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.

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