We’re big Star Wars fans here on the CREWS Project, and with a new film out now seems like a good time to revisit the topic of writing in the Star Wars galaxy. Pippa’s written before about Aurebesh, the most well-known Star Wars writing system, but as she mentioned in that post there are actually a lot more, and they’re a nice illustration of the changing way popular media uses writing-systems in its world-building.
Aurebesh was actually quite a late addition to Star Wars, being created in the 90s for use in various games and subsequently finding its way into the special edition re-releases of the films and the much-loved prequel trilogy. Before this, Star Wars had used much more familiar writing systems, as is obvious when you think about all the spaceships named after letters. The X-Wing and the Y-Wing look nothing like their Aurebesh counterparts: it’s the letters of the Roman alphabet they’re clearly based on.
Likewise, on the Imperial side, Greek seems to be a thing: there’s the Lambda-class shuttle (and more recently Upsilon, Theta and others) as well as squadrons and flight groups named after Greek letters once you get into the media beyond the films. It’s not just Roman and Greek alphabets that feature either: the buttons on Darth Vader’s chestplate are labelled in what looks like Hebrew (though it doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate).
There are a couple of approaches to writing going on here. The first is just not to think of it in terms of world-building at all. The first Star Wars film was not overly concerned with lore or building a coherent and believable world so much as with telling a swashbuckling, pulpy adventure yarn set in space. Writing was incorporated without much thought, so things were often labelled in English, spaceships were named after our familiar letters and nobody worried too much if you could read the manufacturers’ logos on objects incorporated as props (much less of an issue in the days before home video, let alone HD TVs).
One step beyond that, you might reach for a smattering of foreign, but still earthbound, writing or notation systems for things you wanted to seem vaguely exotic or archaic, like Vader’s Hebrew or the Imperial penchant for Greek. This is very common in sci-fi. Just look at this early stab* at a writing system for the Doctor’s homeworld of Gallifrey in Doctor Who.
With the growth of geek culture, the way people engage with these kinds of imaginary worlds has changed. They’re not simply diversions that entertain us for a couple of hours and maybe prompt us to buy a few (or not so few) toys. People live these worlds, they visit them and think about them throughout their lives. They discuss them with friends and on the internet. Simple films or TV episodes have spawned massive and convoluted expanded universes of additional media, which are generally expected to maintain at least a surface level of coherence.
It’s become less easy to handwave away that your ancient, faraway galaxy seems to have the same writing systems as us, or that your interrogation droid’s syringe of truth serum is labelled ‘Everett’ on one side, ‘British made’ on the other.
Invented writing systems like Aurebesh are thus created to lend the invented world an air of verisimilitude, even if they remain functionally identical to our own scripts at everything except the most basic visual level. In other cases, entirely novel forms of ‘writing’ may be created, which may or may not have any actual underlying logic to them but nevertheless help establish a setting visually, such as the later Gallifreyan pseudo-scripts of later series of Doctor Who.
More recent Star Wars films and other media have also added a plethora of less common Star Wars scripts, from Naboo Futhark to the unknown script used for the earliest Jedi texts.
This is all very well, but you still have the relics of the original familiar writing. You might be able to use CGI to replace the labels on a few consoles or set features, but even George Lucas couldn’t change X-Wings into Xesh-Wings, or C3PO into Cresh Three Peth-Osk. So the next step in the rationalisation of fictional writing systems is retconning your original unsystematic systems. So in Star Wars, the Roman alphabet was said to be High Galactic, a less common alternative to Aurebesh, while Greek became Tionese. These scriptal fig-leaves then acquired back-stories of their own to explain the development of writing in the fictional Star Wars galaxy.
Writing in Star Wars has gone from unselfconscious expediency to an in-depth rabbit-hole of lore that can fill several pages of fan wikis. It’s a wonderful example of how our expectations for this kind of fiction have changed as the culture surrounding it has changed. At the beginning of the emerence of modern geekdom, this kind of thinking about the writing and language of an invented world was confined to people like JRR Tolkien – obsessives and professors of linguistics. Now, it’s the expected norm.
This can be a double-edged sword. The accumulation of lore and the ever-expanding quantity of stories within a major fictional universe like Star Wars or Doctor Who can be off-putting or can lead to storytellers becoming bogged down in minutiae rather than crafting good stories; the sheer amount of stuff can strain credibility at least as much as a lack of thought-through world-building (how many adventures can the same people plausibly have?!); it can become impossible to maintain coherence, as nobody can be expected to be familiar with everything. The result is reboots, arguments about canonicity or flexible, buffet-style approaches to what counts. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys this sort of thing, it provides a great deal of richness – there’s always more to find out, always another connection to make or juicy little fact to winkle out.
More to the point for this blog, it can prompt people who otherwise would not have given it a second thought to start thinking about how writing systems work, how they relate to culture, what their social contexts are, and so on. Fan scholarship isn’t just fun; it can be a gateway to learning about real-world equivalents.
I’m going to leave you with one last tangential illustration of writing in Star Wars. We were recently discussing whether there were any other examples of cursive or hand-written Aurebesh in Star Wars, apart from the scratched inscription on D.J.’s hat in The Last Jedi (which Pippa got quite excited about). ‘Cursive’ scripts relate to the way in which they are written: signs can look very different depending on what you use to write them (e.g. paint vs a chisel), what you write them on (e.g. paper, metal or stone) or the care with which you execute each letter (e.g. scribbling or scratching something hastily). So it is nice to see this reflected in different types of writing on screen.
Given the preponderance of technology in the films (leaving very few contexts where handwriting could play a role), it was tricky to find anything, but I did eventually remember these nice examples of handwritten messages on bombs in The Last Jedi. In some ways not a million miles away from the 3,000-year-old Phoenician inscription on a bronze arrowhead, currently part of our special museum display on ancient writing!
Hopefully the new Han Solo film will bring us some kinds of fictional writing to get excited about.
~ Philip Boyes (CREWS Project Research Associate)
* This on-screen appearance isn’t actually all that early, but it’s based on earlier material by the production team. We might also point to the fact that one of the founders of Time Lord society is called ‘Omega’.