Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Grammar

One might think that English grammar, even more than its lexicon, would be something that would have long been intrinsically understood, and little in need of explication or improvement. And yet, the services of a dictionary having proven valuable, that of a printed grammar seemed a logical step -- after all, Latin Grammars were vital school textbooks, and the idea that English should be more like Latin, or at least described in Latin terms, caught on widely. We owe most of our grammatical terminology -- adjective (from adiectus, "to annex a territory"), to preposition (from præ-positiones, to place before), to conjunction (coniunction, to link together) -- to this idea.

Many different authors, mostly schoolmasters writing books for their own students's use, tried their hand at it, but two in particular proved to have long-lasting influence. Robert Lowth, who enjoyed a sinecure as Bishop of Oxford, was perhaps the most notable. Among his many contributions was the notion -- by false analogy -- that a "double negative" was an error because, in mathematics, two negatives equalled a positive. Math, alas, is not grammar, but the idea stuck and double negation is almost universally regarded as an error, never mind its long history (Chaucer, among others, even enjoyed double and even triple negation wihout any doubt as to its import). He also originated the idea that a sentence should not end with a preposition (since its name indicates that it must "come before" something else) -- which, although a reasonable guideline for written texts, is common and perfectly sensible in everyday speech.

Lowth is also often blamed (though in fact it came much later) for the "rule" that to place an adverb between "to" and the main verb (as in "to boldly go") was to "split the infinitive" -- again, on the mistaken analogy with Latin. Latin, like most ancient languages, has an infinitive (or non-finite) form that is actually a distinct one for every verb -- e.g. amare, "to love" -- so it would never be "split"; although Engish uses the preposition "to" to indicate a non-finite verb, the "to" is not actually part of the verb. In the example above, the non-finite form of the verb is in fact just "go" (which in English, confusingly, is identical to the first and second person present indicative form). George Bernard Shaw, among others, has minced few words in decrying this foolish supposed "rule."

Lowth's successor, Lindley Murray, was actually an American ex-pat, born in the woods of Pennsylvania, who moved to York at the age of 39 and spent the rest of his life in England. He kept most of Lowth's prescriptive rules, though his method of instruction was somewhat gentler, and adapted -- as the title-page puts it -- "for the different classes of readers." Among his innovations was a rule that one could not apply "more" to an adjective already in the superlative form (e.g. "more worst") -- and yet he extended this to adjectives which he regarded as "innately superlative" (chief, unique, extreme, etc.), so the would be no "more perfect union" for him!

Like dictionary-writers, grammarians saw themselves as arbiters, refiners, and polishers of the language -- the more so since, as their books were used for actual instruction on a daily basis -- and in that they surely succeeded. And yet, at the same time, they have given all of us a vague sene of guilt about the possible errors of our usage, and the sense -- entirely unjustified! -- that "bad grammar" is almost a sort of sin.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


In one particularly memorable episode of Blackadder," Ink and Incapability," when the Prince Regent (played by Hugh Laurie) asks Dr. Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane) what his new Dictionary is good for, the learned Doctor declares that "It is a book that tells you what English words mean." "I know what English words mean," replies the prince, "I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko!"

And indeed, one may well ask, why do we need a Dictionary of our own language? After all, numerous English writers, from Chaucer to Spencer to Shakespeare, got along quite well without one, as did their readers -- not to mention the great throng of ordinary speakers of English, whose talk continued unabated, with no need for works of reference to understand it, for centuries. And yet English, by the eighteenth century now well-established in print and manuscript, was rapidly expanding its vocabulary, variety of styles, and usage -- becoming in a sense as much as textual presence as a spoken one. Furthermore, since it had acquired so many words from other classical and modern languages, the search for the right word -- le mot juste, as the French say -- might well involve choosing between several near-synonyms with slightly varied shades of meaning. Finally, since English had been around for a while, there were now a fair number of uncommon or archaic words with which not every reader would necessarily be familiar.

And of course, English was still changing, and continues to do so,  as any living language must. That's where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes in. Established in the mid-19th century by scholars such as F.J. Furnivall (a founder of the Chaucer Society) and James Murray, it aimed to be the first true historical dictionary of English. An early sort of crowd-sourced project, its entries were supplied by readers who scoured set texts, and filled and sent in cards for the words used in them. At one point, Murray was astonished to find that one of the Dictionary's most prolific contributors, Dr. William Chester Minor, was not -- as Murray had assumed -- a physician at Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane, but a patient (Minor's wealthy family had furnished his room with a fine library of books). The OED's work went on through a first (1928), and then a second (1989), and what is effectively a third in 2000, when it was made available online. Unlike any other dictionary of English, the OED is committed to tracing a word's use in context, from its first known appearance to the present moment (if still used).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Chaucerian Difference

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

And Chaucer's language is very close to ours -- close enough that, with a modest amount of practice, we can pronounce it and understand it reasonably well.  The main differences are that many combination of letters which are now silent, such as kn and gh, were pronounced, as was the e on the end of so many words which has since become our modern English friend "silent e." Lastly, the vowels of Chaucer's day were further back in the mouth, since the "Great Vowel Shift" which moved them forwards had not yet taken place.  Thus Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote" is pronounced as "Whahnn that ah-prill, weeth hees shooriss soat-uh" in our reconstructed Chaucerian mode.  

The other difference is mainly vocabulary -- "lexical" as linguists would say. Chaucer still used a number of words left over from older English; a "swevene" was a dream; "eke" meant "indeed" or "as well"; he used "lykned" instead of "likened," "hem" instead of "them" and "hire" instead of "their" there was no neuter possessive "its" so everything had to be "hys" or hers. Happily, there are many fewer such survivals in his verse than in that of the Gawain poet, who, living the north-west Midlands, was removed from many of the changes of London English and still used athele (noble), sithen (since), schawe (show), and lovelokkest (loveliest).

Chaucer was also on the forefront of many changes of which modern English has been the beneficiary; he introduced many words and usages from French, some in their Anglo-Norman senses, nearly all of which are still with us today: bachelor, melody, adversary, bounty, refute, vein, army, season, and devout. He borrowed a few Latin terms, though most often via their French versions, and his verse structures, such as "rhyme royal,"turned out to be particularly effective in English.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Old English

Lines from the poem are carved in runes on this cross.
The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be"fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (military follower) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

As with modern English, there were several major dialects of Anglo-Saxon: Northumbrian in the North, Kentish in the East, Mercian in the midlands, and West Saxon in the West of England. The political center of the Saxons was in Winchester (Wintanceastre) in the West Saxon area, and thus its speech became the prestige dialect of the language; more than 90% of surviving Old English texts are in this dialect. Much has changed since then, but even to this day, if you look at the top decile of English (the top 10% of our most frequently-used words), nearly all of them are directly descended from closely similar Saxon antecedents: stone (stan); house (hus); was (wæs); say (secgan); father (fæder); and many more.