Star Wars and English

I did a short science quiz with one of my students yesterday afternoon, and to the question why does CO2 extinguish fires? he suggested that it might be like the freezing of Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Han, you will recall, is cryogenically frozen in a substance called carbonite, and my student thought perhaps carbon dioxide would act similarly, cryogenically freezing the flame.

My student’s hypothesis was interesting, but inaccurate. But I was as interested in his source as I was in his reasoning, since Yoda, who also makes his debut in The Empire Strikes Back, has been somewhat on my mind over the last week or so. I have been talking about word order.

English is a Subject-Verb-Object language (He is your father), as are many languages, but more common are Subject-Object-Verb languages (He your father is) such as Latin and Japanese. Together S-V-O and S-O-V languages make up 75% of living languages.

Yoda speaks a much rarer form, Object-Subject-Verb (Your father he is, but defeat him you must), prevalent on Earth mainly in languages from the Amazon Basin, and in some of my students.

There are, additionally, Verb-Subject-Object languages, Verb-Object-Subject languages and, rarest of all, Object-Verb-Subject (Your father is he; him must defeat you). I’ve seen them all.

Many languages are of course very flexible in word order, particularly where case endings are strongly marked. English is not one of these. In general, relations within sentences are established by word order and a predilection for prepositions, both easy to slip up on. Some simple rules can be inculcated, however, the first of which is not to talk like Yoda.

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