Word of the Week, 8/29-9/4/11 – grammar

When I want to free myself from a particularly obnoxious person at a cocktail party, all I have to do is tell him that I’m a grammarian.  Without fail, he’ll lower his head and sidle away, mumbling into his shirt collar, “I never did well at that in school.”  When I like the person and want to continue the conversation with her, I say I’m a linguist

When you know the meanings of words and don’t know what a sentence says it’s because you don’t know the GRAMMAR of the sentence, the structural system that puts words together in meaningful units and indicates the relationships between units.  Put another way, the grammar of a sentence tells you who does what to whom.

~ Max Morenberg, Doing Grammar, 2nd ed.

Grammar is a sine qua non of language, placing its demons in the light of sense, sentencing them to the plight of prose.  

~ Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

The word grammar, is of early Greek origin.  It is related to the word “gramma, -atos, -to” that which is drawn and that which is written, a written character, letter, and it is also related to “grapho” representation by means of linesa drawing, painting picture and writing, the art of writing, a writing.  In other words, for the Greeks, grammar meant representation in images and words–isn’t it interesting to note that in this early phase there is little to differentiate painting/drawing from writing?  (Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell & Scott–the “Middle Liddell”)

In classical Greek and Latin, the word’s definition was refined and “denoted the methodical study of literature”:

[Grammar] = “philology” in the widest modern sense, including textual and aesthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc, besides the study of the Greek and Latin.  Post-classically, grammatica came to be restricted to the linguistic portion of this discipline, and eventually to “grammar” in the [modern] sense.  In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its [Roman] forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class.  As this was popularl supposed to include magic and astrology, the [Old French] gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences.  In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, [French] grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR, GRAMARVE.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

Today, grammar refers to the study of language, its inflectional forms or means of indicating the relationships of words in a sentence and with the rules for employing in accordance with established usage.  It is “the scientific study and classification of the classes, forms, sounds, and uses of words of a particular language” and “the systematic study comparing the forms and constructions of two or more languages; comparative grammar.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  The word is often used interchangeably with syntax, which is more narrowly concerned with “the arrangement of words to form sentences, clauses or phrases; sentence structure… the patterns of such arrangement in a given language.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  It is more specifically the “part of grammar dealing with the construction of phrases, clauses, and sentences.”  (The World Book Dictionary)  

The other words that have grown from the common  root shows just how weird the links in history and linguistics can be.  Going back up to the OED’s definition, consider the connotation of grammar with learning and education.  At a certain point, alchemy and astrology really picks up interest in the high Middle Ages and becomes one of the major pursuits of learned types (read In Alchemy’s Defense).  As a result, the word that means the system that puts words together into meaningful units is related to other words in modern western languages that reference the occult, mysterious fascination, alluring charm, magic spells and enchantments!  (The World Book Dictionary)

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, quoted above, apparently appreciates the connection between the two words as her grammar book revels in the Victorian era gothic in her instruction manual:  “This is a dangerous game I’m playing, smuggling the injunctions of grammar into your cognizance through a ménage of revolving lunatics kidnapped into this book.  Their stories are digressions toward understanding, a pantomime of raucous intentions in the linguistic labyrinth.”

Grammar was part of the Liberal Arts program in the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era.  In today’s liberal arts system, subjects have realigned themselves and the humanities has been vastly downgraded, tragically.  As the internet reveals, the English language has a greater number of executors and executioners.  Without a proper understanding of grammar, rhetoric, logic and explanation are lost as writing collapses into a jumble of words or even merely letters, today.


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