Yoda-Speak: A Study of Yoda's Speaking Patterns and Their Frequencies
lot of fans familiar with the original trilogy, the appearance of
Yoda in the prequels brought some unexpected apprehension. While
his new physical appearance received criticism, whether puppet or
CG, there is another area where we can observe subtle change: his
speaking patterns. This area has had some mild controversy: some
fans have accused that Yoda's speaking patterns in the prequels
sound much different from the original trilogy, while others will
defend that he sounds basically the same. Examples can readily be
shown illustrating both similarities and differences.
The contention with most critics is that Yoda in
the prequels speaks in a more backwards, convoluted manner--"around
the survivors, a perimeter create"--whereas in the originals his
lines are much more normal than we would remember--"I cannot teach
him. The boy has no patience." Keep in mind that many of the most
ridiculous lines in the originals come from the early part of
Empire Strikes Back, where Yoda is pretending to be crazy
and speaks in a very inverted manner. Yoda still inverts his speech
in the later sections, but in way which recalls archaic forms of
English. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has claimed in Annotated
that he deliberately made Yoda sound medieval in the
Of course, many would say
that the sentence structure of Yoda in the prequels, at least for
the most part, is consistent with this presentation. So, what is the
case? Well, this is one area where a systematic study can aid
us with understanding the structure of how Lucas and associates wrote
dialogue for the character. This was done by my friend Drew Stewart,
who first compiled a spreadsheet of all of Yoda's lines throughout
the original trilogy and prequel trilogy, with each line flagged as
either normal or "odd" (that is, contains inverted word
orders). He at first considered it by blocks of text, but
because there were normal sentences surrounded by odd ones, he did
it on a sentence by sentence basis. His results were
"crazy swamp creature": 13/23 lines are odd, 57%
Yoda: 30/73 lines are odd, 41%
ESB Total: 43/96 lines are odd,
RotJ Total: 18/33 lines are odd, 55%
TPM Total: 19/26
lines are odd, 73%
AotC Total: 31/56 lines are odd, 55%
Total: 46/66 lines are odd, 70%
Discounting the "crazy
swamp creature" persona, the OT figures of 41% and 55% average to
48%, while the PT's figures average out to 66%, which means the Yoda
of the prequels has a nearly 20% increase in the number of
odd-sounding lines. It is tempting to say that the very large drop
for Attack of the Clones
may be due to co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales
influence, as this is the only film of the trio with an official
co-writer credit, which happens to bring the odd-sentence frequency
back to the levels of ESB/ROTJ, both of which were also
co-written by someone other than Lucas (Lawrence Kasdan). This seems
too big a coincidence to avoid pointing out. The Lucas-only
screenplays are in the 70% range, while the Lucas+co-writer
screenplays are all around the 50% range.
But moving on, taking into account the above
tabulation, this means that Yoda does indeed speak in a
noticeably more backwards way in the prequels. However, at
a difference of 18%, this may not be as extreme as some may be
expecting; by my own expectation, I would have thought the OT to
have only 40% odd, with the prequels closer to 80% (a 40%
difference, twice the reality). So, these are surprising and
interesting results (comparison on a one-on-one basis makes it less
surprising, however, as ESB's 41% and TPM's 73% show pretty
wide disparity). However, and this is a big however, this is
not the end of the matter. We have yet to actually examine the
sentence structures themselves. While Yoda has only an 18%
overall difference of "backwards" sentences between the
trilogies, we shall find that upon examination these figures do
change quite drastically in terms of how
To aid in this
examination, Drew Stewart recruited his friend Tim
MacSaveny: a professional linguist. So, his findings here might be
a bit on the dense side in terms of technical linguistic terminology
but I will try to keep things clarified.
Both sets of films have both normal Yoda lines as well as lines
with inverted or out-of-order grammatical elements. However, the
difference is that these inverted lines in the original trilogy are
basically archaically structured, but nonetheless grammatically
sound. This probably reflects screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan's desire
that they sound medieval. On the other hand, many of the prequel
trilogy lines are both inverted yet also grammatically incorrect.
This will be elaborated on in a moment, and it largely has to do
with the position and order of the subject, object and verbs in the
This accouts for the debate in
the first place. Detractors have accurately noticed that Yoda's speaking
patterns do indeed change in the newer films and are less grammatically
correct. However, the other side is also correct in their
assertion that there is not a gigantic difference in the frequency or amount
of inverted lines overall. However, the latter camp has
made one mistake, and this is looking at the matter in the simpler
manner that Drew Stewart initially took when organizing his
spreadsheet; with a fuller examination of the grammar we find real
differences within the "odd" sounding lines, and this is
where the real PT-OT difference lies. Let's look at
After reviewing Empire Strikes Back ,
linguist Tim MacSaveny noticed that Yoda makes errors common for
non-native speakers of English, specifically in the way he inverts the
word order to object-subject-verb, "which," MacSaveny says, "while
very uncommon in languages of the Earth, is possible." He continues: "It
is almost universally dispreferred to put object before
subject, but some very few languages in South America do it, and
marked forms of some other languages (like Mandarin) do it.
Presumably, Yoda's native tongue (is there a name for this yet? If
not, I may call it "Yodish", or perhaps "Dagobarista") has an OSV
word order, and he is accidentally
He also made this list of
observations where Yoda makes grammatical choices either unusual or
incorrect in modern English.
Temporal adverbs: are placed
sentence-initial, sentence-medial, sentence final, and in their
Auxiliary verbs: Placed
inconsistently or left out (especially with "do")
Negatives placed word finally:
this is okay in archaic English, as in "size matters
Equative clauses are almost always
structured OVS (with O being the predicate
hypothesis for future study -- Is Yoda employing topic and focus (as
per Halliday, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topic%E2%80%93comment for
This is an interesting analysis, but it doesn't
quite help us in the subject of this article: how does his speech
pattern change for the second trilogy? After watching both
Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones
came to an interesting conclusion:
"I've found two interesting
linguistic deviations between Original Trilogy Yoda and Prequel
The first: OT Yoda uses OVS
construction in equative clauses. This means he says the Object (or
the complement in this case) first, then the Verb, then the Subject
in sentences where the main verb is "be". This is acceptable, and
even euphonious, to speakers of American English, because it follows
rules accepted in an older English style. Take these
"Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."
"Always in motion is the future."
"Strong is Vader."
"Anger...fear...aggression. The dark side of the Force are they."
"Strong am I with the Force... but not that strong."
In these examples, and in fact in
the entire OT corpus, 100% of equative clause sentences carried an
Now, lets look at the second set
of data (the prequels)
"Hard to see, the dark side is."
"Revealed your opinion is."
"Clouded this boy's future is."
"The chosen one the boy may be."
"But for certain, Senator, in grave danger you are."
"Truly wonderful the mind of a child is."
Notice that in every instance, 100% of
equative clauses are OSV, not OVS. This is representative of the
entire corpus. This means that every one is verb final, which is
more unusual and uncommon in standard English, antiquated or
otherwise, and generally has a more foreign, "incorrect" sound to
them. At the very least, the speech pattern is markedly and wildly
different from the original movies.
This starts highlighting more specific,
inter-sentence structural changes in the dialogue between trilogies.
However, the differences are even stronger. After viewing
Revenge of the Sith
, MacSaveny delivered his final
wanted to finish what I started and supply you with the second issue
of Yoda's differing speech patterns in the trilogies, which produced
some of the most awkward lines delivered by Yoda. Consider this
"Confer on you the level of
Jedi knight the council does, but agree with your taking this boy as
your Padawan learner I do not."
Even in text I found this line
hard to process, because this line exhibits two things that English
hates: verb fronting and cleft constructions. One is rare: the
other is simply ungrammatical.
Verb fronting is exactly that:
the verb is placed in the initial position in the sentence. Japanese
does it; really, a bunch of languages do. Even English might have
this construction in some interrogative statements (which I excluded
from this study, because of this exact fact). For English, though,
it's a little harder to do because of the auxiliary verbs. Verbs
like be, do, have and will have a special function of defining tense
or aspect for the matrix verb in many sentences, and splitting a
verb from its auxiliary creates a cleft construction, which in
English is a big no-no. The further the cleft, the more odd it
Unfortunately, when I examined
the OT and the PT more closely, I could find little difference in
the mechanics of these constructions, when it occurred. The
differences were in how egregiously the verb was split from its
auxiliary, and the frequency in which Yoda uses it. in the OT, Yoda
may say things like:
Told you, I did.
Stay and help you, I will.
Take you to him, I will.
...suffer your father's fate,
These four examples are all of
the non-interrogative data I could find exhibiting the verb fronting
with cleft construction. In the prequels, he uses this construction
Confer on you the level of Jedi
knight the council does, but agree with your taking this boy as your
Padawan learner I do not.
...find Obi-Wan's wayward planet we
will. Allow this appointment lightly the council
Hiding in the Outer Rim Grievous is.
Heard from no one have we.
Received a coded retreat message we
With many more examples not listed.
Notice how, in each of the examples, the auxiliaries are as far away
as possible from the main verbs (not in this case can be viewed as an
auxiliary also, because it is part of the verb phrase).
So there isn't a huge,
qualitative difference between the trilogies in this case as there
was with the OSV vs. OVS constructions in equative clauses mentioned
earlier. But, the frequency in which this construction is applied
(35/150 23% of all lines vs. 4/131 3% of all lines) and how
far away the verb is from its auxiliary in some particularly heinous
sentences forces me to conclude that this is another major
difference in speech pattern between trilogies.
If you take into account that Yoda was
feigning...something in the early parts of his relationship with
Luke on Dagobah, the number in the OT is cut to 1 out of 131, with
that one being an unclear example because it is an embedded sentence
-- the whole sentence, "Do not underestimate the powers of the
Emperor, or suffer your father's fate you will." does not exhibit the same construction. So,
with some minor manipulation of the data you could say that this
mode of speech is standard for Yoda only in the prequels.
That was a lot of information,
and perhaps more jargon than anyone needed, but I hope it was
helpful in some way. I know I enjoyed the study."
So, to sum
-An average of
48% of OT Yoda's lines have inverted elements in them, versus 66%
for the PT.
-Of these, there
are differences in what makes them "odd" sounding between the
-OT Yoda uses OVS
construction in equative clauses (sentences where the verb is "to
be") in his inverted sentences. This is grammatically acceptable, if
slighly archaic in style. This means most of his inverted sentences
are inverted in a way which is still grammatically correct. This may
have to do with Kasdan's desire to Medievalize the dialogue, rather
than make it "backwards" as Lucas has in recent years described the
-PT Yoda, on the
other hand, while speaking in an inverted manner more frequently,
also uses OSV rather than OVS construction in many of these
instances. This is considered less grammatically acceptable, whether
in archaic or contemporary forms of English.
-PT Yoda uses
incorrect grammar in another way that OT Yoda does not in verb
fronting and cleft construction. He uses this in the OT mainly when he
is in the "crazy swamp creature persona", perhaps deliberately by
the writers so as to make him seem more off-balance and unusual (there
is one potential example in ROTJ, but it is not clear cut). "Crazy
swamp creature Yoda" also speaks with more inverted lines, 57%
compared to 41% for "serious Yoda" in the same film, again showing
that the writers deliberately gave Yoda more incorrect grammer
in this persona, while in the PT "serious Yoda" often speaks in
So I suppose this gives us a spoiler to
some future EU story which details what Yoda was doing for 20 years
on Dagobah and explains his improved grammar: he was taking ESL
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