I’ve been thinking about the way languages are portrayed in the Star Wars film franchise, and what this says about the universe in which the adventures take place.
Some films portray all languages as English. This often happens in war and action films, where you’ll have German World War II officers or Russian spies speaking in accented English.
However, many English language films and television series choose to portray the other languages realistically, which involves subtitles (at least, when the dialogue is crucial).
In the Star Trek franchise, the Starfleet heroes encounter alien races every week. The problem is cleverly explained by the use of a Universal Translator (apparently built in to the little space ship emblem on the officers’ jerseys) which uses sophisticated AI to simultaneously translate the aliens’ words. There is even an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Universal Translator unexpectedly kicks in, thereby alterting the Enterprise Crew to the presence of a bizarre life-form, where they had perceived only crystals. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series solves the language problem in a similar way. Arthur Dent puts a Babel Fish in his ear, allowing him to understand all alien languages perfectly.
By contrast, Star Wars introduces no such trickery. Each alien race has its own language, and we often see subtitles when characters like Greedo or Jabba the Hut are speaking. R2D2 and Chewbacca speak languages that are unintelligible to the audience, but at least the main characters have learnt to converse with them. C3PO’s raison d’être is as a protocol droid, familiar in millions of languages.
What does this say about the English used in Star Wars? Well, since all the alien languages are rendered as one might hear them, with no concessions to the audience, then we can assume that the language we hear spoken by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also as we would hear them. The actors are not speaking English as a cheat for the audience. They are speaking English because that is the language that these characters actually speak.
In Star Trek, the fact that the humans speak English is easily explained: they are from Earth. The events take place a few centuries into the future, and our planet is a founding member of the Federation, and English become the lingua franca for all of Starfleet.
However, the planets of Tatooine, Alderann and Coruscant cannot be the Earth. We know this, because the very first thing that we learn about the events of Star Wars is that they happened A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Away.
Perhaps this means that in the Star Wars universe (long after the saga has reached its conclusion) some of the humans travelled to earth and seeded the human race. This fits with the theories of people like Erich von Däniken who say that biblical angels were in fact space-people, and much of the miracle work that is reported in the Old Testament could just be a primitive description of space age technology, or Jedi showing off their powers. Unfortunately, this explanation is flawed. If people from the Star Wars galaxy are the forebears of Earth humans, then how is it that English is a relatively new language? Why did the humans of antiquity not speak modern English? Indeed, we have an extensive written record of how the English language evolved, and anyone who has read or watched a Shakespeare play knows how much it has changed in just a few centuries. It was not bequeathed to us by alien forebears.
I think that the most elegant explanation for the presence of English speaking humanoids in Star Wars is the reverse of von Däniken’s theory. Skywalker, Solo and the rest are the distant descendants of Earthlings, not their ancestors. Clearly, a group of Earth-born humans in our future travel to the Star Wars galaxy and found the various planetary civilisations found in the films we know and love. That would allow them to speak intelligible English, many years and generations into the future.
But wait a moment: The film explicitly takes place A Long Time Ago. Does that not rule out a role for future space-travellers? No it does not, not if the universe is finite and curved in time. Cosmologists such as Janna Levin theorise that that universe takes on a shape analogous to a Möbius strip, and if you travel for long enough you can get back to where you started, but as the mirror image of yourself (she gives a fascinating and highly personal explanation for her theories in this Moth talk). If the universe were curved in time, then future Earthlings could found a new civilisation of English-speaking human beings in A Galaxy Far Away, who eventually find themselves in an epic inter-planetary war in a period of history that Earth-bound observers would describe as A Long Time Ago.