Grammar, political history of (English)

Grammar, political history of (English)

The language ancestors of English were inflected by their grammar. That’s not a disease: it’s a description of how they made their words work.

An inflected language changes the form of words depending on what job the word is being asked to do. European languages related to or closely derived from Latin or Greek have a combination of (a) endings added to a word stem (eg look => looked, looking), which is fine and dandy, but (b) they can also change the stem as well (eg transmit, transmitted, but transmission). It makes for a fine old mess from the outside and perfect sense from the inside. The human mind is a wonderful code machine.

Anglo-Saxon grammar was closer to modern German grammar than to modern English. Norman French, imported under the Unilateral Trans-Channel Trade agreement of 1066, stressed word order in sentences rather than word endings. Middle English – the 14thC Language of Chaucer – was a working hybrid of both. Modern English, firmly based on French word order with a few remnants of Germanic-style inflection, is often dated from Shakespeare’s time. Shakepeare’s works and the King James edition of the Bible are regarded as the exemplars of the modern English language which we speak today. (Yes, I know there are umpteen kinds of English, but there’s still a reference model available.)

In plain words, the language is a bit of a mongrel and frayed around the edges. Medieval English, while widely-spoken in many dialect forms, wasn’t a formal language and very few people could write it: Latin filled up the statute books, surveys like the Doomsday Book, and the all-important merchant records. Henry VIII, good English catholic that he was, defended his Pope, in Latin, against the German Martin Luther’s 1519 attack, also in Latin, on the sins of the soi-disant universal church, itself speaking only Latin wherever it found itself. As Henry’s relationship with his various wives came to a head (ahem) he cut himself off (it just gets worse, doesn’t it?) from them and the Roman Church and established his own crew, the Established Church in England. All in Latin. But after that, English gradually came to emerge out of the language closet, just to bolster up the difference between the English and Johnny Foreigner. Politics, you see?

From the 16thC, the shape and usefulness of English as a medium of ideas was suddenly no longer the preserve of rural dilettantes or writers or monks with a hobby: it was wanted by the important men of the kingdom. And then came the rules…..

The bad fit between observable English as she is spoke and writ and the rules of English is broadly the result of a couple of hundred years of scholars attempting to make up rules for English based on what they already new and understood: Latin and classical Greek. Fits only where it touches, but On You It Looks Good, Sir.

The 18th and 19thCs saw the development of education, increasingly for the masses. Was there agreement about what to teach? Style and grammar rules became of great moment in Victorian England and in contemporary USA. The two great codifying products of each were, on my left, the Oxford English Dictionary (begun in 1884 but first edition finally completely published in – wait for it – 1933) and on my right, the great An American Dictionary of English by Noah Webster (1828). The complementary and competing style guides and rule-sets were composed, fittingly for each, by universities in England and private companies in USA. Nothing changes…

Formalised teaching of grammar became the norm in all schools. Leaping into the 20thC, I can report I was taught formal grammar at schools in the 1950s and 60s. Junior High School English consisted of textbook language lessons, formally assessed, for half of the week. (So common was the knowledge that my PhysEd teacher was considered well-learned enough to teach us all this technical stuff. Quite adequately, too.) However, I also have to say that my understanding of English grammar was mostly the result of trying to cope with schoolboy Latin and French grammars.

By the time I was being taught to teach in 1975, things had changed radically. The NZ Department of Education (killed stone dead in 1989, bless it) published a syllabus guide to senior language* which pushed in the thin NZ end of the wedge: the notion sweeping the world at the time was that grammar was simply… well, changeable. Revolution! By the end of the 1980s, the New Zealand education system had changed, the Department of Ed was replaced by the Ministry of Ed and the notion of teaching formal grammar was risibly infra dig and discouraged. The disease spread and the consequence today is that, if one wishes to have a solid technical understanding of the English language, the place to get it is by enrolling in an English as a Speaker of Other Language class.

I love progress, don’t you?

Actually there were benefits from the New Curriculum approach. The RULES formula didn’t do justice to the mongrel hybrid the English is. It was, and remains, much more flexible than its keepers gave it credit for. There is a grammatical basis which is rock solid, but it isn’t the whole structure. The key to the new approach was to stress (a) basic functional structure and (b) effectiveness as a communication medium. The rest was left to sludge around or be looked at only by people who cared.

Most universities have since established euphemistically-named “Foundation Courses” because they decided, after a long intake of breath, that they did care after all.

So there we are: grammar isn’t taught formally in New Zealand and hasn’t been for more than a generation. Probably most haven’t noticed the difference: only people like me burst out apoplectically at the groce’rs punctuation (aka the flight of the apostrophes) on pizza parlour signs and television ads, and the gradual replacement of good solid nouns like lessons with fly-by-night gerunds like learnings by important-sounding people on radio who really should know better.

I suppose that the good news is that if I really want to have an in-depth discussion about the subordinate and co-ordinate clauses punctuation, or gerunds, or the Oxford comma, there are lots of new immigrants I can talk to.

For more elucidation with less grumpiness, start with

and for desert try


* The thing was, from memory, Bulletin 60 and related to (the newly-named) seventh form language units in the New Curriculum English. I can’t find mine: if anyone has a copy, please do send me a message and we’ll treat. NZ materials were rehashes of ideas from Birmingham University in England, if I remember correctly.