August 07, 2005

Never thought the day would he see

Once again Doonesbury has Zonker's surfing master talking in what is supposed to be Yoda's syntax, and as Mark noted here a couple of months ago, Gary Trudeau has no real idea of what the syntactic characteristics are meant to be. At one point the master says "Never thought the day would I see." This is meant to mean "I never thought I would see the day [when beach access for surfers at Malibu was finally restored]." He has the direct object of say in the subordinate clause fronted, and also subject-auxiliary inversion in that clause (the auxiliary would is positioned before the subject I), but in the main clause the verb precedes its complement and the subject is missing... Even Yoda would be surprised at this syntax, I think. People who try to write Yodic seem to imagine that if you just sling the words around a bit in random directions, that will count. The real Yoda from the Star Wars scripts has somewhat more in the way of syntactic regularities: the basic sequencing principle for clause constituents is Complement-Subject-Verb (which if applied here would yield "See this day I would, never [I] thought", or if applied only to the subordinate clause, "Never [I] thought see this day I would"). However, Mark found that extending the data under consideration (he looked at all of Yoda's utterances in episode 3) made the syntactic situation less clear rather than clearer. In real natural languages, looking at a larger quantity of data generally makes it clearer what the grammatical principles are. If that wasn't so, linguistics as a field would not exist.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 7, 2005 01:03 PM