A comic that was doing the rounds a few months ago keeps getting revived every once in a while when it gets discovered by a new bunch of people. The comic shows Yoda ordering pizza over the phone, but unable to get his order across because of his mangled word order. It’s difficult to not feel pity for the battered Yoda shown in the last frame as he sits biting on a sandwich. If you read that comic, you would get the impression that you turn a sentence into Yoda Speak (let’s call it Yodese? or rather, Yodalese) by randomly shuffling its words.

But it’s a little more complicated.

Among the things you get from introductory linguistics is that a lot of what is considered random, chaotic or just plain wrong has a lot of regularity and pattern underneath. A very common and popular example is that of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), previously called Black Vernacular English (BVE). Speakers of standard English often believe that BVE or AAVE is just corrupted standard English and you could imitate a ‘Black accent’ by arbitrarily omitting some words and mispronouncing some others. However, AAVE has a definite structure and syntax of its own, and any random corruption of English does not generate AAVE, just like arbitrary rearrangement of a sentence does not generate passive voice.

Yoda’s syntax generally fits in the OSV word order pattern (Object Subject Verb). Here, O doesn’t necessarily need to be an object. It refers to whatever complement follows the verb. OSV is a very very rare word order in natural languages. However, Yoda also often says sentences that use the standard English word order SVO. Another way of looking at Yoda’s syntax, as posited by Prof Geoffrey Pullum on LanguageLog, is to say that Yoda uses SVO but favors, almost to an excess, special constructions that English allows only as stylistic variations in special discourse contexts.

The moral of the story isn’t that Yoda’s speech is perfectly regular. It’s that even seemingly chaotic language often has a lot of underlying order that we tend to not recognize because we see it through the glasses of our own language. This is something that is particularly useful to keep in mind when we judge languages / dialects other than our own.