A question of Yoda’s grammatical consistency, it is

Source: reddit.com/r/linguistics

I make no secret on this blog of my fondness (perhaps bordering on obsession) with social bookmarking site Reddit. What sets apart Reddit from other similar sites is the quality of its community: unlike the comments you’ll find in other online communities such as YouTube, the ability to ‘upvote’ interesting, thought-provoking articles and comments means that the best stuff always floats to the top. Also, given the sheer depth and breadth of Reddit’s userbase, any question you find yourself asking probably has at least a handful of people knowledgeable enough about the subject to help you.

Such was the case when I was recently browsing the linguistics section (or subreddit, to use a redditor’s parlance) of the site, and found that user Shakedown_1979 had raised a very interesting question about everybody’s favourite little green man, Yoda from the Star Wars franchise:

What is Yoda’s syntax in foreign dubs/subtitles in Star Wars?

What does Yoda’s syntax look like in non-English versions of Star Wars? For those who aren’t familiar with Star Wars (all two of you), Yoda is an alien who, when speaking English, uses what seems to be an OSV syntax instead of the traditional SVO syntax.

So how do foreign translations of the script handle this? I am particularly interested in what it looks like in non-SVO languages. Are there any translations where Yoda’s incorrect syntax is emulated by using an English-like syntax? Or are other languages’ syntax so free that mistakes in the use of case or verb conjugations must instead be used to emulate Yoda’s “alien” speech?

Put in simple terms, does Yoda muddle up his words in translated versions of Star Wars? This raises another query: since some languages are much more free with word order than the stricter subject-verb-object (SVO) syntax in English, would muddling up Yoda’s speech have the same affect?

Many comments followed from users all over the world, who shared their experiences of Yoda’s speech patterns from watching their country’s dub of Star Wars. The more detailed results follow (thank you again to Shakedown_1979, not only for asking the question but also for collating and listing the results so neatly!).

The overall answer is that thought has clearly gone into ‘translating’ Yoda for foreign audiences. While the word order may not always be the defining characteristic of his speech, in most foreign versions of all the Star Wars movies, he retains linguistic oddities that set him apart from everybody else.

(Note: S = subject, O = object, V = verb. English is a SVO language, in that we say “The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat (object)”. The list below denotes what the usual word order is in that language, if any, and whether Yoda follows the same template.)

  • Czech: A free word order language. Yoda speaks consistently in SOV. Interestingly enough, putting an object before a verb does sound unusual to most speakers of Czech.
  • Estonian: A free word order language. Yoda retains the English OSV order. This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements. This gives his speech an unusual quality.
  • French: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV.
  • German: An SVO or SOV language. Yoda brings the Object to the front (OSV), like in English.
  • Hungarian: A free word order language. There is nothing unusual about Yoda’s speech.
  • Italian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV. Note: OSV is also the syntax used in the Italian of the less-proficient speakers of Italian from the region of Sardinia.
  • Japanese: An SOV language. Yoda seems to use a more or less correct syntax, with a more archaic vocabulary.
  • Korean: An SOV language. Nothing is unusual about Yoda’s grammar.
  • Norwegian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV.
  • Romanian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV. He also places adjectives before the noun instead of after the noun, and uses an archaic form of the future tense.
  • Spanish: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV.
  • Turkish: An SOV language. Yoda speaks in OSV. Note: This order is also used in classical Ottoman poetry, so the syntax may have been chosen in order to emphasize Yoda’s wisdom or age.