“The mischievous and wise sage from the original trilogy had been replaced by a little green asshole whose backwards speak should have earned him a punt off of a transport ship by a syntax-respecting Clone Trooper.”
976,000 websites describe Yoda as talking backwards. But here at AT, can we be more precise?
(I thought of studying Yoda’s speech when I was away from the computer, thought through it a bit, and sat down to find that Language Log had already done an analysis in two parts. So I’ll fill in some background information, then summarize LL and link to their full discussion.)
Yoda’s speech obviously isn’t completely backwards – he natters on about “the Force”, not “Force the.” He doesn’t re-order individual words. Let’s look at Yoda’s first meeting with Luke and the Empire Strikes Back script and compare Yoda’s sentences “My home this is” and “Help you I can” with their standard English equivalents: “This is my home” and “I can help you.”This is my home ->
My home this is
“My home” is what linguists call a constituent – a group of words that go together. There are more formal definitions and tests – for example, if a constituent is a noun (like my home) you can replace it with a pronoun (“This is it.”) (If you’re wondering what kind of constituent “help you” is, well, Language Log calls it a “catenative complement”, and that’s good enough for AT.)
In these sentences, and a lot of typical Yoda-speak, Yoda takes the last constituent out of the typical English sentence and moves it up to the beginning. As we’ve discussed here before, English sentences typically have subject-verb-object order: whoever or whatever is doing something comes first, what they’re doing comes second, and what’s getting this done to it comes last. So when Yoda moves the last constituent, he’s often moving the object, resulting in object-subject-verb order – which is rare among human languages, but does turn up occasionally.
There’s another possibility. In English, even though we usually use S-V-O order, we occasionally move something up to first place for emphasis:
That guy (object) I (subject)) know (verb).
(Often this conveys a sense of contrast – for example, you’d expect someone to say “That guy I don’t know” in a context where they’d been talking about other guys they do know.)
My first thought was that Yoda is especially fond of this construction, and as Language Log notes, it’s also plausible – though Yoda’s speech is so inconsistent that it’s unlikely that there’s any specific pattern to find.
In his defense, though, his pronunciation of what is – for him – an alien language is awesome.