May 18, 2005

Yoda's syntax the Tribune analyzes; supply more details I will!

Nathan Bierma has a piece in the Chicago Tribune on the syntax of the strange variety of English spoken by Yoda in the Star Wars epic series (to be completed this week by the release of "The Revenge of the Sith"). It quotes me. I said too much in my messages to Nathan (my fault; when you talk to the press, you should talk briefly), and you'll see portions of two separate points I made to him. For those who are concerned, I can separate them, and supply further details.

One way to look at Yoda's syntax is that it shows signs of favoring OSV syntax (Object-Subject-Verb) as the basic order in the simple clause. In fact one could call it XSV syntax, where the X is whatever complement would appropriately go with the verb, whether it's an object or not. This is a fantastically rare kind of clausal syntax. Desmond C. Derbyshire and I began looking at the available information from fieldworkers in Amazonia in the late 1970s, and we found maybe eight or ten languages with OVS order in simple transitive clauses (Hixkaryana, which Des knows fluently, is one of them), and maybe four with OSV. In some cases the evidence for those was a bit shaky (some languages have highly variable constituent order, making it quite hard to tell from texts what the most straightforward and basic would be). Des and I thought that the evidence suggested certain little-known Amerindian languages of the Amazon basin might be OSV: Xavante, Apurinã, Urubu-Kaapor, Nadëb, and possibly Warao. But it really is a rare way for clauses to be organized.

But there is another way to see Yoda's syntax: you could see him as using SVO (or SVX) but favoring, almost to excess, certain special constructions that English allows only as stylistic variations in special discourse contexts. In English you can take not only an adjunct but also a predicative complement or a nonfinite catenative complement and prepose them (pop them at the front of the clause) for a special effect. (For the terminology I'm using here, see The Cambridge Grammar or A Student's Introduction.) Note the position of the underlined phrases in the following sentences (I show an additional underline where the phrases would normally have been):

Inspect the car they certainly did ___; they crawled all over it as if they thought we were smugglers.

Angry about it I may once have been ___, but I'm not any more.

The difference here is that the phrase that gets popped to the front does not have to belong logically to the main clause. It can be associated with a subordinate clause (linguists call this "extraction" from a subordinate clause):

Inspect the car I imagine they probably will ___; so don't try to bring in any drugs.

Angry about it I'm sure they probably think I am ___, but they're wrong.

In the first case inspect the car belongs logically in the will clause, not in the imagine clause. And in the second example, angry about it goes with the am clause, not the think clause that contains it, or the clause with am sure that contains that. It's two clauses down. Cases of this sort are rare in texts, but when they are found, they show it's not just a matter of reordering the members of one clause, it's a matter of extracting phrases right out of the clauses they logically belong to. In simple cases like Inspect the car they did, you can't tell whether it's extraction or just XSV ordering.

Yoda uses loads of sentences where phrases are popped to the front in their clauses, and sometimes it's possible to regard them as simply XSV ordering in a simple clause:

Always two there are, no more.
Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.
Much to learn, you still have.
When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.

But Yoda also extracts verb phrases that are catenative complements of auxiliary verbs, so those auxiliary verbs are left stranded at the end of the sentence (this is what Nathan means by saying that sometimes Yoda "will separate helping verbs from main verbs"):

Agree with you the council does.
Your apprentice Skywalker will be.
Lost a planet Master Obi-Wan has.
Begun, the Clone Wars has.

But then, as Nathan correctly notes, Yoda also uses relatively straightforward English word order sometimes:

The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.
War does not make one great.
You must unlearn what you have learned.
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

His English is an odd mix, as if he were sometimes thinking in terms of XSV constituent order, and sometimes just over-using English stylistic variant orders, and sometimes getting the idiomatic English word order just right. But heck, he's an alien. I bet we wouldn't do so well learning whatever his first language was, the one that he learned nine hundred years ago at (one assumes) his mother's knee. (Hmm. Do the females of Yoda's species even have knees?)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 18, 2005 12:31 AM