yoda is mayan

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

well not literally and not in 2012 way. Having reviewed the little green guy’s lines in a later star wars movie …. er earlier one … you know what I mean, I noted that Yoda uses far more Yoda English than in the first series. This is likley because the screen writers figured out that he wasn’t that hard to understand. It also means that we have to rethink Yoda’s syntax. Using a lot less Terrestrial English syntax and a whole lot more of the VOS word order means that we should reconsider the idea that underlyingly Yoda’s English is similar to Standard Terrestrial English varieties except for his predeliction for fronting material. Rather we might have to say that as the series progresses a fundamental difference emerges between Yoda English and our own. The structure of Yoda English with its VOS word ordering is not unknown in human languages. Mayan languages such as Chol (see  J Coon, 2010 for example) often exhibit this word order, as does Niuean of the Polynesian language group. Because of the ability of human languages to use this structure, syntactic theories which propose underlying universal properties and structures need to be able to account for this.  I propose that at a structural level then YE requires the raising of a predicate to the [Spec,IP] of the matrix clause.

Now for those who are not familiar with Chomskyian syntactic theory 1980s style, IP is a fancy term for clause. And [Spec,IP] is a subject position projected off that branch of a tree diagram depicting sentence structure. The construction of sentences starts with the VP, the verb phrase with its head, the verb responsible for selecting the right number and type of noun phrases to make the verb makes sense and any other additional material that is optionally added. Once the VP is complete, In English, a Noun Phrase, NP moves to this subject position to make it grammatical.

I ‘borrowed’ this image for UCLA to demonstrate the basic structure of a sentence diagrammed as a tree. Now see the node, IP and on the left of it is an NP eventually labelled subject? This is the site of English subject NPs. I like many others would suggest that this NP though was originally lower down in the first left branch of VP and had to move to that higher branch.

Ok let’s get to Yoda English

The pattern VOS is now often conceptualised as predicate fronting. That is the V+O part of  the structure detaches from its home position and moves to a place higher in a tree structure.

This means we can schematise the structure as in the picture below. Note that I have labelled two elements in the tree FP for functional projections. In the stolen picture above these might be equivalent to CP and IP. These FPs are parts of syntactic structure that are assembled after the VP and are involved in the making of grammar, VP is really just about verbal semantics.

We can use this to understand such structures as the ever-famous help you I will.

Syntax begins with the building of the verb phrase.

  • [I help you]

Let us then build a functional projection above the VP which houses the AUX, in this case the modal will.

  • [FP will [VP I help you]]

The subject moves out of the VP and into this FP

  • [FP I will [I help you]]

The next FP is projected which must be filled by the VP (remember the subject has already moved, so we don’t hear words that have the strikethrough

  • [FP [VP I help you] [ I will] [I help you]]

Having these two phases of movement (and here I use the term phase non-technically) derives the appropriate word order for Yoda English and follows some proposals for VOS and VSO order in human languages. So Yoda English is not so extraterrestrial as we might first have thought. Rather rare, though it is, there are human speec h communities who show these kinds of operations to produce their preferred word order.


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