In 1977, Star Wars unleashed a brand of Hollywood blockbuster that had never been seen before. It wowed audiences worldwide and became a modern classic. Almost 40 years (and 350 films, books, TV shows, comics and videogames) later, the Star Wars galaxy holds permanent real estate in the pop cultural mass imagination. In anticipation of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, we’ve done some intergalactic etymology to discover the origins of the character names, cultures and languages from that very familiar galaxy far, far away.
To understand where Star Wars stands in the pop culture pantheon, we must first acknowledge the stories that influenced the films’ creator, George Lucas. Like most boys growing up in 1950s and ’60s America, Lucas was raised on Westerns, campy sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, epic science fiction novels like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Japanese samurai films. These influences are clearly visible in Lucas’ films — from the good guys dressed in white and bad guys dressed in black, to the desert planets, robots, laser guns and spaceships, to the venerable sword-wielding mercenaries following Taoist philosophy.
Tying these disparate cultural elements together is the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose book, The Hero with the Thousand Faces, claims that all cultures throughout time have told and retold the same essential myths. Reading Campbell’s book helped Lucas build his characters and story on time-tested archetypes and mythic structures. With Star Wars, Lucas set out to retell the timeless “hero’s journey” myth, but in a very new way.
Big themes like good versus evil, light versus dark, and nature versus technology are woven into every detail of the Star Wars universe, even the characters’ names:
Luke Skywalker: Taken at face value, the name Luke — which derives from the Greek Loukas meaning “a man from Lucania” (a region in Italy) — has no mythic undertones. However, it also resembles the Greek leukos meaning light — quite significant when one battles the dark side. It’s also hard to avoid noticing the similarity to George Lucas’ own name; perhaps it was his way of putting himself in his hero’s shoes. In early drafts of the Star Wars script, Luke’s surname was Starkiller. Thank goodness Lucas replaced it with the much more poetic and evocative Skywalker.
Princess Leia Organa: Leia’s name sounds a lot like Princess Dejah Thoris from the John Carter of Mars novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1930s. This is probably not a coincidence considering that young George Lucas grew up on these sci-fi stories. Leia’s surname, Organa, reflects that in the conflict between the natural world and the evil mechanized Empire, she stands firmly on the side of nature.
Han Solo: Continuing with mythological ur-names, Han is an archaic form of John (or Hans, Jan, Jean…). The pop-culture precedent for the surname Solo is probably Napoleon Solo, a debonaire spy from the 1960s American TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Chewbacca: The inspiration for Han Solo’s right-hand Wookie was actually Lucas’ dog, an Alaskan Malamute named Indiana (yes, he also inspired that character). And where does the name Chewbacca come from? We don’t know for sure, but it is suspiciously similar to the Russian word for dog: собака.
Jedi: The name for the order of knights who protect the galaxy from evil likely has more than one source. Sci-fi geeks will likely claim that the word was inspired by the lords of Barsoom in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, who are addressed by the honorific Jed or Jeddak.
On the other hand, many film buffs contend that Jedi is a shout-out to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s biggest hits stateside were his samurai films, and the Japanese word for this kind of costume drama is jidai-geki. One could consider this a coincidence if it weren’t for the fact that Lucas has repeatedly cited Kurosawa as an influence. He’s even stated that the two bickering peasants in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress were his inspiration for R2-D2 and C-3PO.
Obi Wan Kenobi: Like the word Jedi, this is another homage to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and to Japanese culture. An “obi’ is the sash used to tie a kimono, “ken” is Japanese for sword and “wan” sounds somewhat like the Japanese honorific “san.”
Still not convinced that Obi Wan’s name is a nod to Kurosawa? Well prepare to be trivia slammed: before casting Sir Alec Guinness in the role, Lucas approached Japanese superstar Toshiro Mifune to play Obi Wan. Mifune starred in many of Kurosawa’s jidai-geki, including The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai. When Mifune turned down the offer, Lucas offered him the part of Darth Vader, but the actor was simply not interested in being in a “film for children.”
Darth Vader: the most prominent rumor about the origin of Vader’s name is that it’s Dutch for “dark father.” However, in Dutch that would actually be Donker Vader which is the least scary name for a Sith lord ever. However, Lucas himself claimed that the name is a combination of two phrases that seethe evil: “death water” and “dark father.” This doesn’t mean that the vader-father connection was deliberate foreshadowing. In early drafts of the Empire Strikes Back script, Vader was NOT Luke’s father, so Lucas couldn’t have had that planned when he named the character years earlier.
Another theory, if the naming convention of the other Sith is any indication — Sidious (Insidious), Maul, Grievous — Vader might be short for “invader,” thus “Dark/Death Invader.”
Yoda: The origin of Yoda’s name is shrouded in mystery, but there are two plausible sources: yoddha, the Sanskrit word for warrior, or the Hebrew yodea which means one who knows. Two interesting theories these are, hmm?
R2-D2: During a late night editing session of his previous film, American Graffiti, Lucas overheard sound editor Walter Murch ask an assistant for “Reel 2, Dialog Track 2.” Murch, being super efficient, abbreviated that to “R-2-D-2.” Lucas, who was in the middle of the Star Wars script at the time, commented that R2-D2 would make a great name and promptly integrated it into the script.
Droid™: In the parlance of the Star Wars galaxy, “droid” means any robot, whether it’s shaped like a trashcan or a person. Here on Earth, it’s easy to guess that “droid” is an abridgement of “android,” an anthropomorphic robot. Not so simple, however, is the legal status of the word. Right before Verizon released their Droid line of smartphones in 2009, Lucasfilm successfully trademarked the word “droid,” not as a friendly robot that follows you around, but as a “wireless communications device.” As a result, Verizon pays Lucasfilm a license fee to use the word. Clever, Lucasfilm, very clever.
Jawa: These diminutive desert traders share their name with the oldest urban settlement in Jordan. Located in the remote Eastern Jordanian desert, Jawa was built over 5000 years ago.
Ewok: Everyone’s favorite arboreal space teddy bears were named after the Miwok, one of the indigenous tribes of Northern California. The Endor forest scenes in Return of the Jedi were filmed in indigenous Miwok territory.
Unlike the systematic languages created for The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, the languages in Star Wars do not have functional grammar, vocabulary and syntax. Instead, Star Wars’ sound designer Ben Burtt approached the invention of alien languages in much the same way as the rest of the films’ sound effects. They are evocative, atmospheric and merely hint at fully-developed fictional worlds. Instead of constructing alien languages from scratch, he riffed on real indigenous languages from all over the world:
Huttese: The most-spoken fictional language in the films, Huttese was based on the Incan language Quechua. Burtt mostly took the sounds of words as a jumping off point, but some Quechua words did make it into Huttese (although he ignored their original meanings). Huttese is predominantly heard on Tatooine and is spoken by many characters including Greedo, and Jabba the Hutt and his entourage.
Jawaese: The language spoken by the Jawas was inspired by Zulu, as well as a few other African languages. After he recorded actors speaking the new invented words, Burtt sped up the tape to create the Jawas’ signature high-pitched voices.
Ewokese: The language spoken by the Ewoks is actually a pidgin of several Mongolic languages including Tibetan, Nepali and Kalmyk.
The Star Wars films may not actually be galactic, but they are undoubtedly international. Filming locations include:
- Tunisia (Tatooine) — Tatooine was named after Tataouine, a real town near the filming locations in Tunisia.
- Death Valley, California (Tatooine)
- The United Kingdom and Australia (all interior sets)
- Tikal, Guatemala (Yavin IV)
- Hardangerjøkulen Glacier, Norway (Hoth)
- Redwood National Park, California (Endor)
- Palace of Caserta and Lake Como, Italy (Naboo)
- Plaza de España, Spain (Naboo)
- Mount Etna, Italy (Mustafar)
- Grindelwald, Switzerland (Alderaan)
- Phang Nga Bay, Thailand and Guilin, China (Kashyyyk)