Mesa Jar Jar Binks:
A Linguistic Look at the Gungan Language
Who knew linguistics could be so much fun? This is the paper I wrote for English 323, the class that made me decide to add linguistics as a second major during my undergraduate years. The topic is perhaps a little out of the pop-culture limelight by now, but if you’ll all recall, at the time there was quite the uproar over Jar Har and his ridiculous lines. Doing a simple linguistic analysis, I found there was a good reason for that furor: his dialectic is about as stupid as he is. Read on and find out why. (NOTE: This old paper of mine came to my attention recently, since someone emailed me out of the blue to say they’d created an online tool that transforms someone’s written words into the Gungan Dialect. They used this paper as the basis for the rule set.)
In the recent movie “Star Wars Episode One,” the character of Jar Jar Binks created much controversy and discussion. People either hated or loved him. One of the main reasons for this love/hate attitude is the peculiar Gungan dialect that Jar Jar speaks. Most people overlooked the fact that the Gungan dialect offers many examples of simple linguistic fundamentals such as phonological rules, word formations, and speech acts. A careful look at Jar Jar’s lines brings these points to light.
To begin it must be noted that the actor’s representation of Jar Jar’s speech often differs from Jar Jar’s lines in the original script. For example, in Jar Jar’s opening scene in the movie, he says “Oh boot it is! Tis demunded byda guds it is.” In the script, the lines goes as follows: “Oh boot tis! Tis demunded byda guds. Tis a live debett, tis” (16). Jar Jar’s dialect does not use the word “it” in the screenplay without shortening it or joining it to another word, but this example shows that the actor does not follow this rule in the movie. For purposes of regularity, the screenplay will be used as the authoritative source for the Gungan dialect.
Jar Jar often changes his speech in accordance with various phonological rules. First of all, progressive assimilation affects his speech. One good example of this is his tendency to change words ending in /Iŋ/ to instead end in /In/. “Nosir, nosir. Mesa hate crunchen. Dat’s da last ting mesa wanten” (50) /I/ is a high front lax unrounded vowel. Because /I/ is pronounced at the front of the mouth, /ŋ/, a velar nasal pronounced near the back of the mouth is assimilated and changed to /n/, an alveolar nasal that is pronounced at the front, as well. Segment deletion, the deletion of a sound, also plays a part. “Da speedest way tooda Naboo is goen through da core” (20). Here /spidiεst/ changes to /spidεst/, with the extra /i/ deleted completely from the word.
The Gungan dialect contains many examples of word formations. Compounding, the process by which two words are joined in order to form a new word, is very prevalent. “Maxibig” (22) refers to something very large and the “Nocomebackie law” (21) is just what it sounds like–a rule of banishment. Zero Derivation, using the same form of a word to mean different things, also functions as a word formation process in Jar Jar’s dialect. “Bombad” can mean both “good” (30), “bad” (114), and even is a title in the Gungan army–“Bombad General” (115). Outright coinage is present too. Such words as “bongo” (20), the word for a submarine; “Fambaa” (118), the word for the huge lizards that Gungans; and even “Gungan” itself are all coined words.
Jar Jar gives audiences examples of speech acts, both direct and indirect. “Mesa wonder why da guds invent pain,” (104) illustrates the concept of a performative verb. Just by declaring that he wonders, Jar Jar accomplishes that action. This is an example of a direct speech act, an act where the form has a direct relation to the function the sentence plays. By saying “ahh… any hep here would be hot,” (21) Jar Jar uses an indirect speech act. This sentence functions as a request for help, even though no question is actually asked. Its form does not relate directly to its function.
Jar Jar’s dialect itself offers an intriguing view into the inner workings of language. One of the dominant aspects of the Gungan dialect is its treatment of pronouns. We, I, and you are pronounced “wesa,” “mesa,” and “yousa,” while he and us are pronounced “hisens” and “uss-en.” Helping verbs such as “be” and “do” are usually replaced by these altered pronouns, as well. “Mesa Ja Ja Binkss” means “I am Jar Jar Binks,” and “Wesa no like the Naboo” means “We do not like the Naboo.” Ideally, rules such as these form the basis for a normal dialect.
However, Jar Jar’s dialect is not consistent. In the 33 times Jar Jar uses a word that means “I,” 24 times he uses “mesa,” but he uses “my” five times and leaves it as “I” four times. There is seemingly no pattern that he follows to determine his pronoun choice. “Me” is replaced with “my,” “mesa,” or just left “me.” His pronunciation is also haphazard. Sometimes /θ/ and /δ/ are replaced with /t/ and /d/ respectively such as in “tink” for “think” and “da” for “the.” However, Jar Jar says “without” and “them” normally. Jar Jar’s accent follows no rhyme or reason. For example, /i/ is pronounced as /e/ in some words (such as “spake” for “speak” (15) and “hair” for “here” (20)), but is unchanged in the prevalent “mesa” and “wesa” words. “The” is sometimes pronounced “der” (17) instead of the usual “da.”
All of these contradictions were written into the script. The actor then went on to alter many of the lines as he saw fit. The result is a dialect that often fails to follow the rules it is based on. At times, it seems to have no discernible rules at all. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jar Jar’s character was both so disliked and so hard to understand by viewers. A naturally formed dialect follows consistent rules, even though those rules are often at odds with the standard dialect. Once these rules are understood, the listener can then clearly understand what the speaker is saying. If this pattern is not followed, confusion is the result. When creating Jar Jar’s lines, more care should have been taken to ensure that his dialect remained true to itself, but his dialect still serves to exemplify linguistic principles.
- Lucas, George. Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace Illustrated Screenplay. New York, NY: Del Rey, 1999.