Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What is Grammar?

We all know the "Grammar Nazi" -- and can laugh along with parodies such as College Humor's take on the famous scene from Inglorious Basterds. But why is this notion so persistent? I think it's because those of us who have anxieties about our grammar and usage have them because we've been called out somewhere -- in a classroom, on a stage, by a seeming friend -- for some real or purported usage error. The grammar guardians have that same smugness that we fear from the enforcers of some imaginary authoritarian regime: the law is on their side, and they will show no mercy. But how did we get to this state of affairs, with a language that most of us have been speaking since before we were two years old? How did we come to feel not at home in our own home language?

Part of it is that English is notoriously filled with inconsistencies. Compared with either Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) or Germanic ones (German, Norwegian, Icelandic), we have dozens of exceptions to the rules, all of which someone learning English as a second language must contend with. On top of that, we have quite a few "rules" which the grammar correctors are convinced are rooted in stone, which are in fact not rules at all, but merely conventions (see the previous sentence for how we're not supposed to end things). Perhaps most significantly, we tend to confuse these conventions -- which are those of formal written English -- with rules about everyday, informal speech.

I have good news though: as Dante Alighieri noted about his childhood acquisition of Italian, if English is your first language, then you learned it by imitation, and sine omni regula (without any rules). Rules come later, and after, and actually have nothing whatsoever to do with how we actually learn to speak, or do speak. Which is not to say English has no structure, but rather that the structures which help us generate speech are not the same as those external after-thoughts with with grammarians have measured and examined speech. When one thinks of language in generative terms, one realizes the sad futility of the rule-followers: to follow rules is not the same thing as grasping a principle.

Nevertheless, because it was felt, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that producing written grammars for English would help "refine" and "regulate" our speech, such books came into being, and fingers started to wag. Writers of early grammars started by laying out what they called "parts of speech," and giving each one of them a suitably serious Latin name: nouns (from nominem), adjective (from ad-jacere, to lay something nearby), verbs (verbum, word), adverbs (ad-verbum, toward the word) and so forth. They even gave declinations for nouns, ignoring the fact that English common nouns have only one case -- the possessive or genetive -- which is different from any others.

And from these parts, came rules. Nouns and verbs must agree in number, adjectives must come before the noun, and so forth -- rules no native speaker would need -- along with others that no one needed. It was declared, for instance, that adverbs must not come between "to" and the non-finite form of the verb -- "to boldly go" was wrong; one should say "boldly to go" -- a principle which made sense in Latin (whose non-finite verbs were only one word, not two) but led to all sorts of nonsense in English.

This model also ignores a central feature of English -- the fact that we don't actually have stable "parts of speech." Take the word fish as an example: outside of any sentence, what "part" of speech is it? It could be a noun (give me that fish), an adjective (we're serving fish chowder) or a verb (I'm going to fish tomorrow). Without an actual use, it has no fixed part to play. We coin new words as nouns (photograph) and the next thing you know, they're verbs (I photographed my sister). Which is why linguists, unlike your sixth-grade English teacher, don't even bother using this model. They have another, much better one -- which we'll discuss next time.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shakespeare's Influence on English

To the generations immediately after his career, Shakespeare -- described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as possessing "small Latin and less Greek" -- was regarded as a sort of rustic, untutored, native genius. "Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's Child / Warbling his native Wood-notes Wild," wrote John Milton, and most readers of Shakespeare then would have agreed with the description. True, he had his sources -- Italian plays (but always cribbed via someone else's translation), Holinshead's Chronicles (the source for most the the history plays), and a ragtag of old tales and legends that would be known to any schoolchild -- but yet Shakespeare was an original in every sense.

Like Chaucer, he imported a tremendous number of new words into English, most often by picking them up from the streets of London, though also by compounding or shifting one part of speech into another. Among them are madcap, hobnob, gloomy, jaded, dauntless, amazement, savagery, birthplace, cold-blooded, knock-kneed, gnarled, and grovel -- over 1700 in all. And yet there was one thing Shakespeare almost certainly did not have -- a dictionary. English dictionaries were a newfangled thing in his day, and were not often employed, as they would be later, as reference books for daily use. Most were lists of "strange and curious" words, glossaries for use with older authors such as Chaucer, or compilations of words thought to be elegant and prestigious in form. Recently, a couple of fine fellows came upon the book known as the ALVEARIE -- a compilation of words as used in proverbial phrases in English, Latin, Greek, and French -- and ascribed its many annotations to Shakespeare, on the basis of the fact that many of these proverbial usages also appear in his plays. But this is backwards reasoning; the first question should be, how many words annotated in the book don't appear in Shakespeare? To add to that, the annotations are in an Italic hand, rather than the Elizabethan "Secretary" hand that was the only one we know Shakespeare to have used, and were made by someone familiar with French and Latin, which would exclude Shakespeare if Jonson is to be trusted.

One of the other aspects of Shakespeare's English that's less well-known is that his pronunciation was actually quite a bit more different from contemporary UK "received pronunciation" than one might think. The "r" after vowels was pronounced, but the vowels themselves were not at all "posh," but more like a rural northerly UK accent of today. Linguist David Crystal and his son Ben have a good deal of fun demonstrating why they're (with apologies to Naughty by Nature), "down with OP."

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Inkhorn Controversy

The "Inkhorn controversy" is the name generally given to the extended dispute, largely in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, over whether English should continue to add words from Latin and Greek -- regarded by their fans as ornaments, by their detractors as moldy old things that came from an "inkhorn" (a reservoir of ink made from bone and worn about the neck of lawyers and clerks) rather from what they regarded as the good, wholesome, Saxon-rooted world of "native" English words.

The difference can be seen at once in the texts on both sides of this question, as well as in the alternative words set forth by those who opposed such "Aureate" language. If they had had their way, then instead of "resurrection" we might have had "gainrising," "crossed" for "crucified," and "ground-wrought" for "founded." Indeed, in German we can see how many such compounds might sound; their word for television, fernsehen, would be in English a "Far-Seer"; their word for refrigerator, kühlschrank, would give us "Cold-Cupboard"; their word for odometer, entfernungsmesser, would come out as "Range blade." We do in fact have quite a few words made the old Saxon way: wayfarer, toolbox, sunscreen, or shoehorn for example -- but when it comes to technical, legal, and medical terms, Latin and Greek lead the way with thermometer, telephone, computer, seismograph, macrosomia, hydroencephaly, psychoanalysis, and cyberspace.

So it's noteworthy that the vast majority of words despised by the anti-Inkhorn crew are still with us, among them ability, atmosphere, autograph, anonymous. capsule, crisis, democracy, dedicate, dogma, emphasis, ostracize, and education (for ex-ductere, 'to lead forth) and thousands of others. The list of rejected terms is far shorter, and often we do in fact have a similarly-formed word:

adnichilate - we use 'annihilate' (to reduce to zero, or 'nihil')

anacephalize - to recapitulate (here Latin proved stronger than Greek)

expede - `to accomplish' (we still have its opposite, impede)

fatigate: to fatigue

obtestate - to bear witness, call upon as witness

suppeditate - `to supply', `furnish' (though we have kept supplement, both as verb and noun)

temulent - `drunk' (though we do have temerity)

unpossible - today we prefer 'impossible'

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chaucer and Middle English

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

And Chaucer's language is very close to ours -- close enough that, with a modest amount of practice, we can pronounce it and understand it reasonably well.  The main differences are that many combination of letters which are now silent, such as kn and gh, were pronounced, as was the e on the end of so many words which has since become our modern English friend "silent e." Lastly, the vowels of Chaucer's day were further back in the mouth, since the "Great Vowel Shift" which moved them forwards had not yet taken place.  Thus Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote" is pronounced as "Whahnn that ah-prill, weeth hees shooriss soat-uh" in our reconstructed Chaucerian mode.  

The other difference is mainly vocabulary -- "lexical" as linguists would say. Chaucer still used a number of words left over from older English; a "swevene" was a dream; "eke" meant "indeed" or "as well"; he used "lykned" instead of "likened," "hem" instead of "them" and "hire" instead of "their" there was no neuter possessive "its" so everything had to be "hys" or hers. Happily, there are many fewer such survivals in his verse than in that of the Gawain poet, who, living the north-west Midlands, was removed from many of the changes of London English and still used athele (noble), sithen (since), schawe (show), and lovelokkest (loveliest).

Chaucer was also on the forefront of many changes of which modern English has been the beneficiary; he introduced many words and usages from French, some in their Anglo-Norman senses, nearly all of which are still with us today: bachelor, melody, adversary, bounty, refute, vein, army, season, and devout. He borrowed a few Latin terms, though most often via their French versions, and his verse structures, such as "rhyme royal,"turned out to be particularly effective in English. 

And yet, despite his many achievements, subtle changes in English -- particularly the "Great Vowel Shift" and the falling silent of 'silent e' -- made Chaucer's verse seem less melodious and metrical to readers from Shakepeare to Dryden; it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that philologists were able to reconstruct Chaucer's diction and restore his original English to its proper form and meter.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Old English

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be"fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (military follower) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

As with modern English, there were several major dialects of Anglo-Saxon: Northumbrian in the North, Kentish in the East, Mercian in the midlands, and West Saxon in the West of England. The political center of the Saxons was in Winchester (Wintanceastre) in the West Saxon area, and thus its speech became the prestige dialect of the language; more than 90% of surviving Old English texts are in this dialect. Much has changed since then, but even to this day, if you look at the top decile of English (the top 10% of our most frequently-used words), nearly all of them are directly descended from closely similar Saxon antecedents: stone (stan); house (hus); was (wæs); say (secgan); father (fæder); and many more.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Introducing .... the International Phonetic Alphabet!

One of the things that makes English so distinct from most of the other languages on the planet is its unusually inconsistent and unpredictable spelling. Due to changes in the sounds of English over time, many letters once pronounced are now silent -- particularly our old friend "silent e." Add to that the fact that, as our vowel system changed, many words that use the same vowel are pronounced completely differently, and you have a pretty difficult spelling "system." The spelling reformer and playwright George Bernard Shaw (a lifelong advocate of spelling reform) is said to have jested at this by claiming that "fish" should be spelled "ghoti" -- since gh spells 'f' in "laugh," o is pronounced 'i' in "women," and ti spells 'sh' in "notion!

To save us from all this, and to enable us to understand English's changing sounds, the powers that be sent us the International Phonetic Alphabet. It may look a bit daunting, but it has the great advantage that, within it, one letter indicates one, and precisely one, sound, and is always consistent. We'll go over it in class with some care, and although at first it may seem daunting, it's fairly easy to get used to. Plus, you'll the advantage of being able to impress your friends at parties by saying things like" I really admire your labiodental fricatives"or "please pardon my voiceless glottal plosives!" Then again, be careful -- people might take it the wrong way.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Welcome to our class blog for English 433, Modern Grammar, Summer Session I, at Rhode Island College! This course, despite its official name, is not strictly speaking a course on grammar, though grammar will not be neglected.  What it really is is an introduction to issues in the study and teaching of the English language today, including (but not limited to) such matters as modern usage, the idea of the "standard," perceptions of "accent," the history of the language, and its inner mechanics. Throughout the course, by demonstrating that there is in fact a history to many aspects of our language -- particularly to the usage perceived as "correct" at different times and places -- we will be able to demystify some of its more arcane and troublesome features.  We will also pay special attention to current issues in the teaching of English, language development, and the ways in which new technologies of communication (satellite television, the Internet, texting) have affected patterns and perceptions about speech.

No previous experience with linguistics is needed!