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I found this sentence in Terry Pratchett's "Interesting Times": (*)

“Great wizard,” said Butterfly, bowing. “I you already know, but these two are Lotus Blossom and Three Yoked Oxen, other members of our cadre. [...]”

It's certainly not the usual word order, but there's clearly emphasis on “I” and that often can reason about alterations like that. A word-for-word translation into my native language (Czech) works perfectly. Moreover I believe if it was like

“I already know you, but these two [...]”

the “other two” could in principle at first be perceived like a substitution for the object rather than the subject, turning the thing into a garden path sentence.

Note: At least I assume that “I” is the subject and “you” the object, as in “I already know you, but these two don't”.

What makes me unsure is that this is in a part of the story where the speaking character intentionally switches between a flawless language and some sort of pidgin English for the purpose of disguise. It's not clear to me which is the case right here.

(*) An e-book edition so sorry for a missing page reference.

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    Is the first phrase supposed to mean "I already know you" or "You already know me"? There isn't enough context in your quote to determine that. If the latter, it would be "Me you already know"; if the former, it's decidedly odd. – Andrew Leach Jul 25 '19 at 9:15
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    From the added context, I think Butterfly is introducing the trio to the wizard, so it's "You already know me, but these two (whom you don't) are..." I have no idea why Pratchett got the case wrong. – Andrew Leach Jul 25 '19 at 9:39
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    Pratchett did not get the case wrong, he merely dug into the existing language, much as he dug into history and philosophy. What we allow ourselves to become is largely a reflection of what we absorb, rather than the total possible. Language, which is both older and more experienced than we are, always contains more than we realise. – Trevor Christopher Butcher Jul 25 '19 at 10:22
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    Pratchett is a writer. He knows what he's doing. He intentionally wrote the character to be ultra-formal. Non-traditional word-order for emphasis is not unheard of. It would sound vulgar to start a sentence with 'me'. – Mitch Jul 25 '19 at 12:49
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    How if he had said "I am already known to you, but these two are..."? – Kate Bunting Jul 25 '19 at 13:02
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It's not correct according to traditional grammar

It might depend on what you mean by "proper English". Based on the context, I'm assuming the clause is meant to express the same idea as "You already know me."

The traditional prescriptivist answer would be that the quoted sentence is not "proper English". This kind of word order (Object-Subject-Verb, or OSV) can be used for emphasis, but changing word order like this isn't supposed to change the form of the pronoun, which still functions as the object of the clause. So "Me you already know" would be correct in "proper English", which makes "I you already know" incorrect—from a certain (not uncommon) viewpoint.

You could stop here. The rest of my answer will be about why I'm hesitant to say that it is incorrect/improper regardless of viewpoint: I'm not sure based on the context that Pratchett intended for it to sound incorrect, and there is some attested variation in the usage of I and me that certain linguists view as falling inside the boundaries of standard English. The quoted sentence certainly shows a very marginal usage of I, but I feel like it could be related in some way to the less marginal areas of variation that I discuss below. And even if we just categorize the usage as improper, I'm interested in the question of why I might have been used here.

Actual usage of I and me is somewhat variable in some contexts

In traditional grammar, I and me are described as the "nominative case" and "accusative case" forms of the first-person singular pronoun. "Nominative" and "accusative" is terminology derived from the grammatical description of Greek and Latin, in which many nouns and adjective have distinct forms for these two "cases". Modern English is descended from a language with cases that worked similarly to those of Latin, but in present-day English, the original distinction between "nominative case" and "accusative case" is only visible on some of the pronouns. (Actually, the modern English "accusative case" represents a merger of the Old English accusative case and dative case, but that's an additional complication that's not relevant to your question.) Because of the way English has developed, linguists have questioned the applicability of the traditional terminology and concepts to modern English grammar.

The use of the remaining distinct pronoun forms has also changed over time. In some contexts, we see a certain amount of variability between the two forms, despite the prescriptive tendency to identify one form as "correct" and the other as "incorrect".

One area where such variation is well-known is coordination. According to prescriptive rules, it is incorrect to use ...and I in place of ...and me, but it still sounds OK to many English speakers to use I here. This use of I is common enough that some linguists argue that it is an established variant usage within the range of Standard English. See F.E.'s answer to Between you and (“me” or “I”)?, which cites the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) by Huddleston and Pullum and also mentions less common constructions that CGEL calls "hypercorrections".

Another context where we see some variability is before a relative clause that has who as the subject: it is possible to see ...I(,) who being used in place of me(,) who.

I haven't read about variability in sentences like the one that you quote, but to my ear, the use of I in this context seems similar to its use in the other contexts that I discussed above. The unusual word order makes the use of I not sound particularly jarring to me, but other people might have different reactions.

I know of a possibly related example of unexpected "nominative case" on a fronted pronominal object (but with "incorrect" usage of he in place of him) in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (unlike the Pratchett sentence that you quote, the Austen sentence also contains one of the environments I mentioned above, as who follows the pronoun):

He, who had always inspired in herself a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry.

(Chapter 61)

I first saw the Austen sentence brought up in a related question and its comments: Why the use of objective form?

It doesn't strike me as a very plausible "pidgin English" form

I wouldn't think that an author would be likely to use "I" instead of "me" as a way of characterizing a pidgin form of English. The usual stereotype would be that such a speaker would instead use "me" instead of "I" (e.g. "me no see them" for "I didn't see them").

Comparing it to other errors in the speaker's English

I Googled the book passage glanced at the area near the sentence that you quoted. So far, I didn't see any errors in Butterfly's sentences: maybe you could add a quote showing that?

Lotus Blossom is depicted as making the following kinds of grammatical errors in English ("Morporkian") sentences:

  • incorrect verb agreement: "Then it are true", "Rincewind, he say . . . Goodbyeeeeeeeee—",

  • incorrect use of singular forms: "Indeed, I am all ear"

Unfortunately, what I've seen so far doesn't seem much use in answering your question.

Update: sentence production errors and commas

I talked above about the possibility that this usage could be related to other, better-attested variation in the use of I and me. There is fairly good evidence that in some contexts such as ...and I, the prescriptively incorrect use of I is used frequently enough by some speakers to constitute a pattern of usage rather than a one-off slip of the tongue or pen.

But it's harder to find examples of I being used in contexts like "I you already know...." In previous drafts of this answer, I neglected to talk about the possibility that the use of "I" in this sentence is some form of production error, where Pratchett inadvertently used a form that actually wasn't grammatical at all for him. A typo is unlikely, but it could be an error in putting the sentence together based on mental interference from other sentences with similar meaning. It's not incredibly rare for speakers to produce sentences that are syntactically malformed for that reason, although this is less expected in written text.

I think some comments have indicated possible sources of interference that could have caused Pratchett to inadvertently produce an ungrammatical sentence:

  • The second clause in the sentence has a copular structure: "these two are Lotus Blossom and Three Yoked Oxen". In anticipation of this, "I" might have been used in the first clause, as if it had a parallel structure along the lines of "I am..." (Joshua Taylor's comment is I think making this point).

  • Kate Bunting pointed out that the clearly grammatical "I am already known to you" would have the same meaning. Possibly, "I you already know" comes from blending the two grammatical sentences "I am already known to you" and "Me you already know".

Some other comments have suggested that a comma might improve the acceptability of the sentence, although I can't think of any reason why that would be the case (zwol, and also BruceWayne, if I'm reading the latter comment correctly).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 30 '19 at 2:20
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It strikes me that this is an attempt by butterfly to sound more formal, in deference to the great wizard.

Just like people often confuse "I" with "me" when attempting to sound better educated, and achieve the opposite.

I would not put it past Terry Pratchett to lightly satirise such deference to perceived superiors.

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    I agree. It's absolutely the norm in business English in North America to hear "You should send it to John or I" or "...to John and myself", both patently non-correct, both apparently because people feel "me" is just a lower register of speech. The prohibition against starting a sentence with "Me" is especially strong because mis-using "me" as subject is characteristic of children's speech ("me want a cookie") and kids are taught early that sentences don't start with "me". So it's a kind of hyper-correction, and well worth satirizing. – CCTO Jul 25 '19 at 20:03
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    Yes, as @CCTO notes, the concept of hypercorrection seems relevant here, and is unfortunately missing from the currently leading answer, and only hinted at in this one. – Brian Donovan Jul 25 '19 at 21:13
  • @CCTO, you've got it. Why not write an answer? – Tim Grant Jul 26 '19 at 19:18
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    Thanks! But I think the original question (at it’s core a simple yes/no one) has been answered, and very well. I feel my comments are more ancillary in nature. – CCTO Jul 27 '19 at 15:34
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    Well that was not five minutes... Thanks SE... What's actually happening in this passage is that Butterfly is trying to impress her companions. If you read the full passage, you'll notice that when speaking to or referring to Rincewind in front of her group, she uses a reverent, deferential but slightly stilted manner of speech. But this is feigned. When alone with Rincewind, she abandons the pretense and speaks in a very fluent and down-to-earth fashion. – barbecue Jul 28 '19 at 0:35
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I don't think this is a matter of skewed word order but of wrong case. It is perfectly grammatical to say "Me you already know, but these two are ..." which is a word order for additional emphasis. Now there recently has been a tendency of correcting cases of the "Me too" kind as a reply to "I think this is wrong" (where it is incorrect) in opposition to "This strikes me as wrong" (where it would be correct) and, given a lack of language sensitivity, use "I too" for both, a case of overcorrection. The normal correction often tends to deliver an impression of exaggerated formality, and the overcorrection delivers an impression of trying to sound educated but failing.

As a German speaker, the problems of dealing with the differences between "thou" and "thee" and "speakest" and "speaketh" when trying to put on a Shakespearean air can make me want to tear my hairs out, but the case system in English, basically only reflected in some elementary pronouns deriving from Anglosaxon times, is mostly a remote remembrance to most native speakers of the English language.

Given the literacy level of Pratchett, it would be my guess that he wants to sound the speaker as trying to be overly formal and correct but failing. But given the rather inscrutable result (possibly helped in spoken communication by a strong stress on the "I"), I am not sure that it wouldn't be properly be labelled either author misjudgment (about his readers) or author mistake.

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Although I think this is not what is intended in the context, it could be archaic-correct to have "I" be the subject, "you" the direct object, "already" an adverb, and "know" the verb. In other Germanic languages this would be ok even in current usage. But, yes, probably it's better accounted-for in other ways.

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    This would not be grammatical in any other current Germanic language, no (well, I don’t know for sure about Afrikaans or local languages like Elfdalian or Gutnish). In some Germanic languages (German, Dutch, probably Afrikaans), it would be grammatical in a subordinate clause, but not in a main clause. In German “I already know you” would be ich kenne dich schon, and “…that I already know you” would be …dass ich dich schon kenne, but as a main clause, *ich dich schon kenne is ungrammatical. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 27 '19 at 20:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, ah, thanks for the information! In Old English I think it would have been ok... Also, with some other verbs, wouldn't such word order be ok, nowadays, in standard German? – paul garrett Jul 27 '19 at 21:06
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Putting the direct or indirect object at the beginning of the sentence is an uncommon but perfectly valid sentence construction, generally done to direct emphasis. Imagine someone looking at multiple sketches from an artist they have hired.

"This is too bold and busy."

"This is washed out and doesn't draw the eye to the focus."

"This, I like."

The emphasis would be different if they said "I like this" -- that focuses on the person talking, not the object of the statement.

The general term for this kind of altered sentence order is Inversion, but generally that talks about inverting subject and verb.

Sample usage from the web: Now this I like. No more annoying ads.

In your example, better grammar would be to have the character say

Me, you already know, but you have not met my friends X and Y before.

but messing up "I" and "me" is a common small grammatical error, especially when instinct is to use "I" at the beginning of a sentence.

This question was previously answered, in a different form, on the English Language Learners stack.

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No, it is not proper English, nor is it meant to be.

Do you remember how Yoda, of Star Wars fame, spoke?

This is the same sort of thing: artificial speech meant to raise interest and create an imaginary world.

Edit: So, why is it not proper English? It is confusing to a native speaker because the word order is askew.

I you know.
We pizza like.
It big is.
He her married.
That he is.

Normal word order in English is subject, verb, object. This makes the subject and object evident, which is useful because English does not decline nouns as Latin and German do, for example.

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    I hope that the Looney Tunes aspect of this website does not come to the fore. A direct answer that is correct should not be voted down. – user355537 Jul 25 '19 at 10:52
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    See the tooltip on the downvote arrow. A useful answer would explain why it's correct. – Andrew Leach Jul 25 '19 at 10:59
  • @AndrewLeach OK, that is fair. Let me go back to the drawing board. – user355537 Jul 25 '19 at 11:24
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    It’s clear from the context that SOV (which is very unusual in English) is not the intended syntactic structure of the sentence; OSV (which is much more common) is. The ungrammaticality (to me, but apparently not to everyone) is due to the object-case form being used for the subject pronoun. It should say “Me you already know, but these two are…”, which is not only grammatical but perfectly natural as well. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 25 '19 at 11:42
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Given how inaccessible to present-day speakers the formulaic wedding vow “With this ring I thee wed, till death us do part” can often prove, SOV ordering is certainly markedly unusual in today’s English. But it was not always necessarily so. I think you’ll like that paper. – tchrist Jul 27 '19 at 19:46

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