How Yoda Helps Students Master Shakespeare
How Yoda Helps Students Master Shakespeare


The new Star Wars movie is a gift to English teachers.  Easy Shakespeare is when Yoda-speak know you.  Yoda’s speech patterns can help students overcome one of the biggest obstacles to understanding Shakespeare:  the unfamiliar word order known as syntax inversion.  Yoda, like Shakespeare, plays around with word order. 

Why so strangely Yoda speaks?  In English the most common word order is subject-verb-object.  Adjectives come before nouns (He is a tall man.)  Adverbs come after verbs (She speaks softly).  Prepositional phrases typically follow the word they describe (He shops at Target.  The house on the corner is mine) Yoda switches the word order like this:

STANDARD ENGLISH                                  YODA

You are strong, Luke.                                 Strong you are, Luke. 
I go sadly into the mist.                              Into the mist sadly go I.
The future is always in motion.                Always in motion the future is.
I can’t go there.                                            Go there, I cannot.

Shakespeare’s sentences often sound like Yoda’s.  Here are some examples:

YODA                                                              SHAKESPEARE

Much to learn you have.                             The castle of Macduff I will surprise.
      The Phantom Menace                                   Macbeth

Around the survivors, a perimeter            Round about the cauldron go. In the    
create.    Attack of the Clones                     poisoned entrails throw.  Macbeth       

Strong am I in the Force.                            Rude am I in speech . . .  Othello        
       Return of the Jedi                                        

Agrees with you, the council does.            Look I so pale, Dorset, as the rest?    
       The Phantom Menace                                   Richard III

Need that, you do not.                                Repays he my deep service with such    
      The Phantom Menace                           contempt? Richard III

The shadow of greed, that is.                     Crowns in my purse I have . . .            
       Revenge of the Sith                                     The Taming of the Shrew             

The boy you trained, gone he is.                 A gallant knight he was.                      
       Revenge of the Sith                                            Henry IV Part 1

If into the security recordings you go,        From that place I shall no leading      
only pain you will find.                                    need.  King Lear                              
         Revenge of the Sith

Syntax inversion is a literary device that pre-dates Shakespeare.  Translations of Homer’s Iliad use it:  “Proud is the spirit of Zeus-fostered kings.”  Inversion is common in the King James Version of the Bible:  “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”  The Star Wars screenwriters use syntax inversion to characterize Yoda as an ancient Jedi Master.  Inversion also makes Yoda’s lines stand out from all the other characters’ lines, reinforcing his superior wisdom and status.

Star Wars:  Episode VII – The Force Awakens opens December 18, 2015. 
Coming soon on . . . a free downloadable syntax inversion quiz that uses Yoda-like lines from Shakespeare. 
May the Force be with you!

Trending . . . Proper nouns are popping up as verbs, nouns and adjectives . . .
Trending . . . Proper nouns are popping up as verbs, nouns and adjectives . . .

Let’s Marvin Gaye tonight (have sex)

We Hemingwayed all over Paris (bar-hopped)

Less Poe, more Disney, dude!  (lighten up)

She went all Amy Schumer on me (told a dirty joke)

He went all Mel Gibson on me (anti-semetic)

He went all Trump on me (bragged a lot)

He’s my Yoda (wise advisor)

Her tweets are so Kardashian (shallow)

Her mom’s got this Sophia Vergara vibe (sexy)

Sherlock it for me (solve the mystery)

We’re used to brands becoming verbs (google, fedex, xerox, photoshop) but current everyday usage leans heavily on the names of celebrities whose names are associated with specific behavior.

BIGLY could be HUGE!
BIGLY could be HUGE!

Donald Trump has said, “Iran is taking over Iraq and they’re taking it over bigly.”  “We are going to turn this country around.  We are going to start winning bigly on trade.”  “Obamacare will kick in bigly in 2016.”  So is BIGLY a word?  The answer is YES.  Bigly is not used often by Americans, but it is a legitimate adverb form of the more familiar adjective big.

At first political pundits and late night comedians thought they had Trump in a Sarah Palin or George W. Bush grammatical error.  Palin was taken to task for making up the word “refudiate.”  Bush was famous for mispronouncing (nucular instead of nuclear) and for making up words such as “misunderestimate.”  Maybe Trump plays scrabble and knew about bigly or maybe he is trying to cut down on his use of HUGE.  Bigly is a word and Trump uses it correctly.  Will it catch on?  It just might.  One of George W. Bush’s errors did.  Bush famously said “the internets” instead of “the internet.”  That caught on.  I’m not sure anyone remembers “the internets” as a goof.  If bigly catches on, we’ll know soon because the late night comedians will add it to Trump’s trademark word HUGE.  Watch for it on October 3 when the new season of Saturday Night Live premieres.  If Trump impersonations incorporate bigly, bigly could be HUGE. 

Like, what's the like virus anyway, like?
Like, what's the like virus anyway, like?

Featured Artist @trishalyonsart

Like, what’s the like virus anyway, like?  The “like” virus going around may not have infected you yet.  If you are over 50 you’re probably immune.  How can you tell if you’ve got it?  Simply count the number of times you use the word like in a sentence.  Here are some examples:

The school is like only five blocks from my house.

They like love you!

I have like no clue.

What’ll be like your major?

What’s like wrong with your sister?

Just be like quiet.

I like don’t care.

I didn’t go anywhere like.

Sound familiar?  Peppering one’s speech with like has become epidemic in America.  It’s been growing since the 1950s.  Linguists think that a television character named Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis series (1959-1963) popularized the use of like.  The Krebs character did not invent the like virus, but he exposed millions of viewers to it.  The use of like died down for a few decades, then caught fire again in the 1980s when the stereotype Valley Girl was celebrated in pop culture.  The spread of like was also fueled by the TV character Shaggy on the cartoon series Scooby Doo.  Shaggy’s personality and speech were inspired by the Maynard G. Krebs character.  The like virus has proven to be enduring and powerful because it is versatile. 

-          Like can function as a filler similar to “you know,” uh, er, and um.  Examples: 

My math teacher, like, told me, like, the pop quiz wouldn’t, like, hurt my 6-week’s grade, because he used this, like, formula to, like, curve my average. 

-          Like can function as a filler similar to “you know,” uh, er, and um.  Examples: 

My math teacher, like, told me, like, the pop quiz wouldn’t, like, hurt my 6-week’s grade, because he used this, like, formula to, like, curve my average. 

-          Like can also be used to replace standard words such as “say” or “think.”  Examples: 

She was like, “Don’t wait for me.”  He was like, “Okay, I guess so.”  They were like, “You’re acting immature.”

-          Like can be used to approximate a quantity or shade of meaning.  Examples:

There were like 100 people in the store. Like 3,000 live here.

-          Like can be used to introduce gestures and unspoken ideas and sentiments.  Examples: 

He was like (speaker shrugs shoulders).  We were all like (speaker rolls eyes).  I like (speaker nods head “yes”), and she was like (speaker moves head from side to side “no”), so now we’re (speaker waves hand in dismissal).

-          Like can be used as punctuation to signal the end of a sentence.  Examples:

            We don’t want to go to grandma’s, like.  Batman is not my favorite super hero, like.

The strange thing about the like virus is that it is strictly verbal.  It doesn’t show up in formal writing.  Teenagers use some forms of the like pattern in texting, but when word count is at stake, they omit the like, opting for wow instead of Like wow.

There’s no linguistic vaccine or cure for the like virus, but some activities succeed in stamping it out.  Learning to speak, read, and write in a foreign language drastically improves one’s ability to be precise and articulate in speech and writing.  The practice of writing also improves thinking, logic and speech. 

If you are like virus-free, you can be proud that you did not pick up a speech pattern that makes one sound less than articulate and intelligent.  If you used to have the like virus and now you don’t, be reassured that as we get older we sound smarter!

Who's in charge of the English language?

The answer is “no one.”  Unlike Chinese, Spanish, French, and other languages, English has never been regulated by an academy of experts who decide whether new words and phrases should be admitted to the language.  English is a dynamic, free-wheeling, constantly changing language.    

An American president once tried to police the English language.  In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order that created the Simplified Spelling Board.  The executive order listed 300 words that would be spelled differently in all government publications.  Some of the words simplified British spellings.  Ardour became ardor, arbour became arbor and clamour to clamor.  Purr was changed to pur – no need for that double r.  (Also makes you wonder why the word purr appeared in a government document)  Other words were spelled phonetically.  Blessed became blest, kissed became kist, though became tho, and through became thru.  Seems like Roosevelt was way ahead of his time.  Many of his spelling reforms are now the language of millions on social media.

Roosevelt’s executive order was met with laughter and outrage.  Newspapers made fun of Teddy’s spelling.  The Louisville Courier-Journal published an editorial written entirely in phonetic spelling, saying of Roosevelt, “No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis.”  Both Congress and the Supreme Court refused to follow Teddy’s spelling rules.  Roosevelt was accused of being a dictator, and of trying to set up some sort of French academy.  Roosevelt issued the executive order on August 27, 1906.  Due to public outrage and ridicule by newspapers, Roosevelt withdrew the executive order three months later on December 13, 1906 when the House of Representatives passed a resolution saying all government documents would follow spelling rules in dictionaries. 

Who has the power to change English today?  Several associations issue guidelines and monitor usage.  Dictionaries try to keep up with changing definitions and new words, and slang dictionaries abound online.  Social media recently responded to a celebrity’s request for change.  Twitter isn’t the Merriam-Webster Dictionary or the Modern Language Association, but it wields pop culture influence when it comes to contemporary spelling and usage of English.  The celebrity is Kim Kardashian West.  The source of her power is 33.8 million Twitter followers.  Kim simply asked Twitter for help with her misspelled words.  She suggested that Twitter add an editing function so when she misspelled a word, she wouldn’t have to delete her tweet and start over.  “Great idea,” responded Twitter.  Presumably they are adding the feature soon.  Presumably Kim sent Twitter a big “thk u.”