A bit of empirical investigation has left me more puzzled about Yoda's syntax than I was before.
I looked at all the 60 lines attributed to Yoda in the script for Episode 3. Most of them have the preposed-constituent structure suggested by Geoff Pullum's analysis, where the expected order of two substrings in an English clause is swapped:
<substring1> <substring2> → <substring2><substring1>
In general, <substring2> is plausibly a syntactic unit ("constituent"), while <substring1> may not be.
To a dark place this line of thought will carry us.
Obi-Wan, my choice is.
However, sometimes the constituency of <substring2> may be unclear:
Good to see you, it is.
Still much to learn, there is.
The transformation is typically carried out clausewise:
At an end your rule is and not short enough it was, I must say.
And <substring2> is often inserted after an initial adverb or conjunction:
Then now the time is, Commander.
If a special session of Congress there is, easier for us to enter the Jedi Temple it will be.
And as Geoff observed, about a fifth of the clauses have the unmarked English order:
Death is a natural part of life.
The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.
A Master is needed, with more experience.
They are our last hope.
However, there are several other strange things. Sometimes the pattern is
<substring1><substring2><substring3> → <substring3><substring2><substring1>
Master Kenobi, our spies contact, you must, and then wait. (← you must contact our spies)
To fight this Lord Sidious, strong enough, you are not. (← you are not strong enough to fight this Lord Sidious)
To question, no time there is. (← there is no time to question)
(Or as in Anthony Lane's "Break me a fucking give".)
These triple swaps could be analyzed as two nested or iterated frontings, say 1 2 3 → 2 1 3 → 3 2 1, but I don't see any particular evidence either for or against this view.
In some cases, the triple swap can be analyzed as involved a fronted constituent plus inversion of the subject and auxiliary, as in the normal English sentence "With no job would John be happy":
Not far, are we, from the emergency ship. (← we are not far)
Master Kenobi, dark times are these. (← these are dark times)
Heard from no one, have we. (← we have heard from no one)
but this may be a coincidence.
Furthermore, Yoda sometimes seems to front an intransitive verb and adds tensed do to take its place, analogous to the phenomenon that linguists call "do-support":
Stink, this mud does.
I've given this analysis because there are no instances of extra do without the verbal fronting.
There are some cases where we can't tell whether there is a triple-re-ordering, fronting with subject-aux inversion, or just a strange copular order:
Disturbing is this move by Chancellor Palpatine. (← ? this move by chancellor palpatine is disturbing)
There are some odd ellipses mixed in with the re-orderings:
Killed not by clones, this Padawan. By a lightsaber, he was.
Visit the new Emperor, my task is.
The first one might be
Killed not by clones, this Padawan. (← [he was] not killed by clones, this padawan)
but it could be generated in lots of other ways, too.
Oddest of all, the fronted element is sometimes inserted between subject and predicate:
That group back there, soon discovered will be.
(though this might also be from "... will soon be discovered" with two criss-cross frontings?)
I might take a look at the broader corpus of Yoda-speak found in the other movies, but I have little hope that the principles will become clearer. If Yoda-speak were a natural language, I'd expect that more data would tend to support some accounts, and disconfirm others. In this case, the generalization that I expect to emerge is that George Lucas designed his plots on simple and consistent grammatical principles, but invented Yoda's sentences without any.
[Update: whatever the non-principles are, Mr. Sun has them down pat (scroll down to his update at the bottom):
You may stop e-mailing me now with advice to tell my son, "Talk to girls, learn you must", "Begun, your lameness has", and "In your mother's basement, live you will."
]Posted by Mark Liberman at May 20, 2005 02:28 PM