The human vocal tract is incredibly advanced and complex, and a single change (say, in the tissue binding the tongue to the bottom of the mouth) could render entire groups of sounds unpronounceable. So, to imagine that a group of Extragalactic aliens has the required phonetic apparatus to create (or mimic) all the sounds of Basic is a little far fetched.

However, this is even more far-fetched with the Yuuzhan Vong. The vong also have a disturbing tendency towards self-mutilation. One prominent leader, Warmaster Tsavong Lah, is described as having lips that have been cut into small strips and which flail about when he talks. Somehow, though, he seems to have no trouble with bilabial consonants (which involve the use of both lips) such as “b” and “p” when speaking Basic in the book. Similarly, I suspect that Vong with a ritually split tongue would have trouble with laterals (like ‘L’) among other sounds.

The Tizowyrm, then, must be truly magical. Not only does it translate complex, culturally loaded statements with ease, but it allows one to overcome his or her language background and use sounds correctly to speak “the language of the infidels”.

Then again, maybe this is just a fictional Sci-Fi series written for Star Wars fans and not Phonetics nerds. Yeah, that’s probably it after all.

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