The History of Grammar

Updated on November 29, 2016
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Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

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.

Buki Tabu: The Holy Bible in one of the many languages of PNG. In translation work an understanding of the grammar of a language is essential.
Buki Tabu: The Holy Bible in one of the many languages of PNG. In translation work an understanding of the grammar of a language is essential. | Source

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Bronwen Scott-Branagan

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      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        epigramman: Thank you for your lovely, affirming comments - and your warm wishes. I could wish for more energy! I guess it's part of growing older.

      • epigramman profile image

        epigramman 

        6 years ago

        ....so this is where we all come from - thank you for the origins, the history and this overview is full of scholarly detail and a writer's fine passion which of course belongs to you. Sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 3:28pm

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        alancaster149: Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        A sound, technical appraisal of how language is organised, well-written and thought out.

        Like it!

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        swb76: Thank you for your positive comments. If you have an aim to go on with study sometime in the future, I can recommend it. I waited until our children were 'off our hands' (if they ever are!), before going back to University. It was a bit of a shock to begin with, but the rewards are great and it's worth persevering. God bless you, too.

      • swb78 profile image

        Scott Biddulph 

        6 years ago from Gainesville Georgia

        As an English major myself, I love the study of grammar: however, I am only a novice hoping to attain a higher learning someday. I loved this Hub--I found it very interesting and useful. God bless. WP

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        huckelbury: Thanks for the comments and the interesting side note. I'm very glad, too, ours can be bad enough for newcomers, but those declensions!

      • profile image

        huckelbury 

        6 years ago

        As an old English major, I have always been fascinated by language, both in prescriptive and descriptive terms. This is an excellent primer, especially on the Greek and Latin origins of our grammar. An interesting side note: after the Dorian invasion, the Greeks were illiterate until their recovery, based primarily on the Phoenician alphabet. I don't know about you, but I'm still thankful that we escaped our Germanic roots and Latin and Greek history with respect to the declension of nouns! Thanks for a stroll down memory lane. Voted up.

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        eHealer: Thank you for your interesting comments. Language and the way we learn and use it is fascinating. I have come across that statement about children, but I'm not sure it is true either, as there would be very few children in the world who would survive to the age of 12 without contact with other humans, although children of deaf parents may have limited spoken communication skills. I do know from experience that as one ages it is much more difficult to learn a language!

        Deborah Brooks: That is so sweet! Thank you so much and God bless you.

      • Deborah Brooks profile image

        Deborah Brooks Langford 

        6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

        Blossom. wow. thank you. what s great hub..I wish I had you for my English teacher . I learn so much D

        from you . blessing . Debbie

      • eHealer profile image

        Deborah 

        6 years ago from Las Vegas

        Great hub Blossom, I have read about Noam Chomsky's "hard-wired" for language. But adversely, it seems we only have a short window to learn it up until the age of 12. Feral children have been studied and have never mastered language if they were not taught it before that age. Supposedly... Great hub! I really love history and actually love language. Thanks for a great read.

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        stars439: How lovely! You say the nicest things. Actually, I've read quite a few of your hubs by now and they're usually not bad grammatically. After all, it's communication that is important and you speak from the heart. There is learning for information and also learning in the school of life and that is what God teaches us - real education and real knowledge. God bless you and your family.

      • stars439 profile image

        stars439 

        6 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

        Thank you for this English knowledge. English seems to be such a well thought out language, and it is obvious you know a lot about it as a teacher. My sister-in-law is very educated as well in English. I think she received a Masters Degree, and more on it. One of my best friends that I grew up with has a Masters in English too. I wish it all could have rubbed off on me because I am gramatically flawed big time, but I always learn a thing , or two yet. Great hub here. GBY, and we cherish you.

      • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

        6 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        Frank Atanacio: Lovely! LOL Thank you for your comments. Note for teacher after writing out 20 times: 'I have gone home.': 'Dear Teacher 'I have rit it out 20 times and now I have went home.' (One of my Mother's treasures - she was a teacher, too).

        Lipnancy: It is a fascinating subject and seems to grow and grow, there is so much to learn.

        teaches12345: Origins are often interesting and we don't always think about how things started because they keep mushrooming. Thank you for your comments and great ideas.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        6 years ago

        Interesting to read this history of grammar. I never thought of where the origins began. I have always loved English and this is a lesson that I believe should be included at the start of every high school class.

      • Lipnancy profile image

        Nancy Yager 

        6 years ago from Hamburg, New York

        Linguistics have always fascinated me. In college we explored language and how popular phrases can at times actually hurt or slowdown human development. Very interesting subject.

      • Frank Atanacio profile image

        Frank Atanacio 

        6 years ago from Shelton

        well blossoms thank you for this history of grammer.. ain't it cool that we learnt to use grammer the way we's suppose to.. I mean I ain't had nough school learnin, but I dids alrite.. LOL kidding no, but really thanks for this hub bless you :) Frank

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