Who speaks Galactic Basic and who doesn’t? It seems like a boring, mundane question, but in a world full of various cultures and species, language is obviously important. Whose languages are being spoken and understood, and by whom? Where are our expectations met and where are we surprised by language in the games? How do we even develop expectations for fictional species/cultural/linguistic behavior? Those are just a few of the big questions I’ve been thinking about lately and I will be honest and upfront with you now: I don’t really have answers for most of them. But let’s investigate anyway.
Galactic Basic is literally the English of the Star Wars universe. Not only is it actually spoken as English, but it’s somewhat universal. It’s the most “basic” language of the universe and it’s spoken by people across species and cultures. While most of the other languages can easily be traced back to specific geographical (or planetary?) and cultural beginnings, the same cannot be said for Galactic Basic. I actually had to do some Wookiepedia searching to find out that this form of Basic derives from another old human language on Coruscant. It’s expected, then, that the human characters speak the English-equivalent, which is Basic, and that most other species speak Basic with those human characters.
It comes as no surprise, then, that all the humans we encounter in the games speak in Basic to the human protagonist. It makes conversation easier for the player and it’s the native tongue of both speakers in these scenarios, except when Mandalorians are involved. Interestingly, although Mandalorians are classified as humans, they, like other alien species, have their own homeworld and a distinct culture and language. Yet, in the games, Mandalorians are constantly speaking Basic. Canderous and Mira, the two Mandalorian companions in the games, speak Basic without any accent whatsoever, as do all the Mandalorians the Exile meets in the camp on Dxun. The only time we hear Mando’a spoken is from the mouth of a Dantooinian girl who had been kidnapped by the Mandalorians. Early in the beginning of the first game, Carth remarks that the protagonist knows a great number of different languages, but even with this vast knowledge, Mando’a is completely unfamiliar to them.
On the other hand, the expectation that aliens speak Basic varies from species to species, although it seems that it’s universally understood. There are plenty of species in the games that never speak Galactic Basic. We never encounter a Hutt or a Wookie that speaks the language. Instead, each one is always speaking the languages of their corresponding homeworlds (Huttese and Shyriiwook, respectively). Although we usually encounter Ithorians on worlds largely populated by Basic-speaking humans, these aliens also only ever speak their native language to the protagonist. In the lower city of Taris, populated by a wide variety of alien species, very little Basic is spoken by any of the non-human characters, especially members of the Black Vulkar gang.
Most Twi’leks speak their native tongue as well, but occasionally, we come across Twi’leks who speak perfect Basic. All the Twi’leks associated with the Hidden Bek gang who have significant dialogue – Zaerdra, Mission, Mission’s brother Griff, and Griff’s ex-girlfriend Lena – speak Basic without an accent (with the exception of Griff, whose accent highlights his sleaze-ball qualities), as do most Twi’leks in the Jedi order. However, more minor Twi’lek characters throughout the universe only ever speak Twi’leki. We might assume that Mission speaks Basic so frequently and fluently due to growing up in the alien ghetto streets filled with all sorts of languages and without a significant cultural connection to the Twi’lek homeworld of Ryloth, however her use of Basic even when speaking directly to characters who are using other languages doesn’t make sense in this context.
In the main games, as with the Mandalorians, we never hear Juhani, the Cathar companion, speak her language. Instead, she speaks an accented Basic to the protagonist. In the online game, Cathar refugees speak Basic as well. We don’t run into a lot of Cathar to really know if this is a persistent pattern, but considering their homeworld and most of their species was massacred in the Mandalorian Wars, it makes sense if this language dies out.
We also never run into a utility droid programmed with the ability for speech. Instead, T3-M4 uses expressive synthesized sounds to communicate simple emotions or thought. A utility droid’s lack of speech makes sense mostly because they’re treated like very smart dogs, as compared to droids like assassin droids or protocol droids (see: HK-47) who are given a more human status. In fact, this human status might be the answer for all the other linguistic patterns throughout the universe. The more a species (or droid) resembles a human, the more we expect them to speak Basic. Giant blobs, like Hutts, or aliens resembling hammerhead sharks, like Ithorians, speak their own strange and
foreign languages that make sense with their strange and foreign appearances. Some aliens, like the two-headed creature we meet in a cantina on Taris, or like Wookies, don’t even have the right anatomy to physically make the sounds required for speaking Basic. Species that aren’t bipedal aren’t given real languages of their own at all. Alternatively, Twi’leks, who look more like brightly colored humans with sick head-tails, sometimes speak Basic, especially when they’re removed from their exoticized contexts. (Note that dancers and servants usually speak Twi’leki.) When we focus further in on the kinds of languages each of the non-human species speaks, we might notice a pattern in similarity to Basic. The more “savage” species, like Wookies and Tuskan Raiders, speak languages made up largely of growling and screeching noises, while more “sophisticated” species have languages with more refined sounds similar to Basic. This resolves the problem of the unnamed Yoda species using a convoluted form of Basic; although Master Vandar resembles a Sesame Street monster more than he resembles a human, his mysticism and sophistication place him in the more human, Basic category, allowing him to use Basic words, but with a riddle-like grammar.
Considering all this, it’s easy to read the use of Galactic Basic and the use of all other minority languages in the Old Republic universe as a result of a colonialist narrative.
In respect to the question I posed as a funny little title: I did some googling to get the answer. Evidently, Bith can read, write, and understand Basic. I don’t know if Bith speak basic, because I’ve never seen one that didn’t have some space-clarinet in its mouth. But based on the above observations, I’m willing to bet they don’t.