Learning English with Yoda

…is not a good idea. But let’s see what we can do. Even if you’re not a big Star Wars fan (I quite like the original three and Rogue One, though I first saw the originals when I was 14, slightly too old for them to really have a nostalgic hold on me. The Force Awakens, the first new Star Wars film in 32 years, is OK, but a bit derivative), you probably know Yoda.

He’s the wise, funny little green alien who talks in a strange way (and hasn’t appeared in a film since 1983). Like this, he speaks. In a funny order, the words are. He also sounds like Miss Piggy, because both characters are performed by the same man, Frank Oz.

Being inundated with all things Star Wars (did you know there’s a sixth film coming out tomorrow?), I began thinking about Yoda. Specifically, I wondered if there were any patterns to his speech. Did the writers deliberately alter standard English in specific ways to achieve a specific effect? Is there a method to the wise little fellow’s madness, or did they just move words around to make him sound funny?

I decided to have a look at some of Yoda’s dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back (one of only two Star Wars films he appears in, fact fans!) Not intrigued yet? Oh you will be. You… will… be…

Yoda: I am wondering, why are you here?

Luke: I’m looking for someone.

Yoda: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?

Luke: Right…

Yoda: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.

Luke: I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior.

Yoda: Ohhh. Great warrior.

[laughs and shakes his head]

Yoda: Wars not make one great. (Imagine if they completely ruined this great moment by making a film in which the wise Yoda has a kickass lightsaber fight against Christopher Lee with stupid flips and stuff, and then another where he was basically a general, because actually, war and violence DO make one great!?)

OK, I can spot a simple pattern already. He tends to put his main verbs (found, help) at the start of sentences when they’re preceded by an auxiliary verb (have, can) which he puts at the end of the sentence or clause along with the subject. It still make sense as all the necessary information is still there, with no confusing grammatical changes. We still know who’s doing what.

(Spoilers here!)

Yoda: Told you I did. Reckless is he. Now, matters are worse.

Obi-Wan: That boy is our last hope.

Yoda: No. There is another

Pretty much the same thing happening here with that first line, only the sentence properly-ordered wouldn’t have an auxiliary verb, so they needed to add did to fill that role. Notice how the rest of his dialogue is Basically all fine. I think that’s because it’s supposed to be important and serious. We could understand Another one, there is, but it wouldn’t have the same gravitas.

Luke: I can’t. It’s too big. (This exact line is also in the porn parody.)

Yoda: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.

The same basic thing again with Judge me by my size, do you? It’s still fairly comprehensible as it’s still divided into logical little chunks. The first clause tells us what the main action is, and the second tells us who, and that it’s a question. But once more, the rest of his speech is technically correct. Size matters not and Luminous beings are we are archaic, but still possible (and isn’t Luminous beings are we just beautiful?). I think this is another case of the writers wanting to give the moment some gravitas, and not ruin it with a creepy little muppet talking oddly in Miss Piggy’s voice.

 Yoda: Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!

This passage makes me think the writers weren’t thinking too much about specific patterns to Yoda’s speech, instead going for Have him speak in the wrong order, but make sure we still understand him. Words are just generally strewn around in each sentence in different ways, though still in comprehensible chunks. This one for a long time have I watched wouldn’t work, for example, if this and one were apart, as the two work together as a unit. …have I watched might be an odd order, but it still makes sense as the words are all together. For this have long a time watched I one though wouldn’t make sense, as the three main sense units of the sentence (this one/for a long time/have I watched) are all broken up.

But, we can understand the sentence as Yoda says it in the film, because the grammar words like this, for, and a are all doing their job of keeping the meaning clear. The content words one, long, time, and I give the sentence its general meaning, but their position isn’t really important. What is important is how they’re all joined together by the other grammar words. And if those grammar words were separated from the content words they’re linked to, the meaning would go out the window.

I don’t think keeping these little units intact was a conscious decision. Rather, it shows how we have an instinctive sense of grammar. The writers probably never even conceived of breaking up Yoda’s sentences to make them incomprehensible, because it’s quite hard to do that, so used are we to automatically grouping words logically together (and it’d be quite annoying for us to watch). Their brains probably never even let them consider really pulling his sentences apart. Even if you tried to move the words around in a sentence to turn it into nonsense, it’s quite hard to do. 

No matter what we think, we all have pretty good grammar. Even Yoda’s not so bad. His syntax is a little iffy, but he gets the basics right enough to make sense.

So no, I don’t think the writers overthought Yoda’s dialogue. I think they wanted a funny puppet who hits R2D2 with a stick and falls into a swamp, but is also wise and noble. They achieved those contrasting effects by generally messing up his syntax but making it normal for important dialogue.

In doing so though, they unwittingly provided the world with a great example of how flexible grammar is, and how meaning can still be communicated even when syntax is greatly altered.

Even better, they allowed me to make Star Wars even more fun by using it to talk about grammar!

11 thoughts on “Learning English with Yoda

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