Saturday, January 10, 2009


I have an idea for a blog post which I don't have the skill to execute. So I'll write the bare bones of it here, and then it'll be almost as if I wrote it without actually having to do the work.

Flann O'Brien, when writing as Myles na gCopaleen, published some pieces in the Irish Times which appear to be in Irish, but if read phonetically turn out to be in heavily accented English. For example, one short piece starts
Aigh nó a mean thú ios só léasaigh dat thí slíps in this clós, bhears a bíord, and dos not smóc bíocós obh de trobal obh straigeing a meaits.
which reads as
I know a man who is so lazy that he sleeps in his clothes, wears a beard, and does not smoke because of the trouble of striking a match.
I wanted to put this together with the idea that Japanese uses different orthographies for different things: hiragana for native words spelled phonetically, katakana for imported words spelled phonetically, kanji, which is pictographic, for most content-bearing words, and occasionally romaji, the Latin alphabet you are reading now. So then I might write a little Star Wars parody, in which the country bumpkin hero (るくさかいをくる) speaks hiragana, and the villain (ダルトベイダ), who is clearly foreign, speaks katakana. Yoda would of course speak Kanji, and, just possibly, Wookies and those little teddy bears would use romaji.

Naturally, I would also have needed to think about word order, especially for Yoda. Japanese is a head-final language, which means it generally puts the word with the most oomph at the end of each clause, so for example in a sentence the verb comes last. Thus for "I like drinking beer" you might say something like "watashi wa nomimoni wa biru ga suki desu", which reads roughly as with regards to me, in the matter of drink, beer, likeable is. (With apologies for any errors in this: it's more than 10 years since I studied Japanese.) Then everyone could talk like this, except for Yoda, who would use English word order. Because in the English version of Star Wars, backwards speaks does he.

Alas, I could never take this beyond the germ of an idea. But it does trigger off one other thought. There is a discussion of Yoda's syntax in an old language log posting, in which various word orders for Yoda's speech are discussed, and it is also pointed out that occasionally he follows ordinary English word order. The question that troubles me is that given that he can follow English word order, why doesn't he do so all the time? He has had (we assume) several hundred years of exposure to the the language, which is surely enough to smooth out his idio-grammatical quirks and get him to native speaker competence. Speaks funny, then why does he? I believe there can only be one answer: that Chomsky was right all along. The innate language component of Yoda's brain is such that he intrinsically cannot get the words in the right order, no matter how much he studies and attends the Berlitz school for Jedi. The universal grammar of Yoda sapiens just won't allow it.

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