Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Province of the Grammarian

I received a very old book in the mail today: The Elements of Grammar; So Arranged as to Combine the Analytical and Synthetical Methods: With an Introduction for Beginners, and Various Exercises, Oral and Written, for the Formation, Analysis, Transformation, Classification, and Correction of Sentences. by Samuel S. Greene, A.M. Philadelphia: H. Cowperthwaite & Co., 1855. The Preface points out that the introductory lessons are "intended to be wholly oral," and are aimed at younger learners. The beginning of the second part - "English Grammar" - has this to say:
Grammar is not a code of laws made for the language, but rather derived from the language in its present state. It is the province of the grammarian to interpret and classify the analogies and usage of the language so as to present them in a condensed and systematic view. Over the laws of the language he has no control, or rather, he has the same kind of control that the naturalist has over the laws of the physical world, and no other. He does not make the rules of grammar; he only exhibits what already exists. That the "verb agrees with its nominitive in number and person," is not an authoritative edict from the grammarian. It existed as a law of language long before he discovered and published it....

What I find most interesting is the phrase "the language in its present state." If a grammarian is merely an interpreter of rules as they exist, what happens when there is a change in the language? Who gets to say that the change has become a rule? How long does something in common usage have to be "wrong" before it is considered "right?" When does something stop sounding (or looking) ignorant before it's considered okay because everyone does it? I don't know the answers to these questions, although I suspect it has something to do with the people who care dying off before educating the younger generations.


Blogger chefpierre said...

Someone said, "discourse."

11:27 PM  
Blogger Thomas McAllister said...

Greene's view seems to reflect a typical descriptivist perspective, which looks at the way language is, without giving its users any direction or principled advice. What would people say if a basketball coach, based on the justification that most people can't handle a basketball very well, told his/her players to emulate the proverbial Man on the Street, rather than, say, Michael Jordan? Why should grammarians/language teachers be expected to operate based on this insane model?

5:51 PM  
Blogger alienvoord said...

From Ronald Wardhaugh's "Proper English":

Whatever a grammar of a language is, it is largely impervious to human intervention. That is, the really interesting rules and principles are so basic that we cannot do anything at all about them. What we can do is try to influence some of the minor outcomes, for example, try to insist that people say I drank instead of I drunk or It's I instead of It's me. Essentialy that is tinkering with matters of no linguistic consequence. To elevate the study of grammar to the task of trying to bring about "correction" in such matters is to trivialize that study. These matters may be of social consequence and often are, but that is a social observation and not a linguistic one, because I drunk and It's me are linguistically on a par with I drank and It's I. Furthermore, it is an observation that tells us much about social organization and the function of trivia in such organization and nothing about the structure of language.

2:32 PM  

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