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Grammar/syntax as a template

December 15, 2014

Grammar and syntax are respectively descriptions of how one forms and joins words to express basic ideas as clauses and how those clauses are in turn combined to express more complex ideas. Rather than prescribing how a language should be used, grammar and syntax describe how a language actually is used. So long as each individual description is consistent with the scope of usage, any number of such descriptions of any individual language is possible. Which description one chooses depends on context and purpose.

To give an example, one can describe Latin verbs in terms of six simple tenses and therefore compound tenses are described as a combination of verbs in those basic tenses and complimentary verbs forms such as infinitives and participles. For analytical and pedagogical purposes, such an approach can be highly useful because it assigns to each and every word a specific and unique function in any given sentence. Yet to most simply express the overall syntactical meaning of sentences as a whole, the notion of compound tenses is often useful. In philological terms, one may think of these alternate approaches as emphasizing either the fine details or the proverbial big picture. For learning a language, my opinion is that the analytic approach is virtually always the way to start. The more broad scope description however should accompany a deeper understanding of the target language.

A principal advantage of using an analytic approach for learning (bearing in mind that such approaches are in general non-unique) is that it minimizes the complexity of the language as a system and allows one to think of a language’s grammar and syntax in terms of a reasonably finite set of elements selected from a similarly reasonably finite set of elements. In other words, one can approach grammar/syntax via a template.

Personally, I tend to think of grammar as dealing with classes of words and their arrangement and syntax as dealing with classes of clauses and how they are put together. While I have heard of more complicated systems for classification of words, clauses and sentences, I tend to fall back on a slightly modified form of the categories I learned as a boy for English grammar; those modifications are minimal in order to accommodate the other languages I now know.

One of the most basic characteristics of clauses is basic word order. The overwhelming majority of languages can be described as either VSO or SVO. (Obviously other orders are possible but they are comparatively rare.) While these anagrams refer to verb, subject and object, most often VSO languages also characteristically tend to place modifiers after the word modified and SVO in contrast characteristically tend to place modifiers before the word modified. Even languages like Latin and Sanskrit which have highly active case systems so that word order becomes highly flexible do have a default word order; it helps the speaker process clauses more quickly and aids in the deciphering of ambiguities.

One then processes through the classes of words to see which properties apply. Nouns can have gender or similar classes, number and case. Pronouns will have the same properties as nouns and sometimes a few more; typically their properties will somehow echo their antecedents. In addition to person, number, voice, tense and mood, verbs may have gender or classes similar to nouns and indeed typically will agree in this respect with a related noun; while the examples which I already know make that agreement with a subject (after the pattern of nominative-accusative languages), generalization of the properties of nouns allows one to imagine gender agreement of verbs after the fashion of ergative-absolutive languages. Verbs can also have stem classes which modify the root meaning according to an inflectional pattern analogous in that way to a case system for nouns. Modifiers of nouns or pronouns (articles, quantifiers and/or simple adjectives) will often have to agree in their properties (e.g., gender, number and case) with the word modified. While I have never encountered a need for modifiers of verbs, adverbs or adjectives to agree, one can imagine the requirement. Conjunctions may be affixes or may differ based on class of the objects linked. Prepositions can be echoed in verbs or affixes of their objects. Particles can serve a variety of functions. Determining which properties apply to what sorts of words becomes a mental checklist when tackling a new language. (Syntactical relationships among clauses similarly fit a finite number of categories which each language builds in a particular way.)

The point without further bogging down in details is that one can and should identify the patterns a new language uses and that these patterns take certain standard forms. Then one identifies which patterns a given language uses, what if any eccentricities the target language associates with those patterns. The universals of grammar and syntax are not the specific details of any given element in a language but rather what elements a language can have.

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