“Grammar” so said Aunt Josephine in A Series of Unfortunate Events, “is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?”
OK, that’s one way of putting it.
But then there’s the other side of the argument put forward by Jeremy Butterfield (2008) in his Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. In this view, quite apart from being joyous, grammar is actually what’s objectionable about language. And this is a point of view which is so much easier to find sympathy with since grammar is much more obviously text books wittering on about declensions, and conjugations; and it’s interminable hours testing oneself on tenses, past, present and future and all those in between; and it’s being embarrassed because you have tea when you should be having dinner. It is, in fact, a million ways in which your own words – and their order – betray you…And all for what useful purpose, I mean, really?!
So that’s my question here: what is the purpose of learning grammar? And I’ll begin to answer it by looking at the etymology of the word.
The word came to us via classical Latin from the Greek grammatike which means the “art of letters”. And this art referred to philology (which is the study of structure, historical development, and relationships in one or more languages) and literature. So to be a classical grammarian was to be someone educated and versed in learning. But this classical Latin understanding of grammar overlaid an older one where knowledge of grammar was to be a magician and a seer who understood the science of right-timing (astrology) and could conduct rituals, and appreciate the magical properties of prosody (patterns of rhythm).
And this is an understanding of grammar which is traceable right back to the 2nd millennium BCE, Iron Age India, Sanskrit and the hymns of the Vedas. In these times the Vedic Rishis (sages) transmitted divine knowledge held in the Vedas (sruti – “that which is heard”, what has been known from the beginning and was authored by God) orally. This suggests that the study of grammar has its roots in the responsibility of ancient Indian sages to perform and transmit the divine word with minute accuracy.
But, as writing developed, a new body of knowledge began to grow which complimented sruti. This was smriti – “that which is remembered” – which is a vast pool of texts written by humans (as opposed to God) exploring the Vedas and expounding on the laws of the cosmos and the intrinsic nature of all things. And it was the job of grammarians to seek explanations of these metaphysical truths which were hidden in the Vedic sruti and smriti.
Grammar – Vyakarana – as a developing science, was one of the six supporting disciplines in Hinduism necessary for deep study of the Vedas. These were the Vedangas – “limbs of the Vedas” – and, besides Vyakarana, included:
- Shiksha: phonetics, phonology, pronunciation.
- Chhandas: prosody.
- Nirukta: etymology.
- Kalpa: ritual instructions.
- Jyotisha: auspicious time for rituals through astrology and astronomy.
The earliest extant writings of any grammarian, Sanskrit or otherwise, are those of Yaska, from around the 4th BCE. But he was neither the first of his line nor alone in his work because, according to his writings, he was offering theories of grammar in competition with other schools of thought. His contentious major premise was that words are created through the dynamic interplay between external and internal reality, which meant to him that sometimes words have verbal roots and sometimes they don’t. But, he said, all language evolves through the six modifications of Kriya (action) andBhava (dynamic being). These modifications are being born, existing, changing, increasing, decreasing and perishing. He asserted that both the meaning and the etymology of words are always context dependent. His views remain very obviously relevant.
The freshness of Yaska’s work notwithstanding, grammar has travelled a long way with us over these millennia. This means that, just as we humans are many, so are our grammars. And these many grammars and their developments tell the human story. For example, the demographics involved in the development of the dialect now known as Anglo-Norman French in England in the years following the Norman Invasion of 1066 show us the dynamics of a growing middle-class. Another illustration of grammar as a means of social stratification is in language standardisation where, in England again, we had, until fairly recently, Received Pronunciation – a mixture of a London accent with elements from East Midlands, Middlesex, and Essex – as the most prestigious accent and, thus, the source of “correct” pronunciation. And, as the human story has evolved into one of self-determination, we have constructed languages like Esperanto. The purpose of its creator, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, was to unite us all through a common tongue and a single grammar that we could all get behind.
So, back to my question, what useful purpose does learning grammar serve? This is my short answer: Once, the study of grammar was about seeking to know the mind of God. To grammarians in these times, like Aunt Josephine, grammar was the greatest joy in life. Now, it is a method of torture by means of which teachers torment school children and language students. To these, teachers and students alike, grammar is all that is objectionable about language. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!