Recent work in comparative linguistics suggests that all, or almost all, attested human languages may derive from a single earlier language.The blood pressure of almost every trained, working historical linguist in North America skyrockets on reading that. Just ask one. But here's the big take-home from the story:
The word order in the ancestral language was SOV. Except for cases of diffusion, the direction of syntactic change, when it occurs, has been for the most part SOV > SVO and, beyond that, SVO > VSO/VOS with a subsequent reversion to SVO occurring occasionally. Reversion to SOV occurs only through diffusion.I had been pondering whether it was worthwhile to write about the story. The evidence for Proto-Human, as it's often called, is insanely controversial, to give it the most positive spin, and whether syntax can be reconstructed in a significant way is also still controversial. (There's reasonable evidence that some elements of it can be, but that gets us as far off the ground as a good high-jumper, while Proto-Human word order is a trip to Mars.) I had decided that it wasn't worth it. But then …
Alert Linguistics major Carla Oppenheimer passed on word of a couple of news stories on this to a member of Team Verb:
- Life's Little Mysteries (again, under the rubric 'Weird'): "The Original Human Language Like Yoda Sounded"
- HuffPost Weird News: "Yoda Language Study: New Research Shows Human Ancestors Spoke Like Star Wars Character"
So, I'm thinking, is this how Yoda speaks? I tried entering some simple English SVO sentences into the Yoda-Speak Generator (yup, it's real: here). A bunch came out SVO with 'yes, hmmm' added at the end. But in many cases the object was topicalized: 'Yoda has odd syntax' came out as 'Odd syntax, Yoda has. Yes, hmmm.' That's actually OSV, one of the rarest word order patterns known.
But that's not the key pattern if you put in more complex sentences. Try this:
I will tell you about the earliest human language.and you get this:
Tell you about the earliest human language, I will. Yeesssssss.So, the Yoda generalization here is that he topicalizes like mad, a generalization among many explored years ago on Language Log, like here, in the aptly titled "Unclear of Yoda's syntax the principles are, if any". Certainly, whatever generalizations are possible, Yodic is not SOV.
At the same time, comparing Proto-Human word order to the speech of a Star Wars character seems just right.
I(mage from the Life's Little Mysteries story.)