What can the grammar tell you about you?
Grammar comes from people. And it in turn influences people and language today. Here’s how.
We rarely question certain rules and standards. They come from so far back, that there doesn’t seem to be much to put into questioning. Like why do we have official or unofficial languages? Where the border of each country is set. The way constitutions are written. The math we learn at school. And amongst these: grammar.
What is grammar? Is it universal? Why is it important? And what can it tell you about you? There are differences in grammar-writing traditions. In the history of India, Europe, China, and how the structures of Sanskrit, Latin, and Old Chinese influence language today. And as language professionals, we know and cherish that.
Grammar denotes the rules of a language. It governs the sounds, words, sentences, and other elements, as well as their combination and interpretation. It can be defined as the whole system and structure of a language, including syntax, morphology, and sometimes phonology and semantics too.
What we usually understand as grammar is how to get a correct sentence.
For Pāṇini, a Sanskrit philologist, grammarian, and revered scholar in ancient India, “a proper sentence has a single purpose and is formed from a group of words such that, on analysis, the separate words are found to be mutually expecting each other”. To the point where he accepts that a sentence can be grammatically correct even if it is semantically inappropriate.
Now, Malinowsky, a Polish-British anthropologist, claimed “words in their first and essential sense do, act, produce and realize.” And that once someone speaks to you, you find yourself in a given context, time, and place where you are not free to reply anything. You are playing by implicit rules.
This is where it gets interesting: in conversation. What language is and how it works.
Let’s rewind a few centuries. To the ancient and medieval grammars.
In Europe, the Greeks were the first to incorporate it as a tool to study literature. With that in mind, the focus was set on preserving language and its purity with a literary perspective.
But already during the mid-13th to14th, when the philosophical question of language as a reflection of reality was the star of the stage, philosophy turned to grammar for these answers. A “universal” grammar was sought, one that could explain the nature of being.
This quest also split into two teams: those who studied this first literary language, and those who studied the actual speech of living languages. That’s how in modern times, they did not limit their inquiry to literary languages but included dialects and contemporary spoken languages. Both the development and particular states were taken into account.
Do we need to study grammar to learn a language? The short answer is “no”. Children speak without studying. Languages are born and not carved in stone. Writing came so many years late, and its specifics, or the lack of them, didn’t stop the world from rotating. You probably don’t remember what you studied in school.
But, when you understand the system of a language, (which is always there) you can understand many things about yourself.
For example, the European grammatical tradition, as we mentioned, is based on Latin and Greek. Latin and Greek are languages where you do a lot of changing the endings on words to make them do grammatical things. This makes it a little bit confusing when you apply it to a language like English, which doesn’t have the same ending changes but has kept them the same label traditions.
Meanwhile, the grammar of Chinese is different. They don’t do endings. The Chinese grammarians were interested in the duality between words. They created two categories of what is known as “full words,” and words that were only for their grammatical function called, “empty words.”
Sanskrit, the ancient language in Hinduism, is derived from the conjoining of the prefix ‘Sam’ meaning ‘samyak’ which indicates ‘entirely’, and ‘krit’ that indicates ‘done’. It indicates an extraordinarily complex language with vocabulary and symbolism. The language is so vast that it has more than 250 words to describe rainfall, 67 words to describe water, and 65 words to describe the earth, among other descriptions.
This shift of perspective has an impact on “reality”. In the same way, our thoughts can be considered to be influenced by the language we think of them in.
It’s funny how grammar can help understand other moments in time. A word may be written the same over time but pronounced differently. In this sense, you could read an ancient poem and believe it doesn’t rhyme. But it did back in the day. If you read Shakespeare “thrown” and “drown” used to rhyme and today it just feels off.
In China, with the implementation and standardization of, let’s say, a thesaurus, an idea of a standard spoken language for a whole country was born. That’s a modern innovation.
So, what does having “good grammar” mean? It means being able to manage a proper use of commas, subject-verb agreement (in number and gender). Pronoun and antecedent agreement, and clarity on who or what they are replacing. Being able to understand and make use of homophones, and more.
But, more importantly, in the words of TES Teacher David Crystal: “Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language. It can help foster precision, detect ambiguity, and exploit the richness of expression available in English.”
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