A couple of weeks ago, I analyzed Cookie Monster’s syntactical quirks to illustrate how writers can use dialogue and voice to affect characterization. This week, I would like to continue that analysis by examining the character with, perhaps the most recognizable syntactical quirk in popular culture: Yoda, from the Star Wars universe.
Everybody, from here to the Dagoba system, knows the way Yoda speaks. Ubiquitous, his speech patterns are, not only in the Star Wars movies for which he is famous, but in memes, on t-shirts, and on sitcoms as well. Yoda inverts his sentences, placing the object or the verb before the subject. He speaks backwards. It’s as identifiable characteristic as his green skin or large, pointy ears, and is as much a part of his identify as anything else associated with his character.
The thing is, to paraphrase another famous Jedi master, almost everything written to imitate Yoda is wrong. He does not, in fact, invert every sentence. He only inverts about half. There are also other syntactical quirks in his speech That is why his dialogue throughout The Empire Strikes Back works, and why all the pop culture impersonations come across as cheap imitations.
Watch this famous scene from Empire, and pay attention to the places where Yoda inverts his sentences, and, especially, to the places he does not.
Here is an annotated transcription of the above scene which shows where Yoda inverts, and where he does not.
Luke Skywalker: [finds out that his X-Wing is about to sink into the bog] Oh, no! We’ll never get it out now!
Yoda: So certain, are you? Always with you, it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
Here, Yoda inverts his sentences all three times. What are you talking about, Rubin? He does it every time. You see?
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, but this is… totally different!
Yoda: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
This speech is interesting. In the first few sentences, Yoda doesn’t really invert, but he does drop the subject entirely. This is a second, different syntactical quirk that he has. He does not say, “Different, it is not,” rather, he says “no different”; similarly, he drops the “it” in the second case, repeating this quirky, but not inverted sentence. The repetition drives home that this quirk is not an isolated thing; it is also characteristic of Yoda’s speech.
In the last sentence of this speech, Yoda uses a conventional sentence structure: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try.
Yoda: No! Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.
[Luke tries to use the Force to levitate his X-Wing out of the bog, but fails in his attempt.]
Here is Yoda’s most famous line, he inverts the first clause, but not the second. It’s worth noting that Yoda begins this speech, much like the last one, with the same one word imperative, “No!” That pattern can be considered a third speech quirk.
Luke: I can’t. It’s too big.
Yoda: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
Here, Yoda goes back and forth between inverted and regular syntax. “Size matters not” (inverted); “Look at me” (regular); “Judge me by my size, do you?” (inverted); “And well you should not” (regular); “For my ally is the Force” (inverted); “And a powerful ally it is” (inverted); “Life creates it (regular); “makes it grow” (regular or dropped subject); “it’s energy surrounds us and binds us” (regular); “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter” (inverted); “You must feel the force around you…” (regular).
Luke: You want the impossible.
[Yoda uses the Force to levitate Luke’s X-Wing out of the bog.]
Luke: I don’t… I don’t believe it!
Yoda: That is why you fail.
The last speech features regular syntax.
To summarize, Yoda only inverts his sentences about half the time.
So, what this mean? First, it makes Yoda’s speeches more understandable. In his shorter speeches, Yoda inverts sentences more often. In his longer speeches, he does it enough to recognizably himself, but intersperses regular sentence structure a good deal, which moves his dialogue along and allows the viewer to concentrate not only on the syntactical quirks, but also on the content of the speech. This scene is the seminal explanation of the force in the original trilogy, and it is important that the concepts and themes contained therein are not sacrificed for the sake of a distracting character quirk. As writers, achieving this balance between voice and content is essential.
There is, however, more to Yoda’s speech patterns than balancing his signature quirks with clarity. A close examination of exactly when he inverts his sentences and when he does not provides deeper insight into Yoda’s character and shows what it actually important to him.
It seems that Yoda states the clause or word of that is most important to him—or to the point he is trying to make—regardless of whether or not it is grammatically correct to do so. For example, when Yoda says, “My ally is the force”, he emphasizes that it is his, and not Luke’s ally. Here, the conventional sentence structure highlights the contrast which he draws between himself and his pupil. There is no need to invert. In the next phrase, however, he says “a powerful ally it is.” This inversion highlights the word “powerful” by juxtaposing it more closely with “my” by placing it in the same relative position as “my”—the traditional position of the subject. Grammatically, the word “it” should occupy that place in the sentence.
Moreover, inverting “powerful” in the second clause links it, metrically, to the word “ally”. Although we don’t talk about rhythm in prose as much as we do in poetry, it still is an important factor in successful prose writing. “Powerful” and “ally” are both the third syllable in their clauses, and they both are the first multi-syllabic words in their clauses. They both feature a stressed first syllable. Thus, rhythmically, there is a connection between “powerful” and “ally” as well. Yoda’s speech is poetic, and the way he changes syntax is reminiscent of the way a poet, like Emily Dickinson might. The speaker emphasizes certain words by using unconventional syntax.
Thus, Yoda stresses “my” “ally” “powerful”, implying “your ally not powerful.” They both have the same ally, the Force, but for Yoda, that ally is much more powerful than it is for Luke.
Similarly, later in the same speech, Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” In this case, the important thing is that we are “luminous” not that we are “we.” Thus, he places the word “Luminous” first, to emphasize the lesson he tries to teach his apprentice.
On the other hand, in the final line of the speech, Yoda says “That is why you fail.” In this case, Yoda uses conventional syntax because it better proves the point he makes. The subject of that sentence is the pronoun “That”. The antecedent of that is the lack of belief that Luke admits in the previous line. The “that” immediately following Luke’s admission emphasizes the reason for his failure. In this case, inverting the sentence would de-emphasize the lack of belief. The failure is not the key point. Luke knows that he has failed. The reason for the failure, the lack of belief, is what he needs to understand. Thus, Yoda uses conventional syntax here, rather than inverting his sentence as conventional wisdom would have us believe he does all the time.
By closely reading Yoda’s speeches, we see that Yoda does not always invert his sentences, although this syntactical quirk is a prominent feature in his speech. Yoda’s syntax is actually much more complicated than the impressions and memes would have you believe. As writers, we should pay attention to way that his personality is constructed though his speech patterns. The choice of when to invert and when not to provides insight into the things his character values and the lessons he wishes his student to learn. Moreover, these choices are emphasized by the rhythm of his speech and the metrical stresses that the various patterns and quirks of his speech create. We should take care, when writing, to affect such detailed and careful characterizations through our characters’ voices and syntactical quirks. If we do, perhaps, people will lovingly parody our characters some day.