Why grammar?

In reviewing the short stories entered in our Anderson Park Short Story Contest, I have noticed that the writers’ treatment of grammar is pretty loose. It’s often hard, for example, to figure out who is speaking because dialogue is thrown together into one paragraph. And the possessive is juggled around, their becomes there, the man’s house is the mans house. So I have fished out a posting on grammar from a blog I maintained for years, Linguisticsintheclassroom, which had followers all over the world, but which I discontinued when I started this blog.

Can’t hurt to revisit the purpose of grammar, so here goes.

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Wittgenstein nailed it, …the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of language. In other words, a thought in your own head has no power. In order to connect it to the world around you, it must be presented in a form others can understand, and that is why we need grammar. Grammar is a mental machine which takes our thoughts and makes them comprehensible to others.

Thoughts are made up of emotions, reactions, fears, anticipations, sensual pleasures, predictions, will, history, intuition, and a lot more.  Grammar is an arbitrarily created mechanism for organizing these various ingredients into a regularized system which can be accessed by anyone who knows how this mechanism works. The ingredients of all languages are the same (nouns, verbs, adjectives, exclamations, tones, dynamics, sounds, and so on) but they are packaged differently in each linguistic group.

Humans have wrought clever variations. To create the plural, for example, English uses an “s” on the end of words, Italian an “i” or an “e,” Greek an “a” or “oi,” Hebrew an “im,” and some languages say “book-book” to indicate two books.  Slavic speakers don’t use the articles “the” and “a[n]”, even after they learn English. My Ukranian doctor says, “I will bring you book.”

Spanish uses the reflexive frequently: Se va al Mercado? might be transliterated as Is one going to the market? but in English we say, Are you going to the market?

Some languages, like Irish, put the verb before the subject” D’imigh na fir is literally, Left the men,” but in English we would say, The men left.

Chinese is a maze of building blocks which are sometimes interchangeable as to position:  If Zhangsan yiwei Lisi mai-le shenme were transliterated it would say Zhangsan think Lisi bought what and in English would be What does Zhangsan think Lisi bought?

Even a closely related language like French is surprisingly eccentric when translated literally. Je ne l’ai pas vu is literally I not him have not seen and if the gender of the object  (what? A table is feminine?) is deemed feminine in French you add an “e” onto the verb, Je ne l’ai pas vue.”  (Confused yet?)

English has twisted itself around grammatically since the time of Beowulf, and we are still transforming. One example of language change is the now-common format, Me and Mary are going to the mall. English is a linear language and speakers assume that the first word in a sentence is the subject, so the meaning is clear even if we don’t expect “me” in that position.  Freshman college students in my writing classes frequently say this speaking, though not so much when writing.

If the goal of good grammar is perfect understanding, then Me and Mary went to the mall is acceptable. The problem lies in the aesthetics, how it sounds, and aesthetics are subjective. When the rest of us are dead, god knows what the young people will do. Imagine the many generations of grandparents and parents from Shakespeare’s day who turned over in their graves when they heard the made-up words and creative constructions of his plays. We barely understand the language of Shakespeare, and we wouldn’t understand Shakespeare’s grandmother at all.

When Israel chose Hebrew as its language, they had to reinvent it. They established an Academy to supervise its resurrection; the academicians mulled over each new word and form and made their pronouncements, as requested. But the schools were full of students speaking dozens of native languages, and they didn’t have time to wait for the Academy to tell them how to say modern words like “jungle jim” or “jet plane,” so they figured it out on their own. An isolated group of deaf people in Central America developed its own version of sign language without instruction; they had to construct a mutually understood format, called grammar, in order to survive.

Personally, I don’t get too hung up on “Me and Mary went to the mall,” though it doesn’t sound right, but I put on the brakes when grammatical creativity precludes my understanding what the author is saying. I demand “harmony between thought and reality.”