May 19, 2005

Syntax is a disturbance in the there

Anthony Lane doesn't like “Star Wars: Episode III”, and one of the many things about it that gives him heartburn is Yoda's word order:

...what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.

The quoted example ("I hope right you are") follows Geoff Pullum's analysis that Yoda

[favors], almost to excess, certain special constructions ... [which] 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).

But Lane's punch line -- "break me a fucking give" -- is an example of some different process. It still gives a vaguely Yodian impression, but what's the syntactic generalization here? Since the New Yorker doesn't have joke checkers, I'll take up the challenge in this case.

Leaving syntax behind for a minute, I can't resist a pragmatic question. Is this the first time that the New Yorker has dropped the F-bomb, not in a quotation or a piece of fiction, but to express the author's own attitude in a review or non-fiction piece?

Returning to the syntax, we can observe that Lane has swapped the first and last words of the sentence:

give me a fucking breakbreak me a fucking give

But this is surely not the process in general, since it would map "I hope you are right" to "Right hope you are I", or "There is a disturbance in the force" to "Force is a disturbance in the there." These are not Yoda-ish, just foolish.

Maybe we can get a clue by coming at the problem from another direction. Given that Lane wanted to Yoda-ize "give me a fucking break", what were his alternatives?

None of the strings created by moving chunks from the end to the beginning work:

a. *Break give me a fucking.
b. *Fucking break give me a.
c. ??A fucking break give me.
d. *Me a fucking break give.

I think that there are some prosodic constraints at issue here, quite apart from the syntactic issues and the problems with breaking up an idiom.

As is well known, "fucking" wants to precede a strong stress, even to the extent of forcing its way inside words: "in-fucking-credible", "tele-fucking-graphic". This eliminates (a).

The indefinite article "a" is a proclitic, a word that wants to merge phonologically with the word that follows it. This eliminates (b).

The object pronoun "me" is arguably an enclitic, merging phonologically with the word that precedes it. This eliminates (d).

As for (c), there seems to be a wider problem, for modern English speakers in general, about applying Geoff's "special constructions" to sentences with imperatives. For instance:

A. Want a beer?
B1: A beer you could give me, but not cider.
B2: ??A beer give me, but not cider.

The problem is not with the imperative itself, since "sure, give me a beer" is a fine answer.

So as you've probably guessed, I'm giving a sort of constraint-based analysis here. "Break me a fucking give" is a pretty bad Yoda-ization, but it's better than the alternatives. Of course, it also helps a lot that the result is a scrambled form of a fixed expression. If you have a better analysis, let me know ( and I'll post it.

[If you didn't follow the link to Lane's review, or if it's expired, here's the rest of his let-it-all-hang-out take-no-prisoners anti-Yoda screed. Perhaps Lane should get together with Kelly Dobson, the inventor of Blendie, so as to try Machine Therapy with the blender application that he proposes in this passage:

No, the one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in “Gremlins” when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink—squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, but Yoda, whose reptilian smugness we have been encouraged to mistake for wisdom, has the answer. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he says. Hold on, Kermit, run that past me one more time. If you ever got laid (admittedly a long shot, unless we can dig you up some undiscerning alien hottie with a name like Jar Jar Gabor), and spawned a brood of Yodettes, are you saying that you’d leave them behind at the first sniff of danger? Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.

In his interview with Robert Birnbaum on, Anthony Lane identifies himself as someone who appreciates a brisk checking, whether of facts, theories or jokes, and might also benefit from the release of sensorial energies promised by Machine Therapy. ]

[Update: Will Fitzgerald sent a link to a purported script for the movie, which includes the line

    Yoda: A moment to bathe, give me.

As Will points out, this is exactly comparable to my alternative (c),

    A fucking break give me.

Will also supplied a dialogue context to help overcome the reluctance of idioms to be fragmented:

X: What do you want me to give you? Some kind of special treatment?
Y: A fucking break, give me. That's all I ask.

Will suggests that this response is plausible for Yoda, though perhaps not for the rest of us.

So why wasn't this good enough for Anthony Lane? My own guess is that Lane just put "give me a break" in his mental blender, spun the dial up to puree, and poured the results out on the page, "break" first. The result is more fluent prosodically, though incoherent syntactically. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 19, 2005 07:17 AM