An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has

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An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has

Postby sgtowns » 27 Dec 2015 14:22

Hi Everyone.

I just wanted to kick off the Linguistics forum by sharing an interesting article I read this week that talks about the syntax of the speech of Yoda, the Star Wars character. He often talks in an Object-Subject-Verb (OSV) pattern, such as "Much to learn, you still have." English is of course SVO, Japanese is often SOV, but a Yoda-eque OSV is extremely rare.

For more details, check out the article at The Atlantic website

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Re: An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has

Postby Richard » 05 Jan 2016 08:33

What I think is interesting here is how much you can distort language without losing the message. Still readily intelligible Yoda's OSV forms are, but when you start disturbing the sequences at the phrase level, things become nonsensical. Using a random sequence generator, I've created 4 new sequences of the 6 words in Yoda's statement 'Much to learn, you still have':

still much you have learn to
much learn you still to have
still to you have much learn
learn have you much to still

None of these strike me as being potentially meaningful (though no. 2 is close). If you keep the words in the 3 phrases in sequence (you, still have, much to learn), it doesn't matter much which sequence these are presented in (though no. 4 isn't very nice):

you still have much to learn
you much to learn still have
still have you much to learn
still have much to learn you
much to learn you still have
much to learn still have you

This suggests that word sequences are more important at the phrase level than at the sentence level. Why is this? What implications does it have for Chomskyan syntax?
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Re: An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has

Postby stevelouw » 05 Jan 2016 13:40

What strikes me as interesting is that even though this structure is 'fantastically rare', it is easily accessible to listeners, and equally readily imitated:

Great commitment, a PhD demands.

This probably matches Yoda's exhortation to Anakin: 'Great patience you must have my young Padawan'. By maintaining the integrity of the phrases themselves, it is clearly not a problem for the Star Wars audience to follow Yoda's philosophical musings. Not knowing a great deal of Chomskyan theory, my guess is that this relates to X-bar theory, in which the head of the phrase carries the syntactic structure. In the wiki page for x-bar theory, the following example is given:

'He studies linguistics at the university.'

To maintain meaning, my internal Yoda-esque OSV delivery is:

At the university, linguistics he studies.

This keeps the prepositional phrase intact, with the proposition as the head and thus does not disturb comprehension. However, in this sentence, 'linguistics' is the object, and therefore in a OSV construction Yoda might produce:

Linguistics, at the university, he studies.

I find this more awkward, though I'm not sure why. In fact, I can't think of an example from the movies where Yoda constructs a sentence with extended objects. Does he say anything that has both a direct and an indirect object? Nothing springs to mind. Taking a Chomskyan approach, however, we can create our own examples, and rely on our inner-Yoda intuition. What would be Yoda's version of the sentence 'Darth Vader stabbed Obi-wan with a light saber'?

With a light saber, Obi-wan, Darth Vader stabbed, or
Obi-wan, with a light saber, Darth Vader stabbed.

The first is rather more difficult to understand. In the previous example, the prepositional phrase helped to hold meaning, but that doesn't work in this example. Perhaps it's simply more mysterious and philosophical to avoid sentences with indirect objects? Even then, it's awkward:

Obi-wan, Darth Vader stabbed

Could it be that Yoda-esque constructions work best in sentences with complements rather than objects?
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