Why Grammar?

This is the first time I write here about linguistics. So far I have not considered myself qualified to say much about the topic, but finishing my third semester of undergraduate studies now, I feel I can start writing about it a little bit.

Language is all around us. It is everywhere, everyone uses it, and people are interested in languages wherever you go — people like languages. I get into spontaneous conversations about language with non-linguists several times a week. But when I tell people that I study linguistics, and moreover, that I’m into grammar theory, many are nearly shocked. “Grammar theory?! Why? Grammar is so boring!”. This post is an attempt to explain why, of all things, I love grammar.

First I will say a little about the traditional, or naive, view of grammar. The way I used to think of grammar, the way most people are probably used to thinking of grammar, is that grammar is something like religious dogma. There are do’s and don’ts, and their goal is to make your language usage correct and beautiful. It is commonly held that there is a right way to speak English (or German, or Hebrew, or Dutch, or Russian, etc.) and that there is a wrong way. Many are even convinced that without instruction in the correct rules of the grammar for their native language, speakers will talk and write the wrong way.

Another commonly held strange belief that confuses the matter is that every word has a certain meaning. So traditional grammars label, for example, the verb form write as “present tense”, and another form of that verb, wrote, gets the label “past tense.” Each correctly describes a typical way to use the form, but that description can’t explain all usage in any clear way. The naive language afficionado may then, as is Bill Bryson in his Mother Tongue (which I just read), be shocked to find that the innocent present-tense write is being used in such a patently past-tense sentence as “I used to write on my blog” (to use my own example). But grammar is a little bit more complicated than that.

Symbols, a system of symbols.

The way we look at language and grammar changed forever in the later part of the 19th century, when Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist (who incidentally got his PhD at the University of Leipzig, where I study), came upon an important realization. He realized that any symbol is made up of meaning on the one hand, and of form on the other hand; he realized that the connection between the two is purely arbitrary; he realized that language is a system of such arbitrary symbols.

This means that it is an arbitrary choice of English speakers to say “I used to write” and of Hebrew speakers to say ‘nahagti likhtov’, which means the same. It means we assign different sounds to express this thought simply because we are speaking different languages – there is no logical reason to say “to write” rather than Hebrew ‘likhtov’ or Spanish “escribir” or Russian ‘pisat’’. This is a little bit obvious on the one hand, especially if you speak more than one language. But it is startling, because we are used to thinking that words simply mean something. In truth, there is no connection between “tree” and the physical object that we refer to with the word; the word is just a short burst of sounds that we agree to use to communicate about our bark-covered, leafy friends.

These insights had impact in many fields of philosophy and social science in the decades that followed. A particularly big step was taken in the mid-1950’s by a young American linguist named Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argued – and still argues –

  • that language is a system,
  • that it is a system unique to human beings (other animals can’t produce language of the kind humans use, even with help),
  • that it is a system universal to all human beings (even the most isolated human cultures use language),
  • and that this system is an inborn feature of the human brain.

Chomsky has argued much more than just this, and has identified recursion as the key feature of human language that makes it so useful and fundamentally separates it from other animals’ communication – but I will spare you the details. The logic is solid, trust me. There has been an ongoing debate about some of the points above ever since Chomsky first began to publish, but I will spare you those details as well for now.

Generativist grammar theory.

Modern grammar theory is a direct result of Chomsky’s Generativistic approach, an approach which Chomsky has developed over the past half-century, publishing a new version of his theory every decade or so. Chomsky’s works have transformed all of linguistic theory, even amongst those who disagree with his hypotheses or his approach.

Chomsky and other generativists have demonstrated that every native speaker of a language has an internal grammar that allows them to instinctively know what is a possible sentence in their language and what is not, and to only speak or write in a way that fits this grammar. This means that a native speaker cannot use their language in a wrong way. To demonstrate, here is a grammatical English sentence:

(1) “I used to write on my blog, but now I rarely do”.

This is not a grammatical sentence of English:

(2) “I wroted on-blog-a-mine, now-but I not-much does“,

nor is this:

(3) “I on my blog to write used, but now do I rarely“,

and of course not this:

(4) “Kcha plip plip blugu, muppu muppu fla gen“.

There are, of course, different ways in English to express the thought behind sentence (1), such as this:

(5) “I don’t write on my blog as much as I used to”.

But for some reason, (2), (3) and (4) are not utterances that an English speaker would produce in place of (1) or (5). These example sentences would look very different in another language, but there would always be sentences that are part of the language and possible sentences that are not. Generative grammar theory tries to figure out how this works, how native speakers structure language.

Intention, meaning, form.

Another important realization that Chomsky has given us is that a grammatical form is not necessarily a meaningful form; not every grammatical sentence makes sense. Chomsky’s classic example is (6) “colorless green dreams sleep furiously.” There is no way to rule out the form of sentence (6), but there is also no reasonable way to interpret its meaning, except perhaps in the context of a highly surreal post-modern poem. A form can be permitted by the grammar without carrying coherent meaning; form and meaning are very separate things – continuing de Saussure’s line of thought.

One of the secret joys of linguistics is getting to spend time on this kind of absurd sentence, but it also illustrates a fascinating and important point: every speaker of a language has a formal grammar for that language – a system for producing grammatical utterances, forms that are permissible in the language – and this component is responsible for form alone. There is then another component of grammar that is in charge of making sense of things, which is different in every language as well.

For example, some say we must never use a double negative in English. Others say there ain’t nothing wrong with double negatives. In Russian, everyone agrees that they are mandatory – the sentence “I didn’t see anybody” is, if my Russian is to be trusted, ‘nikavo ne videl’, literally ‘[I] didn’t see nobody’. In fact, Russian has not only double but even triple negatives – the question ‘kto kavo videl?’, “who saw whom?”, can be answered nikto ne videl nikavo‘, literally “nobody didn’t see nobody”, meaning “nobody saw anybody”. In standard varieties of English the Russian pattern would have no meaning. Some would say Russian is just illogical, or perhaps that English is, but really they just have a different way of presenting the same meaning. In Russian you just negate everything in the sentence, whereas standard English uses one negative element (“nobody”) and then only uses “any“-items, which aren’t actually negative, but are mandatorily used together with negatives. These are simply different ways to give form to a particular meaning.

Coming back to our little verb write, let’s see how a grammar theorist would label these forms. write would be, for example, the bare verb form. In English this is usually used for the present tense (I write, you write, they write) but it is also used in the infinitive to write. There is a particular meaning of the verb use which lets us make a particular kind of past tense, which I would call past habituative: “I used to write”. It is created by taking the preterite (“simple past”) of use – used – and putting it together with an infinitive. Used to write, used to run, used to think – etc. A linguist would note that this is a perfectly normal way of using the bare form of an English verb.

It doesn’t make sense in a literal way – the sentence doesn’t mean I “used” anything – but it’s a form that English uses to express a certain meaning. The Modern Hebrew equivalent is created using the verb ‘linhog’, the most common meaning of which today is “to drive”, but which also means to “to be of the habit”. write is present-tense in some situations but not so much in other situations, just like use or ‘linhog’ have different uses. Forms cannot be so simply labeled by meaning; the link between form and function is not as simple as we may have liked it to be.

To complicate things, logicians and semanticists, who study the meaning of words and sentences, have also made the distinction between meaning and intention, both of which are involved in the semantic content of language. “You will give me back my book” and “give back my book!” have the same basic meaning, but they express a different intention, and get a different grammatical form. In spoken Modern Hebrew the only difference between the two would be the intonation — in both cases the sentence is ‘takhzir li et hasefer sheli’.

Strange languages. Remarkable things.

It is remarkable that form is sometimes so independent from meaning and intention, and that meaning and intention sometimes have such an effect on form. But what is truly fascinating to me is that the way these levels of meaning and form are related to each other is in each language systematic. The way form and meaning are constructed, and the way they are related, are systematic, and it seems they are all fundamentally based on the same principles. Even the differences between languages appear to be systematic, although the system is not clear yet. Still, without being entirely sure exactly what the “building blocks of grammar” are, we are able to easily compare between languages as different as English and Dyirbal. (The former is a very strange language originating on an island off the northwest of Europe but spoken by over 1½ billion people spread around the world. The latter is a very strange language of aboriginal Australia spoken by only a handful of people.)

Modern linguistics, or more particularly language typology, has managed to refine the way we look at languages and compare them, such that from just a few words describing the features of a language, a linguist can get an idea of how that language works without ever having heard a word of it. We can compare and summarize how languages deal with different things, such as marking tense on verbs or negating a proposition, even though they choose very different forms to express them.

Grammar theory is about figuring out how this works, what the underlying system is which gives rise to languages that are so different yet so similar. We are figuring out not only what differences there are, but also why and how they arise. We are working towards a theory of grammar that hopefully will one day be able to capture how any given language in the world separates the grammatical forms from the ungrammatical. On the way, we get to see how people say things in all kinds of different languages (there are over 6,000 languages spoken worldwide!), we get to argue and hypothesize, we get to play around with funny example sentences, and we get to write about it. I can’t imagine anything much better than that.

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