Syntax and Master Yoda

By Michael Kofi Ngongi

We are each born with an innate ability to use language and an insatiable yearning to do so. Language allows us to express ourselves and share our thoughts, our ideas, our opinions, our feelings and our emotions. Like many other things in life, language comes with rules. These rules are known as syntax.

Syntax governs how we arrange words and phrases to create well-formed sentences, and every language has its syntax, even coding languages used to program machines. Speaking or writing properly requires using the right syntax. And that’s what makes learning a foreign language so tricky at times, because it’s not just the words you say that matter but also the order in which you say them. For example, whereas in English we generally place adjectives before nouns, adjectives in Spanish appear after nouns. So, “the red Lamborghini” becomes “el Lamborghini rojo.”

English sentences, and Spanish ones for that matter, typically follow a “subject-verb-object (SVO)” structure. Meaning that the person doing the action (the subject) comes first, followed by the word describing the action (the verb) and then the thing the action is done to (the object). Some languages, such as Hindi, typically follow a “subject-object-verb (SOV)” structure. And still others, like Gaelic, use a “verb-subject-object (VSO)” structure. So that “I love this article” (SVO) becomes “I this article love” (SOV) or “love I this article” (VSO).

A sentence is grammatically correct if it abides by the rules of the language’s syntax and grammatically incorrect if it doesn’t. And you can generally tell if someone is not a native speaker of a language if their syntax is a bit faulty. Knowing this can create some anxiety when we’re trying to learn a new language.

But here’s where Master Yoda comes in. Though his diction (his choice and use of words) is perfect, his syntax veers liltingly from that of standard English to an “object-subject-verb (OSV)” structure, as in “The lightsaber Yoda grasped.” That’s a problem if you’re in a classroom, but perfectly fine if you’re in a galaxy far, far away. Because ultimately, good syntax, though important, is not the main purpose of language.

So, go right ahead and start learning a new language. Don’t be afraid to mess up its syntax, and heed Yoda’s advice (which applies just as well to life as to language): “the greatest teacher, failure isif no mistake you have made, losing you are.

Michael Kofi Ngongi is a new Canadian originally from Cameroon. He has experience in international development and is a freelance writer interested in language and how it can unite or divide people.

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