Q. Pheevr (q_pheevr) wrote,
Q. Pheevr

On the lucidity of Yoda

It seems to me that, in various recent explorations of Yoda's syntax, one hypothesis has been overlooked that might explain not only the Jedi muppet's word order, but also Anthony Lane's hostile reaction to it in the pages of The New Yorker. Has no one considered the possibility that Yoda is channelling the spirit of Henry Luce?

Luce, of course, was the perpetrator of Timespeak, the peculiar language of Time magazine, which Wolcott Gibbs memorably lampooned in a profile of Luce in The New Yorker; Gibbs's "backward ran sentences until reeled the mind" neatly prefigures Lane's "break me a fucking give." David Remnick describes the profile, and Luce's reaction to it, as follows:

Wolcott Gibbs's skewering of Henry Luce in 1936 heightened the rivalry between The New Yorker and the Time-Life empire, a rivalry that had started with a long, nasty, and well-informed piece on Ross and The New Yorker in Fortune by one of Ross's earliest colleagues, Ralph Ingersoll. Gibbs's Profile, which enjoyed Luce's cooperation, made a buffoon of its subject and, even more effectively, undermined "Timespeak," the queerly stentorian, neologism-studden artificial language of his magazines. (In Gibbs's devastating summary, "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.") Leaning heavily on the reporting of his colleague John Bainbridge, Gibbs subjected Luce to a reportorial strip search, detailing his income, the decor of his colossal apartment, his odd habits in the office, his taste for pompous middlebrow journalism, and his megalomania. The Profile ended with a stunning flourish: ". . . Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!"

When Luce was shown the galleys he was furious and demanded a meeting with Ross.

"There's not a single kind word about me in the whole Profile," Luce complained to Ross at the late-night summit.

"That's what you get for being a baby tycoon," Ross replied, showing his command of Timespeak.

"Goddamnit, Ross, this whole goddamn piece is ma ... ma ... malicious, and you know it!"

Ross hesitated. Finally, he said, "You've put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice."

Mark Liberman has already demonstrated that "'Break me a fucking give' is a pretty bad Yoda-ization, but it's better than the alternatives." I will only add that Lane is, in addition to continuing the feud with Luce by proxy, following another New Yorker tradition in getting muddled about a Star Wars language; Penelope Gilliatt, in her review of the original Episode IV, describes R2D2 as "an overweight computer who is a mixture of bald pate, traffic lights, and mailbox, and who transmits rapid information in a language that evokes Eskimo." From this I infer that Gilliatt had never heard a single utterance of any language in the Eskimo-Aleut family. Furthermore, it is not until we reach Hoth, in Episode V, that we get to hear how many different whistles and beeps R2D2 has for snow.

To return to Yoda, though, I think the strangeness of his syntax has generally been overstated. Geoff Pullum writes:

One way to look at Yoda's syntax is that it shows signs of favoring OSV syntax (Object-Subject-Verb) as the basic order in the simple clause. In fact one could call it XSV syntax, where the X is whatever complement would appropriately go with the verb, whether it's an object or not. This is a fantastically rare kind of clausal syntax. [...] But there is another way to see Yoda's syntax: you could see him as using SVO (or SVX) but favoring, almost to excess, certain special constructions that English allows only as stylistic variations in special discourse contexts.

I think the "stylistic variations" analysis is basically the right one, but if we are looking for a description of the distinctively Yodic word order that Lane and so many others have picked up on, I don't think OSV, or XSV, is the best way of characterizing it. It seems to me that the prototypical Yodic matrix declarative clause takes the form Pred S Aux, where Pred is the predicate—a verb phrase, a predicative adjective phrase, or a predicative (or even possessed) noun phrase—S is the subject, and Aux is one or more 'auxiliary' verbs, in which category I include (for present purposes) progressive and passive be, perfective have, modals, copular be, and possibly even the main verb have. What all these things have in common, of course, is that in standard varieties of English they can all undergo Subject-Aux Inversion in questions:

  1. Are you listening?
  2. Were you seen?
  3. Have you eaten?
  4. Can you play the bassoon?
  5. Are you mad?
  6. %Have you the time?

In describing the Yodic word order as Pred S Aux, I am suggesting that there is a sameness to Yodic utterances such as the following, despite the differenct syntactic categories to which the pre-subject phrases belong:

  1. [Truly wonderful]AP the mind of a child is.
  2. [Always two]AP there are, no more.
  3. [Lost a planet]VP Master Obi-Wan has.
  4. [Begun]VP this Clone War has.
  5. [Your apprentice]NP Skywalker will be.

When the sentence-final "Aux" is main-verb have, as in "[Much to learn]NP you still have," "predicate" is perhaps not the most felicitous term for the fronted material, but the basic idea is the same: whatever would follow Aux/Infl/T in an ordinary English sentence precedes the subject in a Yodic one. Moreover, it seems that if the stranded word-final Aux consists of only a tense morpheme, Yoda will insert do to support it:

  1. [Agree with you]VP the council does.

This is the same thing that happens in a regular English question: "Does the council agree with you?" (as opposed to *"-s the council agree with you?" or archaic "Agrees the council with you?"). To the extent that my intuitions about Yodic are worth anything (which is not a very great extent, since I am neither Frank Oz nor George Lucas), I think 13-15 would be ungrammatical for Yoda:

  1. *Agrees with you, the council.
  2. *Does agree with you, the council.
  3. *Agree with you, the council -s.

Of course, not all of Yoda's utterances follow the stereotypical Yodic pattern; some are ordinary English sentences, while others have a syntax that is recognizably English, but decidedly archaic, with things like X Aux S V in declaratives and fronted main verbs in questions:

  1. Anger, fear, aggression: the dark side of the Force are they.
  2. For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained!
  3. Look I so old to young eyes?
  4. What know you of ready?

(A language can change a lot over the course of eight or nine hundred years; if anything, it is surprising that there are not even more archaisms in Yoda's speech. He clearly has been keeping up with how the younglings talk.)

The canonical Yodic Pred S Aux order can be derived by stylistic fronting of the predicate; fronting of other constituents is also possible, as in Pullum's OSV examples in which the V is a main verb:

  1. Much to learn you still have.
  2. When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.

This also means that Yoda would probably consider 22 an acceptable variant of the attested 12 (unlike 13-15):

  1. With you the council agrees.

As Pullum notes, Yoda's fronting is possible in English, but most English speakers do not do nearly as much of it as Yoda does. I'd have to look at Yoda's speeches in their context to be sure, but I suspect that one difference, in terms of discourse structure, is that Yoda is much more willing to front new information, while most of the rest of us front only old information, if we front anything at all. I also wonder, though, whether many of Yoda's utterances might not sound slightly more natural if they were spoken with an Irish accent. Or, of course, printed in the pages of Time.

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