The Finn-donesian of "The Force Awakens"

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Tasu LeechFor my language column in the Wall Street Journal this week, I describe how some alien-speak in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" ended up being created by a young Finnish YouTube sensation, tailor-made for Indonesian actors. We could call it "Finn-donesian," though the character Finn doesn't actually speak it. Rather, the dialogue was designed for the Kanjiklub gang, who briefly face off against Han Solo and Chewbacca on a space freighter packed with slithery Rathtars.

The linguistic landscape of "Star Wars" has always been a bit of a mess. We're supposed to think of the English that most characters speak as a proxy for the in-universe lingua franca – Galactic Basic Standard, to those in the know. But some characters jabber away in other exotic tongues without much rhyme or reason. Chewbacca speaks in Wookiee, presumably because his vocal tract isn't equipped to speak Basic. As a protocol droid, C-3PO is of course "fluent in over six million forms of communication," but astromech droids R2-D2 and BB-8 can only bleep away in Binary because… well, who knows, really? They just do.

I had puzzled over these questions growing up with the original "Star Wars" trilogy, and with the release of "The Force Awakens" I started thinking about them again. I eagerly followed a sprawling Twitter conversation a couple of weeks ago, initiated by Gretchen McCulloch, which began with attempts to make sense of BB-8's droidspeak and then spun out into various other linguistic conundrums.

Why, for instance, did J.J. Abrams not take advantage of the community of "conlangers" to make alien languages for "The Force Awakens"? Abrams had, after all, directed two "Star Trek" movies with dialogue from that most famous of invented languages, Klingon. And other big science-fiction releases have featured the efforts of conlangers, like the Na'vi of James Cameron's "Avatar." But as I noted in the New York Times Magazine when "Avatar" was released, alien-speak in the "Star Wars" movies has, by contrast, "never amounted to more than a sonic pastiche" – a pastiche largely assembled by sound designer Ben Burtt using bits of exotic-sounding human languages.

As the tweets flew back and forth, Laura Seaberg pointed out a recently revealed tidbit about "The Force Awakens." Rather than approaching a conlanger, Abrams had instead enlisted Sara Maria Forsberg, a Finnish 19-year-old who found YouTube fame in 2014 with her video, "What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners" (more than 16 million views and counting). In the video, Forsberg proved herself to be an adept mimic of twenty different languages, earning her international attention and an appearance on "The Ellen Show" as "The Multilingual Gibberish Girl." After her bravura performance, Lucasfilm contacted her with a hush-hush offer to work on a scene in "The Force Awakens."

While Variety broke the story of Forsberg's involvement in the film right before the film was released last month, the details were sketchy – the article didn't even specify the scene or characters for which she was asked to make "additional alien dialect," as the film credits put it. Forsberg was quoted as saying that she listened to clips of Asian languages for inspiration, so that made the scene with the Kanjiklub gang, portrayed by Indonesian action stars, the most likely candidate out of the few moments in "The Force Awakens" where alien-speak is given English subtitles.

I tracked down Forsberg, who at 21 is now in Los Angeles pursuing a pop-music career as Saara, and she confirmed that she was asked to make the dialogue for the Kanjiklubbers. (The smattering of other alien dialogue in the film may have come directly from the screenwriters. [Or from supervising sound editor Matthew Wood – see the comment below.]) Abrams had cast the Indonesian actors – Yayan Ruhian, Iko Uwais, and Cecep Arif Rahman – after seeing them in the balls-to-the-wall action movie "The Raid," directed by Gareth Evans. The dazzling fight scenes in "The Raid" employ the Indonesian martial arts style known as pencak silat.

Forsberg hails from a Swedish-speaking town in Finland known as Pietarsaari in Finnish and Jakobstad in Swedish. Along with Finnish and Swedish, she grew up speaking English (her family briefly lived in Fort Worth, Texas), and she became fascinated by the sounds of immigrant languages that she encountered working as a supermarket cashier. For the Kanjiklub gang, she was encouraged by the filmmakers to make the lines sound a bit like Indonesian, a.k.a. bahasa Indonesia, the Malay-based national language of Indonesia. She also listened to clips of Sundanese, from the actors' home region of western Java. (Sundanese Indonesians, like Swedish-speaking Finns, grow up bilingual as a matter of course.)

This was an exciting discovery for me, because my graduate research in linguistic anthropology focused on – you guessed it – Indonesian and Sundanese. I dusted off my skills in both languages when I got in touch with Yayan Ruhian, who plays Tasu Leech, the leader of the Kanjiklub gang who "refuses to speak Basic, dismissing it as a 'soft language for soft people,'" according to the Star Wars Databank. Yayan, who delivers most of the lines created by Forsberg, told me he appreciated the Indonesian sound of the made-up words, though he also detected Indian and Thai traces as well. (In the Indonesian press, he has had to tamp down rumors that he's actually speaking a dialect of Sundanese in the film.)

Only a handful of lines in Forsberg's Finn-donesian actually made it into the film, and the subtitles are no help in figuring them out. Tasu Leech is subtitled saying to Han Solo, "Wrong again, Solo. It's over for you," "Twice," and "Nowhere left to hide." But the spoken bits matching "It's over for you" and "Twice" sound very similar (Yayan transcribes it as sicikadiga madiam). Then one henchman says to the other, "Search the freighter," according to the subtitles, but we hear them exchanging a single word that sounds like kadiam.

(In the clip, you can also hear Han trying to bargain with Bala-Tik, the leader of the Guavian Death Gang, who, for reasons unknown, speaks in a Scottish accent. Not sure how that maps onto the dialects of Galactic Basic.)

For "Star Wars," this neglect of linguistic plausibility is nothing new. In the introduction to his new book The Art of Language Invention, David J. Peterson, who created Dothraki and Valyrian for HBO's "Game of Thrones," recounts being a teenager watching "Return of the Jedi." When Princess Leia is undercover posing as an Ubese bounty hunter at Jabba the Hutt's palace, she uses the same word, yotó, in several lines, even though the subtitles say different things. Is this the sort of thing only conlangers and their ilk care much about? Perhaps, but given the fascinatingly multilingual origins of Finn-donesian, it's a shame that more care wasn't taken with the final product.


  1. Rubrick said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    If I've learned one thing in life, it's that no reason is ever needed for a character to speak in a Scottish accent.

  2. Brian Wood said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    Matthew Wood is the supervising sound editor for the Force Awakens and he also (like other actors) provided some of the alien speech in the film, he is credited like like Ms. Forsberg for additional alien voices. You can write him and he'll tell you more interesting stuff about the alien voices in the film and the languages used. They went to great efforts to find some of the talent for the languages.

  3. Chappers said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 9:05 pm

    >Chewbacca speaks in Wookiee, presumably because his vocal tract isn't equipped to speak Basic.

    That's Shyriiwook: there are apparently several Wookiee languages. Regulars of Language Log will of course be pleased to discover that "Shyriiwook had over 150 words for 'wood' […]"

    >When Princess Leia is undercover posing as an Ubese bounty hunter at Jabba the Hutt's palace, she uses the same word, yotó, in several lines, even though the subtitles say different things.

    This of course assumes that the vocalisations we pick up are the entirety of the language.

    Another favourite of Language Log also appears in Star Wars: C-3PO's description of the Ewoks' "very primitive dialect", which seems a strange term to use for the language of beings on an isolated forest moon. Indeed, between that and "forms of communication", does Star Wars even contain the word "language"?

  4. Lazar said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

    @Rubrick: The movie Highlander is my favorite when it comes to absurd accents. Christopher Lambert with his somewhat French accent plays a Scot, while Sean Connery with his perennially Scottish accent plays a Spaniard.

    On the topic of Game of Thrones/ASOIAF, that universe is actually somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars in its approach to language. George R. R. Martin has admitted that he doesn't have the conlanging inclination that Tolkien did – and the continent of Westeros, in which most of the story is set, is populated almost entirely by speakers of the Common Tongue – the equivalent of Galactic Basic. Martin has never explicitly addressed the question of whether this language is identical to the English of the text; for my part I have to imagine that it isn't, because it would simply be impossible to duplicate the etymological stew of English within the confines of his fictional history. The characters make unabashed use of the modern English lexicon from "avatar" to "apotheosis", yet at the same time their speech remains completely free of Valyrianisms – which they should be using copiously if medieval England is our analogy. I do enjoy Martin's stories and worldbuilding, but it has to be said that language is one of his weak spots (as with Lucas).

  5. Chris C. said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:35 pm

    Pretty much no character from science fiction or fantasy films who speaks with a Scottish accent has a good reason for doing so. I can think of only two good reasons: 1) The character is from Scotland. 2) The actor is from Scotland, and all actors are using their native accents. I think only Scotty from Star Trek qualifies. Why ogres or dwarves should end up with Scottish accents I have no idea. Particularly in the latter case, where the phonology of their native language was, according to the author, modeled after a Semitic language.

    The subtitle issues remind me of this, for obvious reasons: If this sort of thing was widely-observed enough to have been a joke in 1943, I have to think it didn't start with Star Wars.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:44 pm

    "Wayne's World" has a gag similar to the Bugs Bunny one, with an extra-long subtitle for Wayne's Cantonese.

  7. Jason said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:44 pm

    "I tracked down Forsberg, who at 21 is now in Los Angeles pursuing a pop-music career as Saara"

    Can you really "track down" someone with a Youtube account, an Instagram account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and a personal web site, all of which show up in the first 40 ghits for her name?

    Perhaps we need a new verb for the sometimes difficult task of managing to get some to actually reply to a message from a random stranger?

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    Chris C.: How do you feel about Dorothy Sayers translating Arnaut Daniel's Provencal into Scots in the Purgatory?

  9. Jason said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    The character of Nien Nunb (Lando's co-pilot in Return of the Jedi) apparently got a big cheer in Kenya because he was voiced by "Kipsang Rotich, a Kenyan student who spoke in his native Kalenjin language, as well as in Kikuyu." This was only slightly ameriolated by the fact that he says random lines that are completely unrelated to what's happening on screen.

    The Star Wars approach to conlanging has always been "create random gibberish that sounds about right." Ironically, Klingon speakers say most Klingon as featured in the Star Trek films and TV shows is dog-Klingon at best, usually incomprehensible and badly pronounced, because none of the Star Trek writers who have to write the dialog actually speak it and there's no audience incentive to paying a "native" speaker to get it right.

  10. Jason said,

    January 15, 2016 @ 11:03 pm

    "Another favourite of Language Log also appears in Star Wars: C-3PO's description of the Ewoks' "very primitive dialect", which seems a strange term to use for the language of beings on an isolated forest moon."

    I always assumed this was meant to imply that the Ewoks are not native to Endor, but are in fact miniaturized Wookies that arrived on Endor in primitive spacefaring canoes, and are still speaking a conservative dialect of Wookie, which is why C3PO can understand them at all. Otherwise, how could an Ewok language be related to /anything/ C3PO already speaks?

  11. Chris C. said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 12:50 am

    @Jerry Friedman — I'm sure that if I'd ever read anything by Sayers I'd have an opinion.

  12. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 7:02 am

    "…that most famous of invented languages, Klingon."

    How the mighty have fallen! I am old school, and maintain my loyalty to Elvish (Quenya, of course: Sindarin is too common).

    Then there is Esperanto, assuming we place it in the same category. But you may be right about relative fame in this instance.

  13. RachelP said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 7:09 am

    You would also have to include imitating the decidedly ropey Scottish accent of the Canadian actor who played a character who was supposed to be from Scotland (cf. Simon Pegg).

  14. Warren Maguire said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    The audience in the cinema in Edinburgh I saw the film in chuckled appreciatively when Bala-Tik spoke in a Scottish accent.

  15. Rodger C said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    I seem to recall seeing Sappho translated into something like Scots of the era of William Dunbar, perhaps to suggest how she would have sounded to a Koine-speaker of Roman times. It's no wonder they stopped copying her.

  16. John Roth said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 2:49 pm

    I suspect that making a language takes a lot of effort; how many different languages are in a Star Wars film anyway – many of which have only a few snippets here and there.

    That doesn't excuse not making an effort on the main languages, though.

  17. Jonathon Owen said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    Another favourite of Language Log also appears in Star Wars: C-3PO's description of the Ewoks' "very primitive dialect", which seems a strange term to use for the language of beings on an isolated forest moon.

    I assume this is just a bit of linguistic chauvinism. The idea that civilized people speak languages while primitive people speak dialects has been around for a long time.

  18. Lazar said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

    Also "dialect" sounds more scientific, which I think is part of the reason why it pops up so much in sci-fi.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

    Chris C.: Here 's the page from Sayers's Dante if you want to have an opinion.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 16, 2016 @ 10:50 pm

    Lazar: If you can swallow the fact that Martin's fictional planet is populated by a species of people apparently identical to Earth humans, that fact that they speak an Earth language seems like a small additional stretch of credulity.

  21. Jim Scobbie said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 4:45 am

    There's no particular reason a Scottish accent in sci-fi is any *less* justified or more peculiar than any other accent of English. Whatever. At least the accent is not used as a stereotype marker for evil villains. And perhaps everyone (including the Minds) in a film of an Iain M. Banks's novels should sound Scottish? Anyway…
    You might notice the Scottish accent featured is a modern, partly derhotic one. It sounds like a genuine Scottish actor (cf. also final /t/ and /u/), and not someone producing a stereotypical Scottish movie-accent with over-use of tapped or trilled /r/. For example, note the reduction and masking of /r/ in preconsonantal position in "first" and "order" vs. the word-final /r/ in "order" which is tapped (or flapped) in pre-vocalic position. This is in my view an example of phonetic sandhi behaviour which has not yet been fully phonologised: like the common English coronal assimilation, which is due to gestural overlap and reduction. In this type of case, however, the optional phonetic/r/ sandhi can feature a more complex relationship of alternation between categorically different positional allophones of /r/ – (maximally pharyngeal+post-alveolar+labial) approximant vs. tap. So, the final /r/ in "order", which in this example is tap-like, would be likely to be a derhoticised approximant in utterance-final or preconsonantal contexts, much more like the other two /r/ exemplified in pre-consonantal position here, largely reduced to a pharyngealisation of the following C.

  22. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    Bala-Tik is played by the young Glaswegian actor Brian Vernel. More on him here.

  23. David Marjanović said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Ironically, Klingon speakers say most Klingon as featured in the Star Trek films and TV shows is dog-Klingon at best, usually incomprehensible and badly pronounced

    I don't speak Klingon, but I'm afraid I have to agree that the actors should all be killed where they stand. For starters, Klingon has a phonemic glottal stop, its /r/ is trilled, and it lacks [k]…

  24. Catanea said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    I had understood (re: Star Trek and others) that engineers have Scottish accents for some famous conventional reason.

  25. zythophile said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

    I am surprised no one has raised the different accents the dwarves use in the film version of The Hobbit, which I assumed was meant to indicate that Thorin Oakenshield's team were assembled from different Dwarf communities, each with its pwn accent.

  26. Chad Nilep said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 3:20 am

    "a Swedish-speaking town in Finland known as Pietarsaari in Finnish and Jakobstad in Swedish"

    Now I want to learn about Pietar and Jakob, and their relationship. I'm hoping for a Springfield/Shelbyville type thing.

  27. DWalker said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

    "does Star Wars even contain the word "language"?"

    Well, of course, Star Wars must have 150 words for Language. Or snow.

  28. Colin said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

    Re Star Wars accents, I gather there's a fair amount of fan theory about what an 'RP'/'BBC English' accent is supposed to represent. Maybe it's supposed to represent a prestige dialect of Basic, or maybe it's mostly just an accident of which actors are cast.

    Chris C: the third possibility for an unexplained Scottish accent is that the actor is Sean Connery, who apparently gets a special pass when it comes to accents even when his co-stars are putting the effort in. Then again, if it's sci-fi or fantasy, or even a historical drama set before about 1800, I don't see the justification for blanket use of RP either, aside from theatrical convention.

  29. Mark Lewis said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    I am really enjoying the boom of posts about language in Star Wars (and I'm enjoying participating in it). Some commenters (@Jason) and Zimmer in the WSJ are mentioning some of the real human languages used in the original films. I've been curious about this for a while and have tried to track down some of the elusive details–I've written on it here. Lots of contradictory information floating around but I was mostly able to pin down what's going on with Greedo, Nien Nunb, and the Ewoks. It's very interesting to consider Forsberg's work as an improvement on previous methods but still not quite a conlang!

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