June 14, 2008 | Graham

Grammar’s taught to grammarians

Baden Eunson from Melbourne Uni decries the “fallacy” that children “learn grammar by osmosis”, and it needs to be taught. I agree with him to some extent, but after reading Nicholas Ostler’s “biography” of Latin Ad Infinitum, I’m not so sure that it’s such a big deal.
The Romans, driven I suspect by their infatuation with standardisation (which palls in comparison to ours, but they caught the disease first), invented grammar. It didn’t exist before them, people just spoke languages. English grammar was invented because without a grammar it was an “inferior” language. And as Latin was by this time seen as some sort of Platonic form amongst languages, English grammar was made to conform to Latin in areas where it didn’t. So was born the ban on split infinitives and the insistance that two negatives made a positive, even in circumstances where two negatives used to mean something like “double plus bad”. If that’s the way that Latin did it, then that’s the way a language with pretensions must.
When you think about it, there are probably more languages in the world without formally taught grammars than there are ones with, but how many speakers of these languages complain, or have trouble learning their languages without it?
On the one hand this leads to questions about whether grammar is innate to language, or hard-wired into the brain. On the other it leads to a recognition that language is like an organism and it just grows. There are some standard types which appear to exist, and they flourish in all different varieties. If you hold language in the light the second way, then grammar is like Linnaeus’ system of classification. It’s post hoc, rather than pre hoc. (Isn’t Latin useful when you want to sound wiser than you are?)
In the history of the world hardly anyone’s learnt language through grammar, they’ve generally learnt grammar through language. Is that what Eunson means by osmosis? Should he have a problem with it? Is there really a standard way to speak English, or a number of standard ways, varying over time and geography? And if so, what is grammar but an attempt to impose one set of preferences on all, just because they happen to be the set of prejudices to which the particular grammarian subscribes?

Posted by Graham at 5:44 am | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Education


  1. Whoops, it might have been Sanskrit where grammar was first described, and Greek proceeded Latin. Should have read Ostler more closely. You can see a nit-picking criticism of this blog post at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=241 by Mark Liberman.
    The habitues of this blog appear to be linguists and they’re worried about a comma splice, and my use of “pall” rather than “pale”, but the point of the piece appears to elude them.

    Comment by Graham Young — June 15, 2008 @ 6:56 pm

  2. My experience of teaching first-year students is that those who are readers can write. I don’t know the rules of grammer but I can tell if a sentence sounds right because I read. When we hear a sentence we don’t analyse the meaning of each word.

    Comment by Geoff Robinson — June 16, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  3. Well said Graham, and a very sensible observation from Geoff Robinson.
    The main function of language is communication and the kids of today are the greatest communicators in human history. It’s more than a parent’s life is worth to try and stop them from communicating. Even if the do communic8.

    Comment by Lyn — June 16, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  4. The fallacy is that the nineteenth century latinophiles tried to impose a latin grammar which is inflected on English which is word-based.
    Most of what passes for concerns about “grammar” is actually people getting their knickers in a knot over about five or six usage issues: did/done; was/were.
    The irony is that in many situations to say “i did” instead of “i done” would be considered in that social situation to be incorrect and you would be viewed as being up yourself. The power of english is that it is not bound by rules and therefore has the capacity to grow and evolve. This is why we now have the hysteria about how the influx of phone text influences on English will ultimately lead to its demise. Through text and emails we are now almost certaily the most text-based generation in the history of the world.

    Comment by barney — June 18, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  5. Actually, grammar was in use already in time of Sanskrit.’Grammar’ means ‘system’ in Greek and that what it is all about ; an oral and written system to communicate within a social group as opposed to other systems of lingual communication. But in order to communicate we have to know ‘the code’of a language. And the written system is a graphic representation of sounds. Is it a coincidence that ever since grammar, as a subject, has been deleted from school curriculum, our children leave school functionally illiterate?. Is it true that the Australian variety of English grammar starts off and ends up with spelling your own name and address?
    The English were forced to study grammar as they were trying to impose the language on their colonies.
    I am surprised that the less people know about how the English language was formed over the centuries the more they have a very strong view on the subject. It is well a documented fact that grammar, very much like maths and logic, actually helps to develop analytical mechanisms in our brain.
    English language is a mixture of Latin ( due to the Roman conquest),Viking (due to the fara und Viking), French (due to the Norman conquest), Saxon (German due to their conquest), a bit of Gaelic or Celtic and Sanskrit.
    The study of English may be a fascinating subject and I see no reason why our children should be discouraged to do it. It is definitely more exciting than ‘safe sex’ or ‘the importance of collecting plastic bottles’ – ‘show and tell’.
    How can we ever discuss our heritage without learning the language and literature? Australian kids miss on history, history of literature, history of the language of their forefathers..
    I am a migrant from a non-English speaking country. I can read Marie de France, Shakespeare, Chaucer, well, Beowulf in their original version and I love it.. I will never regret I learnt Old English in a non- English speaking country. Instead of being proud of their heritage Australian teachers try to experiment on young brains forcing them to be literate zombies. I think it is a child abuse. It is not good enough for a teacher ‘to tell whether the sentence is right or wrong’. Students need professional guidance not just ‘watch my lips’ idiocy.
    Many Australians struggle to learn other languages for one simple reason: a language is a grammatical phenomenon and it is so much easier to study other languages if you know the language of your own.
    The problem in Australia is that teachers are not prepared/educated to teach grammar so they look for some very poor excuses that grammar is not needed and one can survive without knowing the difference between ‘well’ and ‘a well’, ‘miss’ and ‘a miss’, or ‘be smart’ and ‘being smart’; ‘I have learnt and ‘I would have learnt’.
    In Australia, unlike in many countries, particularly in Europe and Asia, somehow maths is a yuk subject, so is the language, history, geography, chemistry, PE. And more and more educated migrants are coming in and getting the jobs vernacular Australians have no idea about (naval engineering, instrumentalists, underwater welders, etc.) And at the same time many Aussies and their politicians are quite adamant that we, migrants should pass the ‘Australian values’ citizenship test.
    Just wondering what do they teach at schools? Do the students miss a lot when the teachers are on strike?

    Comment by Zen — June 18, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  6. Zen, I did correct my original mistake as to where grammar originated as a concept. You do these blog posts on the spur of the moment – they’re not a finished work.
    And I don’t believe that we shouldn’t teach grammar, but I do believe that it follows language rather than making it. But grammar deals with conventions, not laws, so it is quite possible for a language to change those conventions. It is also possible for someone to practice them without learning them formally.
    I value the grammar that I learnt at school despite the fact that I learnt more in French than English. In English I had the advantage of being a prolific reader, and when I needed to know the right word I just said the phrase in my head and went with what sounded right. Generally it was.

    Comment by Graham Young — June 18, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

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