The History of Grammar
What is Grammar?
The grammar of a language is about the way that language is structured, how the words are constructed and the way they are related to each other in a sentence. A book about grammar is also known as a grammar.
Of course, historically, early ways of communicating developed well before there was any thought about the structure of a language, but since the earliest beginnings of an interest in grammar, its understanding has been influenced by people interested in both language and philosophy. Definitions and attitudes to grammar and language in general have changed over the centuries.
As this article is biased towards English grammar, it is interesting to look briefly at the historical development of the study of grammar in European countries from early times, touching on Transformational Grammar, Universal Grammar that is forever linked with the name of Noam Chomsky, and the attitude of grammarians today.
Traditional Type Grammars
As early as the fifth century BC, a grammar was developed in Sanskrit, but what has become known as Traditional Grammar was conceived by the early Greeks and they also were the first to establish an alphabetic writing system. This innovation led to the beginning of literary writings as we know them, and from these the need for a grammar developed so that people could better understand and appreciate what was written. By the first century BC, the Greek, Dionysius Thrax, had defined grammar as something that permits a person to either speak a language or to speak about that language and how its components relate to each other.
Latin grammars emerged a little later and mostly relied on Greek grammar as a basis. Considerably later than that, almost two thousand years after Thrax, our English grammars evolved from the Latin. The use of Latin grammar as a basis for English grammar led to an emphasis being laid on a prescriptive type of grammar.
In these Traditional Types of grammars rules were laid down for the formulation of what was seen by grammarians and linguists as principles for the correct usage of the language, rather than the grammar being a description of the actual way in which the language was being used.
Universal Grammar and Chomsky
When more movement between countries began, and especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, missionaries began to learn to communicate in languages that were quite different from Greek and Latin. In an effort to translate the Bible as accurately as possible into these languages, it was found that a view of traditional grammars was really inadequate as they could not be easily applied to many of these languages.
A huge change came about in the 1950s with some new theories about grammar. These are usually credited to Noam Chomsky, although centuries before, Roger Bacon had suggested some of these ideas about a Universal Grammar. Chomsky proposed that the ability to learn grammar was 'hard-wired' in the brain, known as Language Acquisition Device (LAD); it did not need to be taught; further, that all human languages share a common structural basis and that there is a limited set of rules for organizing language. That is, that our ability to learn language is already in our genes and as a child grows it learns to process the data that it hears.
Universal Grammar is actually far more complicated than this in the proposals it makes and in recent years the theory has received considerable criticism.
Grammarians and Linguists
Human languages that are being used now are known as 'living languages' and like most living organisms a living language is subject to change over time. This happens with the grammar of a language as well; it changes over time. Think of how we use English now in many different countries and how it has evolved differently in those countries, or of how we use written English now as compared with Chaucer's use of English.
Linguists study a language as a system of human communication and this has developed into a wide field with a number of different methods of approach, such as the sounds, known as phonology, the structure of a language, the syntax, and the meanings, or semantics, and many other categories. In recent years the study of linguistics has expanded greatly to include areas such as anthropology, psychology and sociology. This is very useful, especially when working with a second or other language.
As we have seen, Grammarians are concerned with the structure of a language and the way that words and phrases are combined to produce sentences. Most teachers of English to children find that there is still a place in the classroom for what was known as prescriptive grammar. Children are not so 'hard-wired' that they get everything grammatically correct effortlessly and without learning.
Linguistic aberrations may be interesting for linguists but for children growing up, the learning of grammar continues to be important. It can be difficult to change if mistakes have been practised for years and this can be a real problem when, as adults, their work demands that they speak and write in what is perceived as 'acceptable' grammar.
A brief understanding of the differences between the study of linguistics and the study of grammar and its history can be helpful.
- Grammar and Structural Analysis
Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
- Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar
Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics and Chomsky himself is seen.
Questions & Answers
Is an historian correct?
Yes. When the 'h' sound is pronounced at the beginning of a word, the article 'an' is usually used before it, especially when the first syllable is unstressed; 'an' is also used before a word that begins with an 'h' that is not pronounced, such as in 'an hour'.
© 2012 Bronwen Scott-Branagan