Friday, 14 August 2015


Traditional grammar / Traditional grammarian

Traditional grammars are largely remembered for their fundamental conceptions about the nature of language. They relate to quite basic issues about language. And they fall under three essential categories:
    1. The written language was more fundamental than the spoken
    2. A particular form of the written language, namely the literary language, was inherently
        purer and more correct than all other forms of the language, written or spoken.
    3. It was the task of the grammarian to preserve this form of the language from corruption. As a consequence, they prescribe rather than describe.

Traditional grammars fail to recognise the spoken and written forms of a language as different modes, displaying very different patterns of grammar and vocabulary and the illogicality of applying rules to one that are made for the other. For instance, rules instruct us to say ‘shall’ after ‘I’ and not ‘will’; in speech, however, ‘I’ll’ is most common. Besides, we begin to speak before we write. Most of us speak far more than we write in everyday life. All natural languages were spoken before they were written, and there are many languages in the world today which have never been written down. To base one’s statements about language on writing rather than speech is therefore a reversal of linguistic priorities.

Related to this is the point that in most traditional grammars the material presented does not even cover the whole range of the language’s written forms, but is restricted to specific kinds of writing—the more formal styles, in particular. Anything informal tends to be religiously avoided or if included is castigated as ‘slang’ and labelled as ‘bad grammar’; though very often the informality is in regular and widespread use by educated people. For example, it is not a question of ‘whom’ being correct usage and ‘who’ being incorrect. It would be inappropriate to introduce formality in an informal conversation, as it would be to introduce informality in an official occasion. ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ fails to take the formality difference into account. Besides, we tend to get a distorted view of the proportions and function of language forms that the language described in grammar books is normal general usage. In language description, absolute standards rarely exist.

Traditional grammarians turned to the ‘usage’ of the ‘best’ authors. Early dictionaries did this also, including only those words which had been used by a reputable author. Most of the quotations illustrating grammatical rules in even fairly modern grammatical handbooks are taken from novelists or non-fiction writers. Clearly, the result of applying such standard is to produce a description of a very restricted, specialised literary English.

Traditional grammar described English on the basis of another language—Latin. We find rules about English which tell us to say “it is I’ instead of ‘it’s me’. English has only two noun cases. To think it has five or six is an obvious example of Latin interfering with the description of the English language. Gender is assumed to be a characteristic of all languages because of Latin and is therefore assumed to be a category of English. But English has no gender. Pairs of words such as  brother/sister, bull/cow refer to ‘male’ and ‘female’ and are hence lexical; the suffix ‘ess’ is also a lexical feature—a matter of derivation, not of grammatical gender. Traditional grammar says English has three tenses but in actuality only two—the past and the present—are there. The paradigm ‘I shall’, ‘you will’, ‘he will’ is purely a grammarian’s invention. Careful investigation has shown that there is no evidence for the use of ‘I shall’, ‘we shall’ as regular forms.

Traditional grammars are guilty of semantic fallacy. Traditionally an interrogative sentence is one that asks a question. But the interrogative sentence:
                     Would you mind closing the window?
is not really a question but a request. The sentence:
                      you’re working at IIT?
is a declarative, though an echo question. If we go by the description ‘A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing’, words like ‘red’ ‘blue’ should be nouns because they are names of colours. If verbs are ‘doing words’, then what about words like ‘seem’ and ‘be’ which are definitely verbs but which do nothing?

Word is said to be a linguistic unit that has a single meaning. The difficulty is, of course, in deciding what is meant by ‘single meaning’. If ‘dance’ has a single meaning, then ‘dancer’ has more because it means ‘one who dances’, ‘look down upon’ cannot be divided into three meaning units but have a single meaning of ‘have a low opinion of’ and word division does not appear to correspond to meaning division. For instance, a ‘criminal lawyer’ is not both ‘criminal’ and ‘lawyer’. The sentence is, it’s said, the expression of a complete thought. How do we know what a complete thought is? Aren’t ‘carrot’ and ‘woman’, for instance, complete thoughts? Does the sentence ‘My wife read while I watched TV’ contain one complete thought or two?

That the traditional grammars mix up different criteria is evident in the definitions of parts of speech. If the definition of ‘noun’ is based on meaning, the definition of adjective is based on function. Besides, is ‘college’ in ‘college girl’ a noun or an adjective?

Latin was not the only authority these grammarians turned to when wondering about what to do about English grammar. They used logic to explain or condemn a usage. Logically, two negatives may make a positive: I’m not unhappy, which is almost synonymous to ‘I’m happy’. But two negatives can also make a more emphatic negative as in ‘I’ve not done nothing’. Taboos on common usage like ‘more perfect’, ‘rounder’ are examples of logical fallacy. ‘I didn’t like nobody’ may not be ‘good’ English but no rules are broken because this structure is common in an English dialect. Logic was invoked to say ‘He’s taller than I’ is right because ‘than’ was a conjunction and so required ‘I’. But this argument fails if we insist that ‘than’ is a preposition, too and so requires ‘me’. Traditional grammar would not consider logical sentences like ‘If everybody minded their business...’ because ‘everybody’ couldn’t be referred to by ‘their’. But ‘their’ functions not only as the plural possessive but also as a singular possessive when sex is unknown.

To sum up, the ‘traditional’ attitude to language was ‘prescriptive’ Traditional grammarians  didn’t try to describe the language as it functioned since they believed that the language of the past and the language of literary writers was the best and everything else was corrupt. Thus they ignored two realities—history and language variations. No wonder then if they made rules about how language OUGHT to be used in conformity with their standard.


However, there’s no gainsaying the fact that traditional grammar did provide us with a beginning in language analysis.