May 18, 2005

Speak this way I do because wiser than I actually am I sound

Geoff's post on Yoda language got me thinking about language use in science fiction and fantasy in general. There's always been a small part of me that can't suspend disbelief long enough not to ask myself (or anyone unlucky enough to be sitting next to me) the obvious question: how is it that these disparate people from different planets (or from different cultures, or of different races, whatever) so often speak the same language? I realize, of course, that it's an extremely useful literary device; unless the plot of the episode/series/whatever depends somehow on there being some misunderstanding or rift between groups of people, then it would be a serious pain for both writer and reader/viewer for some random groups of people to speak a completely different language, requiring a translator when they encounter other groups, etc.

But Yoda's odd way of speaking raises an interesting question. What's the literary purpose, if any, behind having (characters like) Yoda speak so differently?

In response to what seems to be exactly this question with respect to Yoda, Mark Peters ("who writes about language for Verbatim and The Vocabula Review and keeps a Weblog on words") is quoted as follows (in the Chicago Tribune article that Geoff cited in his post):

"In addition to making him sound like Kermit the Frog crossed with a fortune cookie, these Yodaisms mirror how Luke's world is being turned upside down (at times, literally, with the help of Jedi levitation)," Peters writes by e-mail. "If a green Muppet living in a swamp can be as smart and powerful as Yoda, and a mass murderer like Darth Vader can be Luke's (eventually) redeemable daddy, then maybe subjects, verbs and objects can play musical chairs too."

My own take is a little more cynical. I think it's just that Yoda is old and wise and therefore speaks in a way that sounds like he's saying something much deeper than he actually is. Where Obi-Wan Kenobi said fatherly-advice things to Luke like "You must learn the ways of the Force", Yoda says "Learn the ways of the Force you must". The fact that you have to spend a little more time untangling that into normal English word order makes you think harder about what Yoda is saying -- or at least to notice that he did in fact say something, which thereby makes it seem more important than what Obi-Wan said.

But my feeling is that this is all too specific to the question about Yoda. Personally, I tend to lump Yoda-speak together with a bunch of other curious language facts about the Star Wars universe. (Here, I simply use "English" to refer to the generic language of the humanoid characters. Not being a big enough fan of the new trilogy, most if not all of my references below are to the "original" trilogy, Episodes IV-VI.)

  • Overall, the members of the Rebellion speak in very casual American English, as do many of the foot soldiers in the Empire. But officers in the Empire tend to speak a more refined-sounding variety of (British) English. (Note that Princess Leia code-switches in Episode IV, A New Hope, depending on who she's talking to; otherwise, Obi-Wan Kenobi is apparently the only Brit on the good side.)

  • Wookies understand English. Only Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and C-3PO seem to understand Wookie, or at least Chewbacca. (A similar point can be made of several other characters, like Jabba the Hut, Greedo, and so on.)

  • R2-D2 understands English, but only speaks in series of beeps, which only C-3PO can understand. (See footnote.)

  • It's possible to build a droid who can speak English and translate many languages, like C-3PO, yet they still build droids that don't speak English, like R2-D2.

  • When C-3PO actually overtly speaks other languages -- if I'm not mistaken, not until Episode VI, Return of the Jedi -- he speaks them with a heavy (and presumably amusing) English accent.

I'm sure that if I took more time I could come up with several more examples, but these will do. I think that the broader literary motivation behind all these examples is simply to emphasize the diversity of the Star Wars universe. In each specific case, of course, there are very practical local reasons for why things are the way they are: Han and Lando (and to a lesser extent, C-3PO) serve as translators for Chewie, R2 and C-3PO have a special bond and must always be together, and Episode VI was just full of cutesy crap like the music video performance for Jabba, the Ewoks, the revelation that Luke and Leia are not only siblings but twins, and Vader's redemption and ascendance into Jedi heaven.

Compare this with, for example, the much more direct handling of the issue of linguistic diversity in Hitchhiker's Guide. Immediately upon Arthur Dent's first encounter with the alien language Vogon, Ford Prefect gives him the incredibly useful Babel fish to put in his ear. In one swell foop, Douglas Adams neutralizes the literary problem that can be posed by intergalactic linguistic diversity and provides a compelling argument for the nonexistence of God. George Lucas could learn something from this.

Luke interacts once with R2 in one brief scene in Episode IV without the help of C-3PO or the translation screen in his X-wing fighter, but it's really obvious that he's faking it. Luke's boarding his X-wing fighter and some guy is loading R2 into the back; I think the guy asks Luke if he wants another droid, and Luke says no thanks, that he and R2 have been through a lot together. As if to prove that, Luke asks R2 how he's doing. R2 responds in some series of beeps, and Luke smiles and says, "Good." For all we know, R2 has just said: "Well, since you asked, I really don't want to go up there in this thing because my head's kind of exposed and I'm afraid it'll get shot off." (Which, of course, it does.) (back)

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at May 18, 2005 12:31 PM