Is Yoda speaking "real" English? In this episode, we dissect the subject-verb-object order.
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."
Is Yoda British, American, or Something Else?
Sokolowski adds that the Star Wars universe uses English as a common language of trade, so there are many characters for whom English is not the native language and we hear many accents and odd syntactical structures from them. In that sense, Yoda is like any immigrant in the real world who is able to converse in English, but who comes up with sentences that sound strange to our ears. Sokolowski says, "The fact that some of these syntactical structures do not correspond with any that we know seems designed ... to underscore the very alien nature of Yoda’s character ... It makes us pay close attention to the speaker, just as we do with those who are learning English."
He also finds that "The echo of old Hollywood stereotypes is evident in the depictions of evil and nobility with the British accents, and wisdom coming from a severely laconic and utterly foreign character." He also notes that characters who represent the old guard, such as the Imperial characters, speak with an elevated British accent, whereas the scrappy heroes speak with American accents. He says that "This makes for a satisfying internal logic and gives the impression of history and culture that is comfortable to many viewers who have seen Romans speak with British accents and martial arts masters speak with so few words that actual sentence structure is irrelevant."
How Yoda's Language Changed in Later Movies
Carson noted that Yoda's speech patterns became more consistent as more movies came out. In essence, George Lucas became more practiced in Yodish and settled into a consistent set of rules. For example, in the third movie, Return of the Jedi, Yoda asks,"Look I so old to young eyes?" which doesn't comply with standard English or "standard" Yodish. In standard English, we'd say, "Do I look so old to young eyes?" and in standard Yodish we'd say, "Look so old to young eyes, do I?" Presumably, there are fewer of these non-standard sentences in the later movies, although without analyzing the full scripts, I can't confirm or refute this idea.
Standard English for Emphasis
Finally, both Carson and websites [and here] note that when Yoda has something really important to say, he tends to say it in standard English. For example, he uses standard word order and not Yodish when he tells Anakin, "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side" and when he comments that, "A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack." One theory is that Yoda is making an extra effort to speak standard English when his point is critical so that his listeners understand his point.
So, although Yodish may not conform to the most common form of standard English, it's hard to say it isn't real English when we have acceptable phrases like "With this ring, I thee wed." It's certainly a fun topic for linguists.
Read More About Yodish Analysis of Yodish
* A more detailed quote from Charles Carson on the exceptions to standard Yodish: "However, Yoda is not consistent on [the subject-object-verb structure; when he uses an auxiliary verb or modal, he usually moves only the auxiliary/modal with the subject and [keeps] the main verb in front of the object or adverb, as in "Trained as a Jedi he must be," but sometimes he moves the entire verb phrase, as in "With this Naboo queen you must stay." (Personally, I find the former pattern more Yoda-like and would render the latter example, "Stay with this Naboo queen you must.") Once one sees the pattern, to imitate Yoda easy it is."