Grammar Example

Many people consider spelling to be separate from grammar, yet one does not exist without the other. The difference between the words: rose and roses is one of grammar, not just meaning. Most people consider grammar to be the bane of learning a language. Most schools offer a "conversation" course in the major languages to give students an opportunity to avoid grammar, which usually hits in the third year of a school-taught language. Some students take a course in the Spanish language, thinking it to be easy, which it is until one is faced with fourteen different verb conjugations!

For most, even the language of grammar is intimidating, as intimidating as mathematics. Usually children can be forced to learn how to write a simple sentence, yet, compared to their speaking ability, most write at a third year level. If they write better than that, it is a fine chance that they do not understand why they write what they write. Look at arguments between grammar gremlins and see that some do not begin a sentence with a conjunction; others do not use colons; still others argue over that last comma in a list. No wonder no one cares and no one wants to study English grammar. By comparison, foreign languages can be easier. The rules are different, but once learned, there are very few exceptions. Gaelic, for instance, is one of the most difficult languages I have attempted to learn, yet it only has seven irregular verbs. Spanish has 200, English over 400! Languages, like language vocabularies, tend to reflect much of the "mindset" of the people who speak the language as well as the history of the language. A modern language, for example, will have a lot more irregularity than it's ancestor because it has been modified in irregular ways over the years.

Linguists and people who study grammar have sought the universal grammar and sometimes suggest that grammar is hardwired in the brain. I have no such belief. Yet, in their search for commonality and a way to express differences in languages, linguists have come up with some interesting diagrams and ways of study that are fun in and of themselves. The first thing any student of language should realize is that "anything goes." Let us look at one of the most simple sentences we have.

Jane speaks English.

"Jane" is called the subject; "speaks" is the verb; and "English" is the object. This kind of structure is called SVO, for subject-verb-object. This seems natural to we who speak English. For many, there does not seem to be anything different. Surprise! 45% of modern languages do not use the form, but use a SOV form. 42% use this form, and the others use a structure that begins with a verb. Therefore the most common way to say this sentence is:

Jane English speaks.

Now this is not incomprehensible in English, just strange. In some cases, we see this structure: in older writings, often in poetry. More languages use the SOV structure like this, but the two largest languages in the modern world, English and Mandarin, use the SVO structure above. So do Spanish and Russian. Many languages modify their verbs and nouns so that almost any word order is acceptable. English is context dependent.

Jane hits Mary.

This sentence takes on different meanings if the word order is scrambled. So does this sentence:

The girl hits the boy.

This confusion between the subject and object usually cannot exist in most European languages. The object has a form of "the" and sometimes a suffix on "boy" to make it fixed in the object position, even if the sentence is scrambled. Because English has dropped almost all of the noun "identifiers" English speakers seem to believe that the logical way to speak is to make sure you get the word order right. Learning a different language can often baffle and confuse a person, not just with vocabulary, but with a change in grammar which seems to be a change in logic, so much so that some people think foreign speakers are crazy. Even the form most similar to English takes on ambiguity when the subject and object are not explained by context:

The girl the boy hits.

In German, the ambiguity is impossible.

Das Mädchen den Jungen trifft.
Der Jungen das Mädchen trifft.

If you look at the German word for "the" der you will see also den and das. This is a way that the German language flags the subject and object. The word Jungen is the word that changes from the object (den) in the first sentence to the subject (der) in the second sentence. No, I am not going to teach you German! I am only showing you an example of how languages work modifications with grammar to help with clarity of meaning. One rule seems to be common in European languages: the older the languages (or the more conservative) the more tags there are to help people make their meanings clear. Modern languages tend to drop many of these tags, both for ease of learning and also for a more shorthand (albeit sloppy) way of speaking. English and Gaelic are of the most abbreviated of modern tongues. Icelandic the least, but that language is almost identical to old Norse, as if we were to speak Anglo-Saxon. Rather than thinking of grammar as your enemy, think of it as the only way meaning can be conveyed with more than one word. We can stand and yell "water!" as long as we want and most people will think only that we want water. Think of how many things can be meant with the word "water" such as "give me water;" "look at the water!" "do you want water?" "water is coming!" "I need to cross the water;" "can you tell me where the water is?" "a glass of water;" "over the big water;" "water from the sky." You begin to see the frustrations of a toddler--or a foreigner!

The First Rule

The first rule is word order. That is the most basic form of grammar. Certain words are clumped together and are called fancy names like "nominative predicate." Why they call it by a Latin name instead of "word group that describes the subject" is beyond me. Yet, at one time, Latin was the language of scholars, so linguists also fell into the trap of calling everything by a foreign name to impress those who did not know Latin. Sheesh. So clumps of words are connected to the Subject, Verb, and Object. That's the basics of it. In most languages if it's part of the Subject, it must have all the forms of the Subject. We do just a little of this in English by saying that plurals must agree with plural verbs. Jane has a cat. Jane and Mary have a cat. You get the point. That's about the last left of this kind of rule in English. In modern English almost everything else is contextual or dependent on word order.

The Second Rule

The second rule is that of speaking. This means that most things are changed to make them easy to say. Again, they have a fancy name for it "orthographics," which means "correct writing." Most languages try to follow this rule, English does not for the most part. In English, the letters can have different sounds. In most languages, some attempts are made to show in writing how the word is said. The Cyrillic alphabet and the wild spellings of some languages were done by people attempting to put into writing how the language was said. You only see it in English in plurals like "shelf" "shelves." Foreigners must learn all the variants of the English letters, but often do not hear them, like the word "water" is not pronounced "wawtter," but "wawdder." This is because of the long "a" sound. "Hatter" with the short "a" sound has a "t" that is clear. It also has a visual way of saying that it is different from the word "hater" which has a long "a" sound, but a clear "t" sound. Are you confused yet? Most people do not try to figure this out, but foreigners, without any guides, often mispronounce English, especially if they have learned the writing. Other languages spend a great deal of time on orthographics.

The Third Rule

All word modifications are to make positions clear or numbers clear. Plurals, objects, indirect objects, suffixes and prefixes all belong in this category. And that's it. Three rules. Yes, I know, those rules cover a lot of ground. In English, this third rule is not as important as the first. The first rule overrides almost all of the second and third rules. Not so with other languages, whose emphasis is often equal between the three.

© 2016, A.R. Stone

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