May 20, 2005

Unclear of Yoda's syntax the principles are, if any

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


as in

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