When Luke Skywalker first encounters Yoda, it’s on a swampy planet in The Empire Strikes Back. At first, Luke doesn’t realize the long-eared, wrinkly green creature is, in fact, the one he’s seeking.
“I’m looking for someone,” Luke says.
“Looking?” Yoda replies. “Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?”
There’s a narrative effect to the way Yoda speaks. To an English speaker, anyway, the way he orders his sentences sounds vaguely riddle-like, which adds to his mystique.
But what’s actually going on with Yoda, linguistically? First, let’s examine how Yoda doesn’t speak. Many of the world’s most-spoken languages—English, Mandarin—are built around constructions that go subject-verb-object. An example would be: Yoda grasped the lightsaber.
Another common construction, and one you’d find more commonly among speakers of Japanese, Albanian, and many other languages, goes subject-object-verb: Yoda the lightsaber grasped. More rare is a verb-subject-object construction, but that’s how people who speak Hawaiian and some Celtic languages do it: Grasped Yoda the lightsaber. Even more unusual is the way Yoda famously speaks, ordering his sentences object-subject-verb, or OSV: The lightsaber Yoda grasped. Or, to use an example from an actual Yoda utterance: “Much to learn, you still have.”
“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.
Yoda-speak gets even more confusing, to me anyway, when you try to translate it from English. In Estonian versions of the films, according to one fascinating Reddit thread about linguistics, Yoda retains the word order used in English versions. “This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements,” according to one commenter. “This gives his speech an unusual quality.” But in Czech translations, rather than speaking in his general object-subject-verb manner, Yoda apparently speaks in subject-object-verb (like in Japanese).
Really, though, Yoda was written for an English-speaking audience. And, as James Harbeck pointed out in an article for The Week last year, there are plenty of examples from popular literature that sound just as offbeat syntactically as Yoda, even if they're not identical in construction. There’s Walt Whitman (“Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring”), and Shakespeare (“For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered”), and whoever wrote the lyrics to “The Little Drummer Boy” (“Come, they told me, the newborn king to see”). “These sentences remind us of Yoda-style things we can do in poetry and other stylized forms,” Harbeck wrote. “And that's the thing about Yoda-speak: We understand it. It is comprehensible English because it is written by English speakers, for English speakers, using things you can do in English.”
To appreciate Yoda, maybe it’s best to abandon one’s grammatical senses altogether—or, you know, “unlearn what you have learned.” Like the little guy says, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”