The Invention of a Desert Tongue for ‘Dune’

by The Technical Blogs


Herbert intended these linguistic resonances to communicate the connections between our world and the world of his novels — which is our world some 20,000 years in the future. “If you want to give the reader the solid impression that he is not here and now, but that something of here and now has been carried to that faraway place and time,” Herbert said in a 1981 biography, in a passage Ryding quoted in an academic paper, “what better way to say to our culture that this is so than to give him the language of that place.”

Critics have questioned the decision by the filmmakers (including the Petersons) not to retain some of the linguistic vestiges of modern-day cultures that the novel uses. In the novel, for instance, the Fremen rebellion against their foreign overlords is referred to as a “jihad”; in the movie, it is called a “holy war.” Warner Bros., which produced the latest “Dune” films, declined to comment.

The choice not to import more modern-day resonances “dilutes Herbert’s anti-imperialist vision,” Haris A. Durrani wrote in The Washington Post upon the release of “Dune: Part One.” Manvir Singh argued last month in The New Yorker, “The world we see in ‘Dune’ was never meant to be fully sealed off from the one we know.”

David Peterson said that in constructing Chakobsa for “Dune: Part One,” he strove to accommodate the book’s Fremen vocabulary while building a fuller, coherent language.

Beyond that pre-existing glossary, which amounted to a collection of words, Peterson’s loyalty, he said, was to how language actually functions and develops. And the notion that a language 20,000 years in the future would retain substantial touches of a contemporary tongue, he argued, defies what we know about linguistics.

“There is very little understanding,” Peterson said, referring to the general public, “that languages change over time, that every aspect of language changes: how it is pronounced, what the words mean, the grammar.”

He added, “The entire recorded history of language is 6,000 years.”


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