G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)