speak alien language help you I will

November 13, 2009 § 9 Comments

Aliens speak English funny.  In the movies, that is. ET acquired pidgin English and spoke of himself in the third person, immortalising ET phone home.  Perhaps an equally famous Alien English phrase is Yoda’s Help you, I will. In fact Yoda English seems to be characterised by very quirky syntax.  Let us consider the grammar of Yoda.


Taking Yoda’s sixty odd lines in the Empire Strikes Back as a mini corpus to build a picture of his grammar, the ancient Jedi produces non-standard forms, 29 or so non-standard forms – well non-standard by Terrestrial English (TE) standards, anyway. So for about half the time he speaks a pretty standard variety. His first full clause is as follows:


The major features in which Yoda English differs from Terrestrial English are word order and question formation.  What has become seen as typical of Yoda’s grammar follows the more standard clause above:


Here the standard SVO order or T.E is replaced by OSV word order.  Given that Yoda uses standard order marginally more often, we might like to argue using a Chomskyian approach that the OSV order is the result of a movement rule, and that underlyingly the sentence was originally the same as English. The object has moved leftward in a process we shall call fronting:

rootleaf I cook rootleaf

The strikethrough text represents the original position of the object before it underwent fronting. Fronting occurs in English when we want to put special emphasis on a particular element of a sentence, though when doing so we often add something to the fronted element:

You are wearing a nice dress -> What a nice dress you are wearing!

Simple obejct fronting  though is quite rare in Yoda’s English. Rather, when objects are fronted, there also seems to be other reordering processes involved, particularly when there are auxiliaries present. Beginning with future-marking, roughly half of Yoda’s sentences that contain will are constructed as an earthling would, the other half seem to exhibit fronting. A wide range of things, however front in the presence of will:

object shift, Will shift:

Nothing more will I teach you today.

nothing more will I will teach you nothing more today

consume you it will

consume you it will consume you

This last example is interesting as the verb and the object, which in English have a very close relationship. move together, in doing so however it produces a very different word, VOS AUX.

Another interesting difference is Yoda’s negation:

  • No! Try not.
  • Size matters not
  • And well you should not

The placement of the negator, not does not conform to Terrestrial English. In English not precedes main verbs with the exception of the copula  be, and requires the use of the auxiliary do:

  • No! Don’t try
  • Size does not matter

However, Y.E and T.E are similar in that the negator follows modal verbs like should.  Below are Yoda’s use of auxiliary have in the minicorpus

  • For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi.
  • Time adverbial                    AUX  S  V            O
  • This one a long time have I watched.
  • O     Time adverbial      AUX    S V
  • You must unlearn what you have learned.

The first two show some consistency in the positioning of have prior to the subject, but are inconsistent in the positioning of the object.  The last example may be different and not show this have fronting due to being inside a relative clause.

What can we say, then about Yoda English. It appears underlyingly to be interpreted as having a similar deep structure to Terrestrial English, but uses fronting more frequently. Fronting also seems to trigger auxiliary movement.

If we were to use more hardcore syntactic theory we might say that Yoda’s fronting makes use of the left periphery above the clause level; places which in the literature  house topic and focus phrases. Movement into these levels might also trigger verb movement. A topic=attracting feature might require the movement of full phrases to one of the Specifiers of such phrases above the sentence level, while the movement of the will/have type moves lower heads to heads of these Topic/FocusPs.


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