Monday, December 14, 2009

Plain English: How Yoda Helps Students Master Shakespeare

Star Wars may be the best thing that ever happened to Shakespeare. The speech patterns of Yoda the Jedi Master can help students get past the biggest obstacle in studying Shakespeare: the syntax. Yoda speaks “Galactic Basic” in his own peculiar dialect – sort of the Bible meets King Lear. The ancient Jedi plays around with the usual position of adjectives, adverbs, phrases, verbs, and complements.

In English, the most common word order is subject-verb followed by an adjective, adverb, complement, or phrase. Examples: She is pretty (predicate adjective). We drove slowly (adverb). They play tennis (direct object). She is the supervisor (predicate nominative). We sailed across the lake (prepositional phrase). Yoda inverts the familiar syntax, saying things like “Strong you are, Luke,” or ”Into the mist sadly go I.” The speech pattern has proved to be contagious. Young children who see the Star Wars films pick up on Yoda-speak immediately, saying things like “Stupid you are,” or “Fun it is not.”

nverted syntax is part of a grand literary tradition that need not be a stumbling block to modern readers. Reading comprehension boils down to recognizing speech patterns. Pointing out the parallels between Yodish (the official name) and other written patterns will give students the confidence to tackle classical literature. Here are some examples of inverted syntax from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

► “Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers, that do cling together and choke there are.”
“Round about the caldron go: in the poisoned entrails throw.”
“The castle of Macduff I will surprise.”
“Near the Birnam Wood shall we meet them; that way are they coming.”

Yoda’s speech pattern also appears in the English translation of Homer’s The Iliad (“Proud is the spirit of Zeus-fostered kings”), and the King James Version of the Bible (“Of their flesh shall ye not eat,” “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither,” Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”)

George Lucas uses the poetic pattern to characterize Yoda as both ancient and wise. That a whole new audience exposed to reverse syntax finds it interesting and worthy of imitation, attests to the power of poetic language. Here are some memorable Yoda quotes:

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
“Agree with you, the council does. Your apprentice, Skywalker will be.”
“Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.”
“Need that, you do not.”

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
“Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.”
“Around the survivors, a perimeter create.”
“Lost a planet Master Obi-Wan has.”
“Begun the Clone War has.”
“Much to learn you still have.”

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
“To question, no time there is.”
“Twisted by the Dark Side, young Skywalker has become.”
“The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader.”
“Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not.
“The shadow of greed that is.”
“If into the security recordings you go, only pain you will find.”
“Not if anything to say about it, I have.”
“ If so powerful you are . . . why leave?”

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
“ Always in motion is the future.”
“Reckless he is.”

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
“ Strong am I in the Force.”
“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

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Shelly Terrell said...

Wonderful post! I have already bookmarked this to use with students! Thank you! I find most of my students are still inspired by Star Wars. Star Wars is one of those relics that is enjoyed forever by generations as should Shakespeare be!

Anonymous said...

Great ideas! I love long used Yoda to help with inversions!

FYI In Macbeth the line ends "their art" not "there are"!