Something always bothered me about how Yoda speaks in the prequels and I couldn’t put my finger on it until now.
Yoda Speak, for those unawares, is a term to describe the Jedi master’s speech patterns in Star Wars. Like this, it sounds. It’s where instead of using the standard Subject, Verb, Object pattern typical of English (i.e. “I like turtles”), it uses the Object, Subject, Verb pattern (i.e. “Turtles, I like”). But is this really how Yoda spoke? I’ve taken the time to do an analysis, and the results will shock you!
I re-watched all of Yoda’s scenes in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi from the original trilogy and all the Yoda scenes from The Phantom Menace of the prequels. I did not watch Yoda scenes from the other two prequels as YouTube was not as accommodating and there’s no way I’m expending extra effort to be tortured by those disasters. I counted how many times Yoda uses the normal Subject, Verb, Object (SVO) pattern, the “Yoda Speak” Object, Subject, Verb (OSV) pattern, and the irregular Object, Verb, Subject (OVS) which sounds odd (i.e. “Luminous beings are we”) but not as clearly differentiable from regular English as Yoda Speak.
It should also be noted that these three types don’t account for the entirety of Yoda’s dialogue. Sometimes he says things that are grammatically incorrect (“Yoda not far.”), one-word interrogatives or exclamations (“Looking?” “Patience”), or only uses a subject-pair and leaves out any object (“I know”). Yoda also prefers to use “not” in replace of “doesn’t” as in “size matters not,” or “wars not make one great.” I’m not counting those here, even if they might fall into one of the categories, simply because I’m more focused on SVO representing normal speech and OSV representing Yoda Speak. When referring to percentages, these refer to the three-category total, not the entire dialogue.
After counting the three types of sentence structure, I then calculated their percentages to see how representative Yoda Speak really is. Turns out, it depends entirely on which movie and trilogy you’re watching.
This is the first time the audience is introduced to Yoda. At first, we don’t realize that this crazy swamp hermit is a Jedi master, but he eventually reveals himself to Luke. He then trains him for a brief period before Luke leaves to give a hand in Cloud City.
The vast majority (61%) of Yoda’s speech is in the regular SVO pattern. Yoda Speak only makes up about one-fifth of all his sentences. Even combining OSV and OVS, Yoda still speaks normally more times than not. And there’s something else interesting here.
When Yoda reveals himself, his speech changes slightly. One third of all Yoda Speak phrases in Empire come before his reveal while over 90% of his OVS phrases come after the reveal. There appears to be a linguistic switch between Yoda the excitable swamp muppet and Yoda the Jedi master. Why this is, I have no idea, but the OSV Yoda Speak is perhaps more aligned with weirdness while the OVS is meant to impart wisdom or sound philosophical.
Jedi only gives us one scene with Yoda so it’s harder to really get a feel for his speech. It’s also his death scene which might skew his speech patterns to give things more importance. For instance, the most famous Yoda Speak OSV line, “Your father, he is” builds tension for the reveal of Yoda’s confirmation in the second half of the sentence.
Either way, Jedi is split three ways, so while Yoda isn’t speaking normally most of the time, he’s still only speaking Yoda Speak a third of the time.
And of course, here’s where everything goes crazy. Nearly three quarters of Yoda’s sentence structure uses the Yoda Speak pattern. OVS is only used once, probably because most possible OVS lines were simply converted into Yoda Speak. Yoda’s dialogue is almost entirely in scenes with the Jedi Council, spoken one line at a time. He does manage to utter some normal lines, but it’s overshadowed by what sounds like forced Yoda impressions.
While Yoda was already shifting more to OSV in Jedi, the leap from Jedi to Phantom is huge. There’s an obvious explanation for this jump – sloppy writing. But underlying that it also shows a trend that’s at work elsewhere. Characters tend to become watered down caricatures of their former selves. In The Simpsons, Homer went from a well-intentioned, simple-minded, family man to being the dumbest character in the universe as stupidity became his defining trait. In South Park something similar happened with Eric Cartman, at first just a spoiled bully, he became an evil mastermind as his selfish and vindictive traits were emphasized more and more. It seems in the prequels that Yoda’s only defining trait was the manner in which he spoke, that probably also explains why they also replaced all his wise sayings about the force with midichlorians.