Posted: Jul 09, 2012 1:29 pm
by Zwaarddijk
I'm guessing that generations of students being dragged through declension tables and the like helped to fix the idea that grammar IS inflection and morphology in the popular mind, leading to notions that some languages (usually highly inflected) have more 'grammar' than other languages.

This also has lead to the unfortunate notion that languages over time lose grammar through the sloppiness of younger speakers. Yes, grammatical features are lost. They also are gained. They are altered as well.

In modern times this has also found expression in the Chomskian preoccupation with syntax. It still seems the case that being conversant with 'grammar' means that you are 'clever', and that if you play fast and loose with grammar (as all speakers do in 'talk-in-interaction' (Schegloff's term), then you are producing a corrupt and degraded form of the language, and displaying low intelligence.

In part, this also has to do with sociolinguistics. Even today, an African American whose speech entirely adheres to the grammatical rules of AAVE will be judged as speaking with bad or even no grammar. Grammar is not just the rules given by some governing body or Academy or privileged linguist - grammar is a joint venture (or even multiple joint ventures that further are somewhat joint between them as well - pretty much every speech community's standards are affected by surrounding and overlapping speech communities' standards), that evolves over time. It's very unlikely that every person who has mastered the English literary standard actually has the same grammar in their mind - it might be quite similar for a large number of them, but variations will exist. The same goes both for vocabulary (not just in number of entries, but in what the entries actually are, i.e. we can share a word without sharing its definition fully.)

In actual fact, research has shown that speakers don't pay much attention to grammar in ongoing talk*. Matters of meaning and social roles take precedence over form everywhere except the language classroom.

I get the feeling people are more willing to pay attention to your grammar if you also happen to have a non-native accent - ungrammaticalities native Finns get away with constantly have been pointed out to me when I've done them as indicative of me not being a native speaker. In these cases, they were things fairly far from what one usually would expect in Finnish (e.g. a locative adverbial in the nominative, a bit like saying "he's the other side" instead of "he's on the other side" - a thing that can slip by by accident, and both the speaker and listener may perceive as odd or just not notice. Thing is, I have a slight Swedish accent, so when I make slip-ups, people attribute them to my non-nativeness. When natives slip-up, they barely notice!

But grammar does have a role whenever we speak - it's pretty much unavoidable. We mostly notice with grammar if it's violated in really remarkable ways, though - akin to the Finnish example, and possibly, but slightly less likely the one I snuck into the beginning of this sentence. Grammar is what we use to emphasize things - e.g. the construction I just used ("grammar is what ...") is a pseudo-cleft, a way of attracting focus onto something - clefts and pseudo-clefts don't occur entirely at random, their occurence correlates with something about what the speaker wants to express -, grammar is what we use to express which out of the nouns did something and which of them was done to, grammar is what we use to determine what some pronoun refers to - other languages may have different rules for resolving it, and other rules for marking it. In some languages, a sentence such as "They made sure that themselves knew what they were doing" - such constructions are permissible and even mandatory in some languages. We are constantly grammar-parsing machines, although to what extent we manage to parse what someone else is saying the way they intended it is a different question - I am increasingly suspecting that linguists have overestimated that part of it.


Of course, the grammar I speak of above is not the grammar Strunk and White wrote of, and it's not the grammar that prescriptivists try to make other speakers adhere to. It's the grammar that naturally has evolved, and still is evolving, under various pressures.
More on how grammar changes, why it changes, what kinds of changes there are, and such in the next installment. Which will not take this long to write - I have written something like three drafts every month for this, and been disappointed at each and every one. I finally decided that whatever I wrote that evening would have to do.