Is Yoda speaking "real" English? In this episode, we dissect the subject-verb-object order.
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Today's topic is Yoda's grammar. Yes, Yoda from Star Wars.
Why would I talk about Yoda? Well, a couple of weeks ago there was a Star Wars marathon on TV, and a listener named Pat asked if Yoda is speaking "real" English when he says things like "Powerful, you have become." It was such a fun question I couldn't resist, but it's outside my area of expertise because it's more of a linguistics question than a grammar or usage question. Fortunately, people who know about linguistics listen to this podcast, and I was able to tap in to their expertise to get an answer. A big "Thank you!" to Charles Carson, managing editor of the journal American Speech, and Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster for helping me with this topic.
Yodish Sentence Structure
Both Carson and Sokolowski pointed out that it depends on what Pat means when he asks whether Yoda is speaking "real" English. Clearly Yoda is communicating using English words, and we understand what he means, so in that sense it's real. Yoda makes words plural the way we normally make words plural and conjugates his verbs the same way we do. The only difference between standard English and Yodish (as some websites call it) is the word order.
Typically, standard English sentences follow a subject-verb-object order. For example, we would say, "Han Solo digs Princess Leia." "Han Solo" is the subject, "digs" is the verb, and "Princess Leia" is the object. Han Solo-digs-Princess Leia: subject-verb-object. That's the typical pattern, but it's not unheard of for English speakers to deviate. For example, you could say something like, "She wants to fight, and fight she will." That "fight she will" part is just like Yodish, but we're using it for emphasis. Carson also points out that "poets and lyricists frequently deviate from standard word order because of meter, rhyme, or aesthetics. For example, 'Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go' is Yoda-esque in its construction, yet English speakers sing it without a thought." "With this ring, I thee wed" is another example of something that deviates from the subject-verb-object construction, but that most people still consider real English.
Carson also notes that although Yoda shifts around sentence elements, he doesn't do so randomly. He tends to use object-subject-verb word order,* as in "Princess Leia, Han Solo digs," and he does not break up syntactic units, like preposition phrases or infinitive phrases. For example, he keeps together phrases such as "to continue your training" and "to the dark side."
Next: Is Yoda British, American, or Something Else?