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)

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mystery of Language

I have always fancied that somehow language developed somewhere in some prehistoric caves as our first human ancestors began to grunt at each other as they embraced in animal passion.  From there I imagine that human emotions began to emerge and with them sounds to indicate those basic feelings like happiness, sadness, regret, disgust, joy, fun, and a plethora of others.  Gradually as human civilization emerged after the development of farming between the great rivers Euphrates and the Tigris (Sumerian/Babylonian), along the banks of the Nile (Egyptian) and indeed the great Chinese civilization also around the banks of the great rivers there.  Once human beings began to live in communities, needless to say cultures developed and with them the more sophisticated development of languages to meet the ever-growing needs of community or society living.  However, I always fancy that these layers were laid down on the more primitive foundations of the language of basic emotions.  Again this is my imagination working here, and, indeed, I may be wrong in my presuppositions and suppositions, but no matter.  It is language in its very mystery that I am exploring here.  Again let me explain.

I am a lover of languages.  Most Monday evenings I attend a scambio linguistico at our central library in Dublin where I converse in Italian with native speakers.  They speak some Italian with me and I speak some English with them in return.  I learn really natural expressions and sayings and phrases one might not get in a more formal setting.  By day I teach a little Gaeilge, French and Italian at school.  Again the quality may not be brilliant, yet it is the very love of these languages that matters.  This morning I was teaching two boys with Asperger Syndrome some French.  We are progressing slowly with the help of CDs spoken by native speakers and, needless to say, a very good textbook.  We managed also to talk about similarities between French and Italian as we discussed various words and indeed various grammatical structures. But essentially, it was and is the sounds that rooted me and my students.  Again, I fancy that all languages are essentially about sounds and making sounds.  To want to speak a language is about learning to love sounds. That’s very basic indeed, but the most important reason to learn a language.

Let’s listen to a few words from the great contemporary philosopher, A.C. Grayling with respect to language:

Mystery and controversy are directly proportional: the less we know about something, the more we argue over it.  Language is a prime example.  It is the supreme characteristic of human beings … Yet the origins of language are shrouded in obscurity, and so is its nature.  Philosophers still struggle to explain how meaning attaches to the signs we use in communicating with each other, and psychophysiologists still labour to understand the basis of linguistic capacity in the brain..  Much has been learned about these matters in recent times, but that much is a speck compared with the mountains of ignorance that remain.  (The Form of Things, 43)

This is a wonderfully succinct and beautiful passage to my mind.  I love Grayling for his conciseness of thought and for his marvellous insights into the nature of things.  However, I love his writing all the more because he is a brilliant stylist who is crystal clear.  One gets a clarity in Grayling that one often does not find in other philosophers. 

However, I will return to my class of this morning.  There were only two students and I sharing our love for words and essentially for sounds.  Sometimes grammar can be a block to that, if the teacher puts too much of an emphasis on it and forgets that the really essential thing in a language is communication and that real communication is often something beautiful and issues in wonderful sounds made by wonderful human beings.


To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of some grafitti on the light above the lighthouse at Howth, Dublin. This illustrates one of the uses of language!