Until recently, Yoda was practically the only representative of his species known to Star Wars viewers (besides Yaddle). And so when The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda, or the Child, came on the scene and captivated viewers with his wide eyes, pointy ears, and the dusting of white hair on his baby head, we didn’t have much understanding about what childhood for this species is like. And the Child doesn’t give us much to go on either. As a great Popular Mechanics article notes, for instance, “we don’t really know how much of a cognitive leap is required before a young Yoda is able to use the Force for the first time.”
Another question that’s fueled speculation and meme-making is: If Baby Yoda finally speaks, what will his first words be? When The Mandalorian starts, Baby Yoda is approximately 50 years old and not vocalizing yet, other than cooing sounds. With our one point of reference, that silence can seem like the restrained wisdom of a Jedi master, but the Child may also just be pre-verbal. There could be many reasons that Baby Yoda isn’t talking, even though it has been estimated that he’s roughly equivalent to a human 5-year-old. Maybe he can speak, but he simply doesn’t want to yet. Maybe his species takes a lot longer to begin speaking than humans do. In a darker scenario, maybe Baby Yoda has mostly been isolated from language input and has missed the critical period for language development. We currently know very little about his life prior to when the Mandalorian finds him held captive by Nikto mercenaries.
If Baby Yoda is like a human child, though, first words may be on his horizon, especially with the socialization he’s been getting lately. But don’t assume that just because he looks like Yoda, he’ll talk like him too. If language acquisition by Yoda’s species is anything like the human trajectory, linguists would predict this is pretty unlikely.
When we hear characters in the Star Wars universe speaking English, they’re really speaking Galactic Basic. There are various accents and dialects, but the most famous variant may be Yoda’s, which changes the word order of Galactic Basic Standard. In terms of English grammar (since that’s how we hear Basic anyway), this means that while most characters speak with subject-verb-object order (“You must have patience”), Yoda often, but not exclusively, produces object-subject-verb order (“Patience you must have!”). This is a simplification of Yoda’s syntax, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll use that label to describe his word order.
When human babies learn to talk, their first utterances reflect the language or languages of their immediate environment. Babies raised in a monolingual English community will produce their first words in English. In a multilingual environment, first words in more than one language are common, with language learners quickly determining how and when to use each language. When toddlers start making simple sentences, those utterances often mirror the most frequent patterns in the syntax of the language the toddler is speaking. That isn’t to say that toddlers and children always get the forms right, of course. Most people have experienced a child making an error like “I breaked it” in English or “una mana” in Spanish, even though adults don’t say this. In the English breaked case, for example, a child is actually appropriately applying a form they have learned—the regular past tense “-ed”—before they learn that there is an alternate irregular past tense form for break.
As for Baby Yoda, at least in the current moment, he’s living with speakers of Galactic Basic Standard who use subject-verb-object order. We do not know, however, what he experienced in the past. Perhaps he lived with other members of Yoda’s species for a part of his life, which might mean that he received language input from adult speakers of this species. Could that be enough to justify speaking like Yoda when he finally talks? Considering that he doesn’t speak now (and barring the “he just doesn’t want to talk out loud yet” option), even if he lived with other Yoda-style speakers in the past, it’s still doubtful that he would have typical Yoda syntax. Between whatever language was spoken around him when he lived with the Nikto mercenaries and the Galactic Basic spoken by the Mandalorian, Dr. Pershing, and the Sorgan villagers, his exposure to Yoda’s variant of Basic would become less salient over time. If Baby Yoda is like a human, his first words should reflect the language environment he’s in once he begins to talk. This would track with cases of young adopted children, from preschool through early elementary school, who rapidly lose access to the first language they were exposed to, even within three to six months of being adopted.
On the other hand, since so little is known about Yoda’s species, there’s a possibility that the members of this species actually speak a different language. Because Yoda traveled throughout the galaxy so much, perhaps he learned Galactic Basic as an adult. This might mean that Yoda’s object-subject-verb word order is a result of what linguists call “transfer”: As Queen Mary University of London professor David Adger pointed out in 2017, Yoda could be applying the word order from a hypothetical native language “Yodish” to his command of Basic. If this were the situation, then it would be even less likely that Baby Yoda would have been exposed to the object-subject-verb variant of Basic, presumably because the first adults he lived with would have been speaking Yodish around him. The end result of this situation would be the same as above: If Baby Yoda did not yet reach the critical period for language before he left his Yodish home, then his access to Yodish would quickly decline now that he’s surrounded by Basic speakers.
A last option to consider is that the Yoda species is in some way hard-wired for object-subject-verb word order. This possibility would mean that Yoda is much less humanlike than we have been considering. One of the goals of the field of linguistics is to understand all of the variations found in human language, from the possible sounds of language, to how words are built, to possible word orders and more. Languages can differ greatly from one another on these dimensions, but one of the hallmarks of human language acquisition is that no one is hard-wired for any specific language. Instead we acquire whatever language or languages are spoken by the people around us and with whom we want to communicate. We could envision a scenario in which Yoda and others of his species are somehow neurologically committed to object-subject-verb word order, but it would be curious and rather arbitrary that Yoda then learned to speak the same Basic as all of the other speakers in the galaxy in every way except for word order.
So, when Baby Yoda finally talks, what language should he speak? The Standard variant of Galactic Basic. I have spoken.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.