I have been thinking a lot about the visibility of writing in the ancient world lately. And I have been watching a lot of Star Wars. And you know when your work life and your fandom life get a bit entangled? Well, watching the new Obi Wan Kenobi series has been helping me to think through some issues related to social literacy and I thought I would share some of those thoughts.
Please beware spoilers below if you haven’t seen the series yet!
When it comes to writing, every society is different. Perhaps in a modern world of globalised communication this is not always obvious, but consider issues like the use of different writing systems for different languages across the world, varying levels of literacy from one place to another and different attitudes towards writing and the things it can be used for. At the CREWS project we have been researching questions like this for a long time in relation to ancient societies. Recently I have become particularly interested in the ways in which writing can be socially visible, and links between visibility and literacy as well as the vitality of writing systems (partly in relation to my new project starting later this year).
Star Wars, with all its films and spinoff series (so much more than there was when I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s!), is set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – a whole universe of its own that has developed over the decades as it has been added to, processed and rationalised by not only its makers but its fans too. Philip has written previously about the role of writing systems within that world building, and the way they develop a history of their own as they grow within the canon (a history not necessarily devised by the creators of Star Wars, or at least not at the beginning).
The best known writing system of the Star Wars universe is called aurebesh (which I have written about previously), and is an alphabet whose order of signs is quite similar to the Roman and related alphabets although the shapes of the signs are very different. You can see the signs of this alphabet below (and you can use this table to try to read some of the writing you see in Star Wars for yourself). There are other writing systems apart from aurebesh, and if you want to learn more I would urge you to have a look at the AurekFonts website, which also has downloadable fonts for creating your own inscriptions.*
After finding the pandemic very draining and uninspiring, and finding it impossible to keep up with many of my favourite shows and fandoms during that period, I have very recently come back to watching the new Star Wars series. That means I am now getting through The Mandalorian, and I am so much looking forward to Andor later this year. But the one that first piqued my interest from a writing-related perspective was the new Obi Wan Kenobi series, which is reaching its finale this week.
In the second episode of Obi Wan, we are introduced to a previously unencountered planet called Daiyu, with a big, bustling city landscape. What really struck me is that writing is everywhere here, from neon signs to noticeboards and even graffiti. Just look at this big noticeboard below – the largest letters in the middle in red spell out ‘lockdown’.
One thing that’s weird, however, is that if you look closely, some of the signs around the city have letters that are back-to-front. Aurebesh (as far as I know anyway) is always written from left to right and does not feature variable direction (unlike, for instance, the early Greek alphabets). And yet there are signs here where the letters are facing the ‘wrong’ way. Take a look at the screencap below and see if you can work out the text in the highlighted signs 1, 2 and 3 for yourself (you can use the chart earlier in the post). Then look at the next paragraph for the answers.
Number 1 is the easiest, and reads ‘market’. Number 3 is a fun one, with the word in the right-hand higher column reading ‘Gungan’ and the left-hand lower column reading ‘snacks’ (presumably a bar selling deep-fried Jar-Jar and his friends…?!). But what about number 2? It’s more difficult because it’s slightly fuzzy, but that’s not the only problem – the signs in this one are flipped. The ‘g’ is harder to make out, but this one also reads ‘Gungan snacks’.
This sort of thing does leave you wondering what is going on. Of course, one serious possibility is that whoever was designing this background was not really ‘literate’ in aurebesh (if you can be literate in a writing system not used by real people) and so made a mistake. Whether or not that’s the case, these signs have ‘gone live’ in the canon now since the episode has been broadcast – so should we find a way to explain them?
One issue is clearly that the signs are written in columns, which means that there isn’t really a left-to-right direction, and perhaps that creates a situation where flipping the signs is less problematic. Another possibility is that the signs are simply visible from two different perspectives, in front and behind – so for one viewer they are oriented left-to-right and for another they are oriented right-to-left. But does that mean that readers could read them in both directions or not? And did they ever write them from right to left? It is difficult to answer these questions at the moment, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more evidence!
Speaking of what could be errors, the wonderful heroic droid who first appears in the third episode also appears to be an unfortunate victim of what looks like a spelling mistake. He is referred to as NED-B, but if you look closely at the writing on his collar you can see that it reads NED-W. Perhaps there could be a reason behind this, like a change of name or designation, but we are left to make this up for ourselves if we’ve noticed the apparent incongruity.
Another question on the agenda is who could write in the city on Daiyu. If signs are everywhere, does that mean that lots of people in the city could read? What we see of the city could perhaps point towards social inequality, and that could mean that literacy was restricted to certain groups or was a matter of privilege and education – but on the other hand, it could be that many people in that society were literate to some degree, even if they were less socially privileged. Unfortunately we only see Daiyu for one episode and there isn’t much chance to explore these issues in detail.
The graffiti are especially interesting, however, because it is pretty rare to see handwritten messages in the Star Wars universe – or at least it was until recently. The existence of graffiti in a place tend to suggest that there may be a wider range of people present who are able to write, and who want to use writing to convey messages in ‘unofficial’ or ‘private’ capacities (something we’ve also seen in well preserved ancient sites like Pompeii, which we’ve visited in Lego before). These are just glimpses but they already begin to give us a sense that the society in this particular place may feature different types or extents of literacy from what we have seen in other locations in the Star Wars universe.
Speaking of graffiti, I also noticed some very nice examples in the first episode of season 2 of The Mandalorian, where we see the incorporation of imagery alongside writing, as well as overlaps where someone has written on top of pre-existing graffiti or pictures. This reminded me a bit of some ideas about images and graffiti in ancient Egypt, which I have written a bit about before.
Returning to Obi Wan, one interesting thing we have seen is that the Jedi equivalent of the Underground Railroad, The Path, also features indications of literacy. At the safehouse on Mapuzo in episode 3, we first see graffiti left by previous Jedi and Force-sensitive individuals being smuggled to safety. Obi Wan recognises one of them as being written by Quinlan (an important character from The Clone Wars), and reads part of it out to Leia: “Only when the eyes are closed can you truly see”. The individuals coming through The Path presumably come from a wide range of backgrounds, and it is interesting to see that they are writing, scratching or painting their names or short messages with whatever they have to hand – very much the sort of thing that writers of ancient inscriptions often used to do.
I am very much looking forward to the last episode of Obi Wan, and in the meantime I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings on literacy in the Star Wars universe. There is surely much more to say though – please do leave comments or tell us your own thoughts on Twitter!
~ Pippa Steele (PI of the CREWS project)
*I would just like to thank @AurekFonts for talking through some of these issues with me and contributing substantially to some of the ideas in this post!