18 May 2005

language and star wars

The impending release of Episode 3 has generated some amount of talk over the use of language varieties throughout the two Star Wars trilogies: notably with respect to Yoda's syntax and to the use of varieties for non-humans. Funnily enough I used Star Wars as an example of the manipulation of language in film several weeks ago in class (but I left Yoda out of it).

Serious research in language in these films is hard to find. "Star wars" registers some hits in LLBA, with respect to argumentation surrounding Reagan's SDI, and to a so-called whale call. No film-related work appears. Likewise, "Yoda" only shows up as an author's name. I know only of this unpublished syntactic analysis:

Botma, E., E.J. van der Torre, and M. Zimmerman. 2000. With You the Force May Be: Explorations into the Syntax of a Jedi Master. Paper presented at TiN-Dag 2000, Utrecht.

They cite David Crystal's take on the matter:

"The rarity of OSV constructions and languages perhaps explains the impact of this strange speech style used by the Jedi Master, Yoda, in the film Return of the Jedi (1983)." (Crystal 1987:98)

Botma et al's basic findings were that in addition to huge amounts of topicalization, Yoda uses a fair amount of V2 structures and lacks do-support, features found in Old English among other languages. (So a possible interpretation of Yoda's speech is that it reflects his age - he's so old he speaks an earlier version of the language).

I think one thing to keep in mind with Yoda is that his newer scripts may differ somewhat in structure from his older ones. (This is also true of his recent Diet Coke commercial - Yoda has sold out! - in which he topicalizes an imperative: "That Diet Coke, give Yoda").

As for other varieties, Eric Bakovic discusses human/alien interactions in the original trilogy. I spent some time searching blogs and messageboards about the representation of alien speech in these films, and a contrast between the two trilogies emerges. In episodes IV-VI, aliens speak other languages, usually understand humans, but are understood only by some humans. Eric shows this to be true of the droid R2D2 as well. In Episode I, aliens speak foreign-accented English. For example, the crafty Neimodians speak with Japanese accents, while a shady alien merchant has a Jewish accent. Meanwhile, the faithful but dumb Jar-jar speaks with a poor rendition of some kind of islander creole. Likewise, Queen Amidala's body double speaks stiffly British, while Padme (the Queen undercover), keepin it real, has an American accent.

Much online discussion revolves around whether these manipulations are racist. It's not hard to argue that the linguistic stereotypes invoke unfair cultural stereotypes. Skeptics, however, claim that George Lucas shouldn't be labeled racist, since he has an ethnically diverse cast of humans. I think it's reasonable say that the casting is not racist but the linguistic manipulation is.

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