book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasted paper


Frank Robert Palmer

Palmer, Frank Robert;


Penguin (Pelican books), 1984, 205 pages

ISBN 0140225072 9780140225075

topics: |  linguistics | grammar


   	'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean
   different things.'
    	'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -
   that's all.'
    	Alice was much 100 puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty
   Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper most of them - particularly verbs,
   they're the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but not
   verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability!  That's
   what I say!'
			LEWIS CARROLL. Through the Looking-Glass

Alice had almost certainly learnt some grammar at school.  It is almost
equally certain that she was bored by it. In more recent times, most school
children have been spared the boredom, because the teaching of grammar has
been dropped froro the syllabus and, unlike Alice, they may well never know
the difference between an adjective and a verb.

[But this is deplorable. ]
Man is not well defined as homo sapiens ('man with wisdom').  For what do
we mean by wisdom? More recently anthropologists have talked about 'man the
tool-maker', but apes too can make primitive tools.
What sets man apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is his ability to
speak; he is 'man the speaking animal' - homo loquens.  [other creature
may make meaningful sounds, but they lack grammar.]  Man is not merely homo loquens ;
he is homo grammaticus.  p.9-10

The gibbons, for instance, have at least nine different calls. It has been
claimed that bees have a complicated system of dances to indicate the
direction, the distance and the quantity of newly discovered nectar. Other
systems are mechanical; traffic lights, for instance, use three different
colours, but give four different signals (in some countries five, where green
as well as red combines with amber). All of these seem ~o have something in
common with language. They all have something to communicate and they all
have their own ways of communicating it.

Can we say that these communication systems have grammars - and if not, why
not? The study of these other systems has not proved to be very helpful in
the detailed understanding of language, though it has helped us to see the
ways in which language differs from them. The main difference here is the
enormous complexity of language, and it is within this complexity that we
must look for grammar. A gibbon call has merely a meaning such as 'danger' or
'food', and there are only nine or so different calls. The bees can tell only
the direction, the distance and the amount of the nectar. The traffic lights
can only signal 'stop', 'go', etc. But the possible sentences of English
with all the possible meanings are myriad or, more probably, infinite in
number. We do not learn the meaning of each of all these countless sentences

[AM: The main argument for grammar appears to be a) complexity, and b)
ability to interpret novel constructs.  the complexity argument is hard to
quantify - was washoe's sign language, where he could lie and describe new
phenomenon - complex enough?  the second argument is more concrete, but is
also problematic.  implicit in the infinite sentences argument is that
interpretation proceeds using composition over a finite inventory.  let us
take the traffic lights example.  if I go to a culture where amber and
green comes on simultaneously, I may be able to interpret it by composing
what i know of these two colours from my culture.  it may of course be as
wrong as when i try to map my bengali words to hindi - those false friends
- and try to use them in a sentence. yet they are not completely arbitrary;
there is some systematicity to my view.  but it is my mind that gives this
systematicity, not the language of traffic lights in that new culture.
similarly, washoe's sign language is clearly compositional. ]

... strikingly, if I produce a sentence with completely new words,
e.g. Lishes rap pibs, and ask the reader to assume that this is a real
English sentence, he will be able to produce a whole set of other sentences
or sentence fragments based upon it, e.g. Pibs are ropped by lishes,
A lish rapping pibs, etc. It is clear that we have some kind of
sentence-producing mechanism - that sentences are produced anew each time and
not merely imitated.

One task of grammatical theory is to explain this quite remarkable fact.
As we shall see, many grammatical theories have failed in this, but one
solution is considered in the final chapters. 12

The word "grammar" has many interpretations

1. A grammar of a language is a book written about it.  e.g. 'May 1 borrow
   your grammar?'

2. The grammar of the language is found only in the written language - spoken
   languages have no grammar or at least fluctuate so much that they are only
   partially grammatical. This viewpoint has been supported by the etymology
   of the word 'grammar' - it comes from the Greek word meaning 'to
   write'. ... in this sense languages which have never been wriuen down
   would be said to have no grammar. But this we cannot accept. [section 1.4]

3. Some languages have grammar, others do not: Chinese, for instance, has
   no grammar, and English has precious little. What is meant by this is that
   English has very few 'inflections' - that each word has only a few
   different shapes and that in Chinese all the words keep the same
   shape. Whereas in Latin the verb amo: 'I love' has over one hundred
   different forms, the E nglish verb 'to love' has only four fOnDs: love,
   loves,loved and loving (some verbs have five: take, takes, look, taken,
   taking ), and the Chinese word for 'love' is always the same.  But this is
   to use the term 'grammar' in a very restricted sense. It refers to
   MORPHOLOGY only... A very important part of English grammar tells us that
   John saw Bill is different from Bill saw John and that a steel sheet is
   different from sheet steel...
4. Grammar is something that can be good or bad, correct or incorrect. It is
   bad (incorrect) grammar to say "It's me", for instance.
5. Some people know the grammar of their language, others do not. This is a
   little more subtle. It implies that a language does  not have a grammar
   until it is made explicit and can be learnt from a grammar book or at
   school. But there is surely a sense in which knowing the grammar of a
   language means that you can speak it grammatically...

It is fairly obvious from all this £hat I want to use the word 'grammar' in
the sense suggested [in the last point]. 14

F. R. Palmer was educated at Bristol Grammar School and New College,
Oxford. From 1950 to 1960 he was Lecturer in Linguistics at the School of
Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he undertook
research into Ethiopian languages. In 1952 he spent a year in Ethiopia
studying that country's languages - Tigrinya, Tigre, Bilin and Agaw. He
became Professor of Linguistics at University College, Bangor, in 1960, and
in 1965 he was appointed Professor of Linguistic Science at the University of
Reading.  He has lectured in most of the countries in Europe, in North and
South America, as well as in Africa, India, China and Indonesia. He is a
Fellow of the British Academy.

Professor Palmer was the editor of the JournaL of Linguistics from 1969 to
1979. His publications include The MorphoLogy of the Tigre Noun, Semantics,
Modality and the EngLish ModaLs and The EngLish Verb.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2011 Nov 01