For years, people have told me that the Ewoks, the furry creatures from George Lucas’ film, Return of the Jedi, spoke Tibetan. I have even passed along this piece of gossip to others, quietly chuckling about Tibetan’s little moment in the spotlight. So you can imagine my joy when I came across the following article confirming the story. The article is from the September 1983 issue of Tibetan Review magazine, which I stumbled across while doing wholly unrelated research (Really, I was. I promise). There is no byline, so we can just attribute it to the editors of Tibetan Review. It is a short article, so I will present it here in full. And remember, this is from 1983, the same year the movie was released.
Ewoks, the furry teddy bear like creatures featured in the blockbuster film Return of the Jedi, speak a curious language in which many Tibetan words and sentences are clearly distinguishable. This is a fact which even Producer George Lucas may not be aware of. When the film was released in the United States, reporters asked people working for Lucas whether the Ewok language is nonsense. They were told. “No, it is not. It is Tibetan run backwards!”
Much of what the Ewoks spoke could very well be nonsense or even Tibetan spoken backwards. However, the rest are definitely Tibetan spoken by real Tibetans. Among words the Ewoks are heard employing are Tibetan for “Hurry! Let’s move,” “No, it’s not him. It’s the one over there,” “There is lots of money here! There is lots of money here!” (in a scene where no money of any kind is in sight!), and a brief prayer.
Tibetan film buffs in Delhi and Dharamsala, who have seen the film on video, suggest the following solution to the mystery: Steven Spielberg, friend of Lucas, shot a small sequence of his film Raiders of the Lost Ark in Nepal. When there on location, he may have recorded various stray voices in the bazaars of Kathmandu (which would explain the above references to money) for possible use in future. So when friend Lucas was looking for exotic sounds to attribute to his furry creatures, Spielberg made his tapes available. Q.E.D. Next problem, please.
Great to hear that Tibetans can actually understand what the Ewoks are saying, but somehow I don’t think Lucas used Steven Spielberg’s Kathmandu street recordings. Fortunately, we have Wikipedia. The ‘Languages in Star Wars‘ entry provides several possible solutions to where the Tibetan comes from, and even indicates that the incomprehensible bits may not be Tibetan at all, but Kalmyk. Those interested in a more academic approach should check out Maria S. Calkowski’s article, “Is there Authoritative Voice in Ewok Talk: Postmodernism, Fieldwork and the Recovery of Unintended Meanings,” which can be found in the journal Culture, vol XI, 1991, pages 53-64, freely available on Google Books.