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Comments on: How the Romans invented grammar

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By: Tearlach

Wed, 18 Jun 2008 11:16:21 +0000

I don't equate grammar with good speaking or writing any more than I equate orthagraphy with intelligence. And to John Greenfield, I myself don't equate grammar obsession with the vast right wing conspiracy. Because a) I associate the current vast right wing conspiracy with anti-intellectual populism, not old school elitism. And b) I DO associate the grammarly obsessed with the young very feminist and oh-so PC ladies of the English department. That's just my anecdotal evidence, nothing more.

By: Andy Hollandbeck

Tue, 17 Jun 2008 18:57:47 +0000

Tearlach: "We should also make a distinction between linguistics and grammarians. The difference equals the difference between an economist and an accountant." When tax time rolls around, which would you rather have: an economist or an accountant? If you want to become a good speaker or writer, who do you want: a grammarian or a linguist? I think the problem is that we, as a whole, don't really know what "grammar" means. We know that it's something smaller than linguistics, but something larger than just word order. But that leaves a whole, big, gray area. On top of that, there's no such thing as a universally accepted authority on grammar -- at least not in English, and I suspect in every other language but French as well.

By: John Greenfield

Tue, 17 Jun 2008 07:05:19 +0000

The Romans "invented" grammar? Well that is one more to add to their other "invention"; cement. :) But seriously, where do these people get this tosh? This news would have shocked the young men skulking around the agora and gymnasium of fifth century Greece. What might we call the instruction these young men received - from the likes of Gorgias, Socrates, and Protagoras - in grammar, rhetoric, music, geometry, epic and lyric poetry, and the finer arts of 'giving head'? And what of all those Socratic dialogues finessing correct lexis And what of Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, Gorgias, Protagoras, etc? I have just finished as essay on fifth century tragedy. I got very excited by Euripides masterful use of epideictic rhetoric. This excitement was largely generated by Aristotle's discussion of the role of diction - which includes GRAMMAR - in Poetics Anybody who thinks the Romans invented grammar has obviously never stumbled upon the delights of weak-aorist or semi-deponent verbs in Homer or Herodotus' deliberate use of intrusive oblique infinitives to augment his proleptic narrative strategies. Oh, and by the way, even the Romans knew it was Aristotle who was responsible the categorisation of "oblique" verbs, which are common to all Indo-European languages - Greek, Latin, German, Celtic, Sanskrit, slavic, Iranian. This bizarre Leftist fantasy that teaching grammar in schools is somehow another step in a vast right-wing conspiracy speaks volumes about their own education.

By: Elizabeth Moon

Mon, 16 Jun 2008 16:29:31 +0000

In answer to John Riemann Soong's question about length of pauses signaled by commas and semicolons: From the POV of the professional writer and the individual who records written work for audio books and the like, there is indeed a difference in the pause length between words without punctuation, words/phrases separated by commas, by semi-colons, by colons, by dashes or ellipses, and by periods. These different punctuation marks also affect emphasis within preceding and following groups of words. Punctuation replaces the auditory signals (including, but not limited to, pauses of varying lengths) of ordinary verbal communication with visual codes. On language learning v. teaching: The neurologically typical child learns spoken language as part of normal maturation, but the use of the appropriate writing modalities requires some intervention. Punctuation marks, for instance, do not call attention to the reasons for their use. Even a child who reads a lot and writes a lot will not, on his/her own, acquire full competency in the use of punctuation. Neurologically atypical children are a special one-data-point observation of our son (autistic, now 24 yo) leads to the conclusion that--to the extent the child's sensory apparatus allows--the sequence of language learning is similar but not identical to that of neuro-typical children. (I do wish we'd had the money for serial PET scans to see if what seemed to be a switch from right-brain auditory processing and so-called "right brain language"--a term one of his therapists used--to left-brain/Broca's area processing and complex syntax was reflected in that way. The social effect was that his burgeoning savant musical talent vanished as the language use soared. A good trade, in terms of long-term goals like independent living, but I miss the astonishing little pianist.) Interventions based on the concepts of linguistics were much more useful than ordinary speech therapy.

By: Tearlach

Mon, 16 Jun 2008 07:58:59 +0000

If we are so concerned about "educating" the public about linguisticism, then we should also make a distinction between linguistics and grammarians. The difference equals the difference between an economist and an accountant. One asks important questions about the scientific nature of a thing, and the latter counts beans.

By: Phil

Mon, 16 Jun 2008 03:57:07 +0000

@Leon Well, you're most of the way to understanding the distinction. You say that style and register are important, and I think everyone agrees with this. You also say that you were (in part) *taught* your formal English writing style. Here we have to be very careful about what exactly you were taught. The process of learning a formal style was not a process of learning language. It was a process of selecting which types of language (vocabulary, sentence structure, discourse structure) to apply in a situation. Your total knowledge of English vocabulary and structures was (to a very great extent) unchanged at the end of the process of learning formal style. What you had gained was a greater appreciation of which bits of the language you knew were appropriate in one particular social setting (academic writing). That kind of learning is in contrast to what my one-year-old is doing right now. Yesterday, for the first time in my hearing, he spontaneously put together an utterance with two parts: baba, zei (Dad, sit down - he was speaking Minnanhua). This represents an acquisition of a new language ability. Both of these two kinds of learning can occur without deliberate teaching - in which case it's usually called acquisition. And the learning of a style can probably be accelerated by good teaching. It's open whether acquisition of new language can be helped by deliberate teaching. From what I've read, I suspect not, with the possible exception of some kinds of vocabulary. But it's certainly true that most of the acquisition of language by most children in the world occurs without deliberate teaching. Also important is that your formal English style uses a large subset of the same grammar that you use in your speech. There's no written grammar that you learned for writing because you didn't have it in your spoken English grammar. Spoken language, like any natural phenomenon, can be analysed (imperfectly), and the resulting conclusions are called (descriptive) grammar. Written grammar is just a set of rules about which bits of our spoken grammar should not be used in written language.

By: David Marjanović

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 13:17:35 +0000

For example, is "your off the mark" a grammatical error, or an orthographic one?
Given the fact that nobody ever writes *"my off the mark" or *"his off the mark", I vote for an orthographic one.

By: David Marjanović

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 13:10:05 +0000

I'd probably prefer using a dash instead of a comma in the example, but apart from that I can't find anything strange about it. The pitch goes up during "before them", and then a pause follows in slow speech. Speaking of commas, "I am curious Mark" means that your name is "curious Mark".

By: Leon

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 12:31:52 +0000

If you understand acquisition, then it would surely help you to see clearly what prescriptive rules should be (basically, style suggestions rather than statements about language), and to understand that language is more usefully viewed as a natural phenomenon than it is as an artifact.
Spoken language may be more "natural" than "artificial" (usually), but written language is a different matter. Although I'm writing this sentence based on an intuitive understanding of the grammatical rules governing (fairly formal) written text, if I was you know writing like I speak, then ma- maybe I wouldn't be so clear or easy to understand if you see what I mean or maybe the stylistic differences would be jarring mmm? So sure, there's a sense in which I "acquired" my ability to write formally, but it was by reading lots of formal English texts, writing some for myself, and -- usually in a classroom context -- being "prescriptively admonished" by teachers if that writing didn't conform to formal standards. Osmosis and a love of learning played their part, but I was also taught. And without this ability, I wouldn't be able to participate as fully in certain parts of society, such as political debate, academia, and blogs like this one. Call them "stylistic differences" if you'd like; either way, the "style" of standard/formal/good/clear English is important for a well educated person to understand. P.S. I tend to use a semicolon rather than a comma splice; though I picked up the habit by osmosis, I've confirmed it by finding examples in well-edited writing.

By: Mark S.

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 09:28:56 +0000

The Romans invented grammar? Ah, that might explain why "Chinese grammar is an import from the West." That's from a regular writer for one of Taiwan's three English newspapers. The rest of the piece is filled with similar nonsense.

By: Christopher Stone

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 07:40:33 +0000

"But I am curious Mark — though I do agree with you that public awareness of linguistic concepts needs to be raised — how do you suggest we address this problem?" Obviously I can't answer for Mark, but at the university I currently attend (Truman State University in Kirksville, MO), there's a summer nerd camp called Joseph Baldwin Academy where academically advanced students in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades come for three weeks and get the equivalent of a semester course in whatever class they're taking. Last year we had a course called "Language Myths and Truths", which was essentially Intro to Linguistics plus about half a semester of generic Sociolinguistics. It was an amazing experience for all involved, especially the AAVE speaker and kid from Alabama that we had - they both got some nice linguistic tools to have some good self-esteem about their dialects while also getting the tools to analyze other people's linguistic arguments. The class itself only had about 12 kids, so obviously it isn't going to change the course of linguistic prejudice in the US, or even in their schools, but programs like that one are definitely tools for spreading the gospel of linguistic science (juxtaposition intended).

By: Phil

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 05:37:45 +0000

It is alarmingly widespread, this idea that you have to teach language to children, and that the way to teach them is through prescriptive admonishments, particularly by "correcting" children's "mistakes". My brother is a lecturer in education and he has been heard to espouse this view (he specializes in religious education, but still...) The problem seems to lie in a failure to fully appreciate the distinction between language acquisition and language teaching; perhaps that's the big concept that Mark and colleagues should be stressing to the media whenever they get the chance. If you understand acquisition, then it would surely help you to see clearly what prescriptive rules should be (basically, style suggestions rather than statements about language), and to understand that language is more usefully viewed as a natural phenomenon than it is as an artifact.

By: john riemann soong

Sun, 15 Jun 2008 03:20:52 +0000

I note from the Wikipedia article: "Strunk & White note that splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and alike in form, such as: The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up." Disregarding the fact that this observation comes from a prescriptivist style manual, it appears to me that this sort of comma-spliced sentence "reads naturally" because the short length of each clause means there isn't much pause between each clause anyway. If punctuation is meant to represent prosody, I would say that the puncutation present in "It didn't exist before them, people just spoke languages" represents a prosody that seems to me rather non-standard. Does non-standard prosody imply ungrammaticality? It's a tangential question, but one that makes me curious.