The Dune Movies' Controversial Fremen Language Changes Explained

In Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel "Dune," the Fremen are the desert-dwelling people of the planet Arrakis who have learned to survive in extremely inclement conditions. Using high-tech stillsuits, the Fremen can capture and recycle every last microgram of fluid their bodies excrete. When one of their own dies, they can siphon the water out of their bodies and add it to special underground casks that keep it fresh and drinkable. Additionally, they have trained themselves to walk using an irregular stepping pattern, as regular footfalls attract massive underground sandworms that might eat them alive. The Fremen all have blue-tinted eyes due to constant exposure to the spice melange, a valuable psychedelic resource that expands consciousness and facilitates space travel. 

Herbert also explained that the Fremen speak a distant derivation of Arabic, a language carried over from ancient Earth ("Dune" is set about 23,000 years in the future). The Fremen language also took syntax from other imaginary languages like Chakobsa (itself derived from various Bhotani dialects), and Herbert noted that the Fremen religious systems evolved from Zensunni, clearly a combination of branches of Buddhism and Islam. According to a recent article in the New York Times, some college students would read Herbert's "Dune" back in the '60s looking for Arabic colloquialisms. 

For Denis Villeneuve's 2021 film adaptation of "Dune," the filmmaker decided to alter the Fremen language to take away a lot of the Arabic words. Karin Ryding, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University spoke with the New York Times, and she pointed out what had been retained from Arabic ... and what had been frustratingly removed. One has to wonder why Villeneuve made these changes.

No Arabic?

Ryder was learned enough in Arabic to see what terms had been retained. "Lisan al-Gaib," the Fremen term for a Messiah, to cite one example, sounds like "lisan makhfi," the Arabic phrase for "hidden tongue voice." Ryder also noted that "Muad'Dib," the Fremen term for a desert jerboa, is similar to "mudaris," an Arabic term for a teacher. The word "Madhi," used often in "Dune," is derived directly from an Arabic word used commonly in Islam. Ryder also pointed out that "Kwisatz Haderach," the Bene Gesserit term for a Messiah, is derived from Hebrew. 

The use of Arabic in "Dune" invites a popular interpretation of the work. The desert planet of Arrakis becomes the deserts of the Middle East, and the Fremen refer to Middle Eastern natives. House Atreides and House Harkonnen become the colonialists who have historically invaded the area for centuries. Naturally, the Spice, a resource needed for travel, becomes a metaphor for crude oil, a resource needed for travel. "Dune" is a story of religious manipulation, exploited people who fight back, and the dangers of Messianic thinking. "Dune" was also weirdly timely in the early 2000s when the United States began invading the Middle East and fighting decades-long conflicts there.

In Herbert's sequel, "Dune Messiah," Paul Atreides, now both emperor of the galaxy and the Fremen savior has instigated a jihad that killed billions. The word "jihad" is used a lot in Herbert's books, but it is absent from Villenueve's film. Instead, they use the more general term "Holy War." 

Diluting the Fremen waters

The excision of "jihad" and other expressly Arabic words from Villeneuve's film transforms "Dune" from a modern political parable into something more generally representative. It's not about the Middle East and European colonialism specifically but about the very broad dangers of religion in general. Villeneuve focuses a lot on the Bene Gesserit and their abilities to manipulate House Atreides and House Harkonnen but in the filmmaker's terse rendition of the world, the symbolism and political pointedness is blunted.

When Villeneuve's first "Dune" came out in 2021, author Haris A. Durrani, writing for the Washington Post, pointed out the various political inspirations for Herbert's book, including the works of T.E. Lawrence, and the current state of the OPEC nations. Durani also notes that Herbert's book was explicitly Muslim, exploring what Islam might look like after 20,000 additional years of evolution. Durani notes that Herbert, born in Tacoma, Washington, was certainly "othering" Islamic terminology, falling prey to an old form or "Orientalism" that informed many generations of literature. 

He also notes, though, that in ridding "Dune" of its specific Middle Eastern languages and references defangs any potential political oomph the story might have had. The book, Durrani argues, attempted, however clumsily, to recognize the influence Islam has had on world culture. Villeneuve's movie, in contrast, reduces all religious philosophy to a matter of minimalist aesthetics. 

"Dune" may be nice to look at, but there's a reason it feels a little hollow: it deliberately made itself unspecific.