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What is Grammar?
A lecture by Dr. Margaret Eskew

All 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.

Learning 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 in between.

The 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.

Perhaps 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).

When 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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Copyright 2001 Margaret Eskew and Angela Carr
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of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies