Sunday, February 03, 2008

Themes and rhemes and XSV: Smiled as the wonder I pondered


When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.

— Yoda, Jedi master and syntactic wonder

Returning from my gig as keynote speaker at this year's Mid-Atlantic APALSA Conference at Penn Law — an episode worth blogging about in its own right — reminded me of a place where syntax and style intersect and linguistic variation elides into poetic power.

What follows is a long post in three parts:
  1. A technical explanation of two syntactic phenomena: word order and topic-prominent languages' systematic tools for effecting theme-rheme structures.
  2. A discussion of these phenomena as embodied in the speech of Yoda, the Star Wars movies' venerable Jedi master.
  3. A musically enhanced illustration of poetic inversion in everyday English.
Read the rest of this post . . . .1. Word order and theme-rheme structure

Almost all human languages exhibit a predominant pattern by which they arrange the constituent elements of their sentences. There are six theoretically possible word order patterns by which a language can arrange subject, verb, and object, but these patterns are far from evenly distributed. Subject-first languages (SOV and SVO) predominate (presumably because of x-bar theory), while object-first languages (OSV and OVS) are exceeding rare. In order of frequency:
  • SOV languages include Japanese, Turkish, Korean, the Indo-Aryan languages, and the Dravidian languages.
  • SVO languages include English, Portuguese, French, Mandarin, Bulgarian, and Swahili.
  • VSO languages include Classical Arabic, the Insular Celtic languages, and Hawaiian.
  • VOS languages include Fijian and Malagasy. The farflung Polynesian languages figure prominently among extant verb-first languages.
  • OSV languages include Xavante.
  • OVS languages include Hixkaryana.
CharlemagneThese are general classifications, and certain languages (prominently, Latin and Finnish) come close to reflecting no predominant word order. German and Dutch follow SOV syntax in subordinate clauses, but V2 word order (usually SVO) in main clauses. But the presence of postpositions as well as prepositions in German — for example: Der Sage nach ging Karl der Große dieses Flußes entlang (verbatim gloss: Legend according to walked Charlemagne this river along) — suggests the degree to which that language shifts fluidly between SVO and SOV syntax.

Independent of syntactic word order, theme-rheme (or topic-comment) sentence structure has the potential to affect the presentation of semantic elements in most languages. Most languages can adopt theme-rheme structure idiosyncratically — as for English, we often use as for [theme] constructions — but topic-prominent languages use systematic changes in syntax or even dedicated morpological elements (such as the Japanese clitic particle -wa) to mark themes and to set them apart from rhemes. Therewith the connection with the APALSA conference: East Asian languages such as the Chinese languages, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, and Indonesian are all topic-prominent languages. So are Singaporean and Malaysian English. The linguistic alignment is all the more remarkable given the genetic distance between some of these languages. Japanese, the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, and the Indo-European family are unrelated, but topic-prominent languages prevail throughout much of the western Pacific.

2. Yoda

YodaYoda presents a special set of linguistic puzzles. What follows is my summary of Geoffrey K. Pullum's May 2005 Language Log analysis of Yoda's syntax, which claims the minor but memorable distinction of being the most thorough assessment of the linguistics of Star Wars' most syntactically mystifying character.

Sometimes Yoda merely inverts ordinary English syntax, shoving the object (or some other element) ahead of the subject and verb:
  • Always two there are, no more.
  • Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.
  • Much to learn, you still have.
  • When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.
On other occasions Yoda strands auxiliary verbs at the end of a sentence by transposing their catenative components toward the beginning:
  • Agree with you the council does.
  • Your apprentice Skywalker will be.
  • Lost a planet Master Obi-Wan has.
  • Begun, the Clone Wars have.
Finally, Yoda also uses relatively straightforward English word order:
  • The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.
  • War does not make one great.
  • You must unlearn what you have learned.
  • A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.
It turns out that Yoda is doing three completely different things.

In the first set of sentences, Yoda "shows signs of favoring OSV syntax (Object-Subject-Verb) as the basic order in the simple clause." Pullum classifies Yoda's speech as "XSV syntax, where the X is whatever complement would appropriately go with the verb, whether it's an object or not." OVS and OSV languages are "fantastically rare"; Pullum and Desmond C. Derbyshire have found "maybe eight or ten languages with OVS order in simple transitive clauses . . . and maybe four with OSV." Even then, "[i]n some cases the evidence for those [conclusions] was a bit shaky," since "some languages have highly variable constituent order, making it quite hard to tell from texts what the most straightforward and basic would be."

YodaYoda's second set of sentences suggests that he is doing something else: "using SVO (or SVX) but favoring, almost to excess, certain special constructions that English allows only as stylistic variations in special discourse contexts." Pullum explains in precise and formal terms: "In English you can take not only an adjunct but also a predicative complement or a nonfinite catenative complement and prepose them (pop them at the front of the clause) for a special effect."

And then, of course, Yoda sometimes nails ordinary English syntax. As a result, Yoda's "English is an odd mix, as if he were sometimes thinking in terms of XSV constituent order, and sometimes just over-using English stylistic variant orders, and sometimes getting the idiomatic English word order just right."

3. Wonder

The end of all our pondering will be poetry, and to know it for the first time. Much I have written, and it comes to this: The very oddity of object-first syntax in universal human grammar, plus the absence of systematic theme-rheme tools in standard English (which, unlike its east Asian variants and the local languages that influence them, is not a topic-prominent language), plus the availability of stylistic variant orders in English that throw entire phrases to the front of sentences for rhetorical effect — all this makes syntactic inversion a striking and powerful poetic device in English. Just don't use it as much as Yoda.

Consider this beautiful example: Natalie Merchant, Wonder, on Tigerlily (1995):

TigerlilyOh, I believe
Fate smiled and destiny
Laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as she came to my mother
Know this child will not suffer
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way


Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

With no apologies to Richard Dawkins, I'm just grateful you didn't sneak "memes" into the title of your post.

2/06/2008 11:51 PM  

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