4.25.2006

know his priorities Yoda does

today in syntax, we began talking about 'extraction,' a process for moving parts of sentences out of lower clauses and (in the pertinent case) to the beginning. this is known as 'topicalization.' it's used in certain instances of discourse to signify the centrality of a certain part of the sentence:
'he promised to fly'
'fly he did!'
here 'fly' has been moved from its normal position at the end of the sentence for emphasis.

this technique is also effective to demonstrate contrast:
'did he go to the store?'
'went to the MOON he did.'
this time a whole verb phrase has been moved to emphasize the contrast between 'store' and 'moon'

these are pretty believable example sentences, but for the most part the professor just sounded like Yoda all class period. and then it struck me: a while back there was a thread in several of the linguistics blogs about why Yoda talks so funny.

Eric Bakovic at Language Log 'lumps' Yoda together with all the fanciful Lucas characters and provides a breakdown of who can understand whom in the Star Wars universe. He claims that because it takes longer for us to decipher Yoda-speak, we think he must be smarter than other characters.

Eric Lippert cites another well-known use of linguistic tom-foolery in fantasy: Tolkien. He believes that Yoda is written to sound ancient, the same way as Tolkien's elves. Comments discuss whether Yoda is supposed to be German or Japanese. Neither seems right.

I know there's more out there than this, but I'll leave you with the most syntax-heavy (but still requiring little to no background) of the bunch:
Geoffrey K. Pullum, also at Language Log explores the fact that Yoda sometimes nails English syntax perfectly. Other times he extracts the object and places it first (leading many to comment that he speaks in Object-Subject-Verb word order--unnatural if anything is!), and other times he extracts a verb, adjective or verb phrase. Pullum concludes that this variety simply reflects the fact that Yoda is an alien and might not have learned English very well.

But I think that confusion sounds pretty familiar. It sounds just like topicalization! It doesn't slow down comprehension too much, and anyone who's seen a Star Wars movie can mimic Yoda pretty well without too much thought.

I believe Yoda sounds wise because he puts the most important part of his thought first. He knows what's critical. He saves his breath in general, speaking mostly in short declarative sentences. Additionally, he's a great teacher, and he knows how to make Luke focus on only what is important. All great reasons to topicalize your sentences.

Yoda sentence insert here!!

1 comment:

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