Saturday, February 14, 2009

Beyond the Grip of Grammar

Having been a teacher of the Gaelic language for nearly 28 years I have long been of the opinion that grammar taught in a very dictatorial and set way can destroy the joy of learning a language.  I write this as one who loves language and always had an academic interest in language.  However, such an academic interest is a mere personal hobby and I have found when I went too deeply into explaining grammatical rules many learners were turned off.  Also any particular  language is a multifaceted thing comprising four basic essential skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.  Then, of course, there is the whole cultural thing – a language is a language of a people and it carries many cultural references and meanings. Therefore, in this complex setting grammar plays the role of making sure that facts and information are communicated as clearly as possible.  It plays the role of a scaffolding that allows us to build effectively.  An over-emphasis on it can do much harm, and I fear this has been one of the greatest turn-offs for would-be speakers of the Irish language within our education system over the years.

Language is essentially a natural thing, while grammar is essentially artificial insofar as it lays down rules and regulations to correct unbalanced growth.  To use a helpful metaphor, grammar is a support to the delicate plant which often language is.  The contemporary philosopher, A.C. Grayling alludes to the ‘hot potato’ of language change. (The Form of Things, 43)   On the one hand the purists deprecate the falling standards among our young while on the other the liberals state that language change is as natural as growing.  A good example to my mind comes from the Gaelic.  The scholars came up with the term “fón soghluaiste” as a translation of “mobile phone” while the native speakers came up with a term that is far more natural, namely, “fón póca” which literally means a “pocket phone.”

All of us know that very few of us use correct grammar while speaking with family and friends or work colleagues during the normal course of daily existence.  In our workaday world we find no need to correct one another as the most important thing is getting the point across.  Now, I’m not arguing for a sloppiness of language.  In general, I use as good a grammatical structure to my everyday sentences as I can, while avoiding an overly stilted grammatical turn of phrase which might indicate a certain haughtiness.  Again, I remember speaking with a teaching colleague of mine who was a native Gaelic speaker about the beautiful Irish an old Christian brother whom we both knew spoke.  Tom admitted that this elderly gentleman had excellent Irish but “ní raibh a chuid Ghaeilge ró-nádurtha.  Bhí sí ró-chruinn.That is, Tom noticed that his Irish was too elegant and too correct, and, therefore, not too natural.  I learned a lot from this interchange of ideas.  A language is a natural vibrant thing, not a grammatical construct.

A.C. Grayling is interesting in his insights into the propensity in certain quarters for purity of expression.  He traces this obsession back to ancient times when language was seen as “God-given (and, in one tradition, God-confounded into many tongues as a punishment for presumption.)” (The Form of Things, 43-44) However, we do need precision of language in formal communication whether in letters, e-mails, literature or philosophy or indeed the sciences.

An interesting fact I learned from reading Grayling’s account of “Language Purity, Language Change” is the difference between a pidgin language and a creole.  He explains that pidgins are rudimentary languages developed as a convenience of communication between speakers of different languages while creoles are pidgins the first languages of children knowing no other language. (ibid., 45)  However, extreme liberalism about language and grammar can lead to a sloppiness of thought, an inaccuracy of expression and indeed very ambiguous communication.  What is at stake, then, according to Grayling, and I agree completely, is that of a balance between the extremes of a more right wing purism (even Puritanism) of language versus a more liberal left wing “anything goes” attitude.  There is a balance between being too proper and polite and being too improper and impolite in both the way we speak and indeed they way we write.  A.C. Grayling quotes the language maven William Safire as saying, and I will finish with this apt and succinct quote:

A service is therefore performed by those who ‘care for clarity and precision, who detest fuzziness of expression that reveals sloppiness or laziness of thought…’ (quoted ibid., 47)

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