“This is a clever device for making him seem very alien,” said Geoff Pullum, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. “You have to do some work to realize that his, ‘Much to learn, you still have,’ means ‘You still have much to learn.’” There are other fictional examples of characters who speak like Yoda. Bowyer, from the 1996 Super Nintendo game, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, says things like, “Fun this is, yes?” and “Disturb me, you must not! Practicing I am.” But what about in the real world? “Surprisingly, there are a very few languages—it seems to be in single digits—that use OSV as their basic or normal order,” Pullum told me. “As far as I know, they occur only in the area of Amazonia in Brazil: they are South American Indian languages. One well-described case is a language called Nadëb.”
Looking more closely at how Yoda speaks, it’s not always object-subject-verb, but sometimes a construction Pullum once referred to as XSV, the “X” being a stand-in for whatever chunk of the sentence goes with the verb, even if it’s not an object. So, for example: “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is,” as Yoda says in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Truly wonderful, in that case, is the “X.” Pullum, in a blog post in 2005, called this construction “fantastically rare” in the real world.
“The curious feature of Yoda’s syntax that some linguists have commented on is that, although it is by no means consistent, he seems to speak as if he thinks OSV [or XSV] is normal,” Pullum told me. “In fact, he generalizes it, favoring the beginning of the sentence for various modifiers and complements that English syntax would normally leave till the end of the clause.”
Consider for example: “When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.” But then there are other facets of Yoda-speak, times when he leaves auxiliary verbs—various forms of be, do, and have—dangling, as he does in a phrase like, “Lost a planet, Master Obi-Wan has.”
And then there are the times when Yoda speaks in regular old subject-verb-object constructions. (“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.”) Pullum says these inconsistencies make for an “odd mix,” though others have been less forgiving. Writing for The New Yorker in 2005, Anthony Lane had this to say of Yoda’s “screwy” syntax: “Break me a fucking give.” A funny line, timing-wise, but, as the linguist Mark Liberman pointed out at the time, not actually all that Yoda-esque. (“A fucking break, give me,” was one more Yoda-ish alternative offered in a blog post Liberman wrote on the subject at the time.)
Looking more closely at Yoda, and particularly at his dialogue in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, further confused Liberman, who analyzed dozens of Yoda’s lines in the film. “A bit of empirical investigation has left me more puzzled about Yoda’s syntax than I was before,” he wrote. (Most perplexing, he said, was an example of a fronted element—the sort of clause that you might bring to the start of a sentence for emphasis—found between the subject and predicate: “That group back there, soon discovered will be.”) Liberman has said it would take a larger dataset to fully analyze Yoda-speak, but he won’t get it from the latest film (spoiler alert): Yoda’s a no-show.