lecture by Dr. Margaret Eskew
of us bring with us certain inclinations and conditioned attitudes
to the study of grammar. Each of us started learning grammar bit
by bit, piece by piece. We were given small pieces of the puzzle
without ever having glimpsed the outlines or often without even
knowing that there was a larger structure into which our small pieces
were to fit and the forces that shaped those structures. More by
trial and error than by the adequacy of definitions and descriptions,
we gradually gained some facility in analyzing language. The primary
vehicle most of us were given for dissecting English was taken from
Latin grammar. It was used almost like a cookie cutter, with large
chunks of language data falling outside the Latin mold, defying
inclusion into the grammar system.
a second language well as adults requires us to revisit the forms
our native language assumes. From research into the biological nature
of language and thought comes one explanation that seems to account
for native language interference into the acquisition of other languages.
Over time thought patterns, made up of tiny connections (synapses)
in the brain, form grooves. There is a tendency for new and similar
thought patterns to veer off into the earlier well-worn grooves,
which make the flow of thoughts easier and quicker. So learning
a new language is like wearing new grooves in the brain through
which thoughts can flow. One analogy might be forming a pathway
through high grass in the forest. The first time we walk through
the high grass, the going may be hard and slow. Over time a path
is worn, facilitating our journey. In order for a path to be formed,
we must walk the same way multiple times without large gaps of time
development of computers has spurred research into the nature of
language, including grammar. When we look at grammar, we are simply
looking for the patterning in the ways we express ourselves with
language. At first glance, language seems almost infinite. Yet even
though we have dictionaries of formidable size, we rarely use more
than a small fraction of the words: somewhere in the range of 12,000
for educated individuals. The number of patterns we follow to produce
our sentences is much smaller. These patterns and the elements from
which they are formed make up the grammar of a language. We seem
to have only a certain amount of RAM in our brains. Even though
the store of potential patterns and words is much larger, we develop
our individual preferences for certain patterns and vocabulary.
the working memory limitations of the human brain account for two
of the larger forces at work in language: distinguishing and simplifying.
We seem to have a natural tendency to want to make definite distinctions
when we communicate. The attempt to have a separate name for every
item or a distinct form for indicating different functions of words
(he/his/him) increases the data in a language. As the data increases,
then an opposing force comes into play: simplification. We can see
simplification at work throughout language. For example, although
pronouns in English have three or more forms (I/me/my/mine), nouns
have only two (John, John's). This means that language is not fixed.
It is continually undergoing changes. Some changes come about quickly
(addition of vocabulary), while others take hundreds of years (formation
of a new preposition).
we study a language, where do we begin? While there are many answers
to this question linked to needs, purposes, inclinations, interests,
etc., the spoken form of the language is primary. The written form
was originally derived from the spoken. Because it is more "fixed,"
it has tended to become a standard, which then informs the spoken
language. It is from this tendency that we get our prescriptive
grammars, which tell us how we should speak (and write), as opposed
to descriptive grammars, which simply describe how we speak without
attaching value to it. Prescriptive grammars remind us of the inherently
social nature of language. It is for the most part something we
do together. Speaking assumes a listener, writing a reader.
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