Sunday, 7 March 2021

What is Grammar?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Grammar, say some, is about a grammar gene
—or we use grammar, say others, to hold sentences together—or, its purpose is to improve our clarity of communication—or any of the many things which have been suggested in the course of time. 
I propose that grammar is, fundamentally, about two basic categories which we find in philosophy, namely things and relations. Or rather, it is about the way that we repeat these things and relations, as we communicate.

Things which are oft repeated are best automated for efficiency. We may think of the manufacturing process. One may punch a hole by hand, and another, and another—yet as soon as one needs thousands of holes, one creates a mechanism by which one can repeat the action more efficiently. One transfers individual acts to a machine. 

In language, we do much the same. A most basic example is the noun and the verb. John Herschel included among the laws of nature correlations of properties on the one hand, and sequences of events on the other. More recently, Albert Einstein described our world as a space-time continuum: space in three dimensions, and time in a fourth. We may expect, therefore, that this distinction will be much repeated in language—so much so, that we automate its use, as it were. 

This is indeed what we find, with nouns typically referring to things in space, and verbs typically tracing relations through time. A garden is a thing in space, while to garden is a process in time. Instead of spelling out the difference every time—say, speaking of a garden-thing and a garden-action (and so on)—we incorporate the distinction in grammar. While it would be an over-simplification to suggest that we may apply such a scheme in every case, we may broadly understand our parts of speech in such terms.

Now within the two categories of noun and verb, some relations are oft repeated. For instance, nouns frequently have to do with possession (the genitive case), while verbs frequently refer to the past (the past tense), to give but two examples among many. Such conceptual emphases, amplified through heavy use, are automated for convenience—we may say they are compressed—into tables we call declensions and conjugations and, one may add, inflections and derivations. 

Different cultures repeat different kinds of things and relations more frequently in their speech. Therefore grammars will differ from culture to culture, because different grammars reflect different cultural traits. In English, for example, one finds the future tense, where in Japanese one does not. In Japanese, one finds the honorific case, where in English one does not. Such emphases typically correlate with features one finds in the culture.

Further, because we are dealing with compressive techniques, one finds inconsistencies of compression in language—for instance, irregular nouns and verbs, and unproductive patterns. In fact, such inconsistencies may aid compression—as we know well from computer programming.

This further has a bearing on the long-standing question whether a common structure lies beneath all grammars—so puzzling in their diversity. The philosopher Max Black noted, ‘There is extreme variability between grammars.’ In fact, ‘Grammar has no essence.’ This should in fact be the case where grammars are not embedded in our DNA, but are manifestations of how we trace relations between things in this world.

Such a view of grammar suggests that the structure of grammar will indeed vary—insofar as the relations which we trace between things—again, the things and relations which we often repeat—vary. By and large, therefore, we shall not find a common underlying structure. Grammar is not ingrained in us or in our language. It is about tracing relations between things—fairly arbitrarily, we might add.

What then is grammar?  Grammar is completely a manifestation of—an expression of—things and the relations between them. More than that, it is about the various emphases which we place on things and the relations between them—as we see it in this moment in time, in this place, in this culture, in this atmosphere in which we live today. 


Keith said...

‘Nouns typically [refer] to things in space, and verbs typically [trace] relations through time. A garden is a thing in space, while to garden is a process in time’.

To my mind, Thomas, these statements imply that the three dimensions of space and the one of time are separable. But are they? I suspect not. It’s not that the four dimensions can be pulled apart, like strings of otherwise entwined toffee; rather, I suggest they’re inseparable.

So, for example, to borrow your terms, although the noun ‘a garden’ is in space, it’s also inextricably entangled with time. By that I mean ‘a garden’ naturally and irresistibly changes in the course of time. ‘Change’ is what’s important here. As a case in point, entropy (heading more and more in the direction of net disorder, as the entire universe does) is one science-explained reason for time-related change. The one-way arrow of (net) entropy.

More prosaically, let’s consider that those time-associated changes might be at the hand of a person tending to the garden — pulling out (verb) the radishes and planting (verb) carrots. Or, instead, time-associated changes simply occur as a matter of, say, the natural effects of worms, of weather, of seasons, of decomposition, of weeds, of rain … and so forth.

The list of ordinary, everyday changes to the garden — especially along the lines of the natural changes I mention in the preceding paragraph — are conceivably unending. Whereby the natural, moment-by-moment dynamic of change occurs inseparably in all four dimensions, not just the three of space and not just the one of time.

I propose that’s the case with both ‘a garden’ (noun) and ‘to garden’ (verb). That is, that ‘a garden’ and ‘to garden’ exist inseparably in all four dimensions, simultaneously. Well, at least that’s my take.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I agree with your perspective, as counter-intuitive as it might seem. In an earlier piece for Pi, I wrote that 'the dichotomy is artificial and false'. However, it is core to the way that we perceive the world. And the ways in which we perceive the world again and again and again are those which enter into our grammars.

docmartincohen said...

Yes, it's a bit of a lecture this week isn' it, Sir!

However, surely our blogger is pointing at a classic philosophical / sociological debate, that of linguistic relativity as developed in the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Who claimed that upon studying the Hopi language, he found that they had no words that referred to time and that, because they did not have any way to refer to it, Hopi speakers experienced time differently. Whorf wrote:

“In this Hopi view, time disappears and space is altered, so that it is no longer the homogenous and instantaneous timeless space of our supposed intuitions or of classical Newtonian mechanics. At the same time, new concepts and abstractions flow into the picture, taking up the task of describing the universe without reference to such time or space - abstractions for which our language lacks adequate terms.”

Thomas Scarborough said...

I am in fact saying the very reverse of what Sapir and Whorf say. They held that linguistic categories determine (the strong version) or influence (the weak version) perception. I am saying that perception determines of influences linguistic categories -- in this case grammar.

I further propose that grammars represent a compressive technique, which is driven by those aspects of language which we repeat, based on our particular culture and situation. I think this is a theory which works, and could overturn alternative theories, such as generative grammar.

Emile said...

And are the rules golf grammar flexible - or just the definitions and constructs of words? Ought we to be appalled that ‘gonna’ and ‘irreguardless’ are now acceptable constructs - or do we celebrate it? Are grammars meant to be dynamic like dictionaries or static constitutions?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Emile. Since grammar, in my view, represents a compressive technique, which is driven by those aspects of language which we repeat, based on our particular culture and situation, grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is a living thing, although it may lag behind cultural shifts.

Interestingly, my wife speaks 'an English' called CFE, which comes complete with distinctive grammar. To make it more interesting, it contains traces of Shakepearean English, such as the unstressed do: 'I do-think ...' It receives honourable mention in the book, 'EISH but is it English?' To some it sounds all wrong, yet it is consistent.

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