If so smart Yoda is, why does not words the right order in his sentences put?

Part three of my series on the impact of high-dimensional geometry on search algorithms will have to wait at least until after the Victoria Day weekend -- I'm crazy busy getting wedding invitations out, working on last-minute book edits and, oh yeah, that Whidbey thing.

However I will take a couple minutes out of my crazy busy schedule to comment on Eric Bakovic's recent posting about why Yoda talks like that.

"My own take is a little more cynical. I think it's just that Yoda is old and wise and therefore speaks in a way that sounds like he's saying something much deeper than he actually is."

I agree -- sort of. I'm not quite that cynical. I always assumed that Lucas was simply ripping off, I mean, making an homage to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, a professional linguist with a world-class knowledge of the evolution of the English language, was a master of this technique. Every single character in The Lord of the Rings speaks with a syntax and diction appropriate to their race, age, learning, intelligence and social standing.

Elrond, an Elvish leader who has been alive for millennia, uses a high-class vocabulary with lots of Latin and Greek roots and an archaic, formal syntax. Sam, a young working-class hobbit, uses only modern syntax and a countrified vocabulary. The riders of Rohan actually speak Anglo-Saxon amongst themselves and when they speak "English", use an archaic syntax, but not nearly so archaic as Elrond. They hardly ever use English words derived from Latin.

In my misspent youth I read a lot of badly written fantasy novels, and it is amusing and a little bit sad to see lesser writers try to fake their way through this technique. It takes more than throwing in "thou art the son of the wizard, art thou not?" every now and then to make a character seem authentically archaic. They do a pretty decent job with Yoda. I believe that guy's 900 years old!

Comments (18)

  1. John Davies says:

    Maybe Yoda is German.

    He does look a little like a 500 year old Albert Einstein.

  2. Rick says:

    There was an interview with the creator of Yoda last night on A&E as part of a show called "Star Wars: Empire of Dreams".

    The creator took a lot of Yoda from his own face, but wanted to add some "intelligence and wisdom", so he grabbed a picture of Einstein and put in some of his features.

  3. Chris Szurgot says:

    If I recall correctly, Yoda’s speech is German sentences translated literally into English (meaning they keep the German sentence structure with English words)

  4. Eric Lippert says:

    No, Yoda doesn’t speak German.

    In English a typical simple sentence is


    I see you.

    Same in German.

    Ich sehe dich.

    Yoda, by contrast, would say "you, I see". OBJECT SUBJECT VERB.

    The verb comes last in a German subordinate clause, but does the object ever come first in German?

    Any German speakers care to take that one?

  5. Mat Hall says:

    The Object-Subject-Verb word order is pretty rare — for the most part the only languages in which it occurs naturally* are spoken by a handful of small tribes in Brazil (Apurinã, Xavante, and some others whose names escape me at the moment). In made up languages (especially those created for sci-fi purposes) it’s a lot more prevalent, mostly because it’s so unusual it has an air of the strange and alien about it.

    German, of course, is an SVO language, as is English. (Klingon, strangely, is an OVS language. ghobe’ QaQ ‘oH wIj tlhIngan…)

    * Yiddish is another, but it’s not strictly an OSV language. Don’t ask me why, though — I’m only an amateur. Questions, I don’t need!

  6. Eric Lippert says:

    I asked a colleague who is a native German speaker to chime in on this vitally important issue.

    Her insightful commentary follows:

    It’s correct syntax, but unusual.

    Check this out:


    This is an Objekt-Subjekt-Prädikat (object subject verb) sentence structure (Satzstellung = sentence structure)

    The example sentence they give there is: "The cat hunts the bird"

    It can be translated with:

    Den Vogel die Katze jagt.

    Den Vogel = object (Akkusativobjekt)

    die Katze = subject

    jagt = verb (present tense, 3rd person singular)

    I have seen this sentence structure mostly in older literature or in poetry. Not a very common way of writing or communicating today. Might be used if the stress in the context is on the object in that sentence. Like:

    Den Vogel die Katze jagt, nicht das Kaninchen.

    It’s the bird that the cat hunts, not the rabbit.

  7. Yrro says:

    I’d always heard that Yoda’s speech was generated by translating the meaning into Japanese, and then making a literal word-by-word translation back into English.

    This sounds plausible with the little Japanese I know, but I’m definitely not an expert on either subject.

  8. Centaur says:


    No, Yoda-sensei Japanese is not. Japanese word order is Subject-Object-Verb. Yoda’s word order is Object-Subject-Verb.

  9. JoJa says:

    As a German native and a fan of Tolkien, Yoda and linguistics I can assure you that Yoda doen’t speak Germanic English… We do sometimes enhance the meaning of the object by putting it in front of the sentence, but even then the verb is in-between object and subject.

    Like "Ich bin schon dieser Meinung, aber…"

    Inherently I’m of this opinion, but

    That would be the normal way to say it in German.

    To enhance the meaning of "opinion" as my personal way to view it instead of a common view, I’d say:

    "Dieser Meinung bin ich schon, aber…"

    Of this opinion I’m inherently of, but..

    While we get Yoda-speak in the English translation, we don’t get it in the German original, because there one sticks to the OVS-rule.

    Hope this helps.

    Greetings from Germany, Jo

  10. Lord Dust says:

    On one of those "In case you didn’t hear about it twenty years ago" shows, Lucas mentioned that the way Yoda spoke was essentially made up on the spot (you don’t say!). The wasn’t any particular scheme, they just wanted him to sound really formal and archaic by comparison to everyone else. I don’t know as that’s necessarily a rip-off, just a better way to make the point than having some character mention how old he is in passing.

  11. Goldy says:

    I believe that Yoda is speaking Russian using the English words.

    I have no real prove for that apart from the fact that there is no strict word order in Russian.

  12. Qulinxao says:

    I am native russian

    when I see and here sw film’s in russian the Yoda speach not so unusial for russ

    then for eng man’s

    BUT in russian when we permutate word’s we change there flexii (in russ: okonchaniya) , but Yoda not.

    So I think the Yoda first lang was eng(same as Lucas)

    bat then Yoda sit very long time in our Famous GULAG system and leaned permutete word’s but his brain not so big for leaning flexii so 🙂

  13. tina says:

    his language is def interesting – what about his name? I think George Lucas turned to Hindi for inspiration because in Hindi a ‘champion of warriors’ is called Yoddha.

  14. Native Hindi says:

    Yodha is definitely a "Warrior".  And Hindi sentence structure is:

    mein khana khaoonga (mein – I; khana – food; khaoonga – will eat)

    I food will eat.  Hindi is a language where the verb comes at the end.

    I dont know whether that was intentional or just happened.

  15. Classicalist Biker says:

    Well, It always seemed to me it was Latin. It would, However be hard to make very good point because Latin is a very flexible syntax. But generally speaking the verb comes last, and the nouns are differentiated merely by the ending. So it would be perfectly normal to use that word order.

    Although, I am intrigued by the possibility that it’s Yiddish Word order, it fits with Yoda’s persona .

    (More likely than not it just sounded archaic and formal and Lucas just wrote it like that for the hell of it)

  16. whomisitme says:

    he probably was just made that way.

  17. Paul Schrum says:

    It is a little-known fact that the history of English in the galaxy far, far away took a different path from Earth's English before coming to the perfect form it is now on Earth and Coruscant.  897 years before that (when Yoda was 3), gffa English had OSV word order.  Although George Lucas thought they were making it up, they were actually channeling it unawares.

    Although Yoda is gifted, he was never able fully to adjust to speaking the SVO of those young wippersnappers.  

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