With the disappearance of Posterous, this blog will close on 30 April. I have created a successor blog on the WordPress platform with the name of Caxton. Most of the posts from this blog are available there in the Archive.
'In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called 'ungrammatical' expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct. (Henry Sweet, 1891)
With the disappearance of Posterous, this blog will close on 30 April. I have created a successor blog on the WordPress platform with the name of Caxton. Most of the posts from this blog are available there in the Archive.
As part of the Open University’s ‘English Grammar in Context’ module, I carried out a small research project last year on the language used in the party political speeches delivered by David Cameron and Ed Miliband at their party conferences in 2011. It isn’t exactly required reading, but you can glance at it here if you want to.
In brief, I had wondered if the language that the party leaders used told us anything about their attitudes to their audiences and to the electorate at large. I thought that the language used by a Labour leader might be more demotic than the language used by a Conservative leader. I came to the rather uninteresting conclusion that it wasn’t. What the research did show, however, was that the language of both leaders was less formal than that used by their predecessors as shown in a corpus of conference speeches over the preceding ten years.
I mention this, not because I have discovered any new insights into political discourse, but because it shows the potential of corpus linguistics to confirm or, perhaps more often, challenge, our intuitions. However, many, I suspect, will prefer to live with their prejudices.
The Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports that Swiss German, until now almost only ever spoken, is the language of choice in computer mediated communication for the young of German-speaking Switzerland. It is taking on a written form to an unprecedented extent. According to the article, it could become a parallel written language alongside standard High German. Such a view reflects a realistic approach to language, which many commentators on English, particularly the uninformed, could with benefit adopt.
In a post a couple of years ago, I mentioned briefly how the various Swiss German dialects exist alongside the standard variety of the language. Towards the end of last year, I described the attempts being made to start teaching one or other of the Swiss German regional dialects in French-speaking schools before the introduction of High German. Reporting a further development, the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently carried an article about the way in which technology is prompting young Swiss to produce a written form of Swiss German. The article mentions in particular the Facebook group, Schwiizerdütsch. It is liked by over 270,000, much more than is the case with comparable German language and English language sites. A request for dialect words for Pfütze (puddle) prompted 1400 comments.
The article suggests that such developments put an end to any idea that Swiss German is any longer a purely colloquial medium. Technology has led to an increase in the amount of writing produced generally, and the use of spoken Swiss German for writing is an unexpected result. A parallel written language seems to be emerging, more spontaneous and less formal than the traditional form. Helen Christen, Professor of German Linguistics at the University of Freiburg, is quoted as saying ‘For young people, what we use in speech has recently become reflected in the written language. Personal matters are expressed in the spoken language, public matters in the standard language. Young people are becoming bilingual in their written language.'
The first signs of unifying tendencies are already present. Conventions are appearing, such as sh for sch and x for gs. So, High German Hast du gesehen ('Have you seen?') is Hesch gesehen in Swiss German, which gets abbreviated to Hesh xeh. The shorter, the better – and, in text messages, cheaper. The young are leading the way. They are writing in this style to their elders and they even send emails to their teachers in the spoken language, something unthinkable ten years ago.
All this is inevitably having an effect on the use of High German. For many Swiss, there is no place in everyday communication for High German from which they feel an emotional detachment. The local dialect is the preferred medium for the expression of private and intimate thoughts. Closely allied to this is the question of identity. ‘Rescue your colloquial language’ proclaims the Facebook site, ‘Swiss German risks being lost, and it’s important to distinguish ourselves from our northern neighbours.’
It could be that in the foreseeable future two forms of the written language will emerge. Written dialect may come to be used not only for private matters, but for public ones as well. Such a development would not be unprecedented. In Luxembourg in 1984, Lëtzebuergesch, a collection of local dialects, was named a national language. A grammar was compiled and to some extent it is used in schools. Officials are required to answer letters in the language in which they are written. Newspapers carry articles in Lëtzebuergesch as well as French and High German. Here's an example, from Wikipedia:
'D'Schwäiz ass e Staat a Mëtteleuropa. D'Land grenzt am Norden un Däitschland, am Osten u Liechtenstein an Éisträich, am Süden un Italien an am Westen u Frankräich.'
It may only be a matter of time, concludes the article, before we can read in Wikipedia about Luxembourg in Swiss German.
I have reported this at some length, because it contrasts with the rigid way in which many people think about English. No social stigma is attached to the regional Swiss German dialects in the way that many English regional dialects are spurned. We rightly pride ourselves on the ability of Standard English to be widely understood, even though it is not widely spoken. We should be less proud of the belief that other forms of the language are worthless. David Crystal has tried to debunk the myths surrounding computer mediated communication, in his book ‘Txtng: The GR8 Db8’ and in this interview. I hope that this post may lead any who read it to pay attention to his expert evaluation, based as always on sound research and imbued with good sense.
Linguistic variation, particularly in vocabulary, in the different dialects of Swiss German exceeds that found in the English spoken in the United Kingdom, where regional and social variation is much more noticeable in accent. But there is a difference between the formal written language, that is, the Standard English dialect, and the language of posts on Facebook, emails, texts and so on. Those who can express themselves in both varieties of the language, and who are sensitive to the occasions on which each is appropriate, will have the greatest chance of communicating effectively, and may even have some fun along the way.
The following examples show the possibilities for forming an integrated ('defining' or 'restrictive') relative clause:
(1) The man to whom I gave the money has disappeared.
(2) The man I gave the money to has disappeared.
(3) The man who I gave the money to has disappeared.
(4) The man that I gave the money to has disappeared.
(1) is used in the most formal contexts, and (2) is perhaps the most frequent pattern in informal conversation. (3) and (4) may be the least likely to occur, but they are nevertheless grammatical.
(1), (3) and (4) use additional words (to whom, who, that), all of which have traditionally been regarded as relative pronouns. However, in his ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’, Bas Aarts points out that that, unlike who and whom (and which and whose), cannot be used with a preposition. *‘The man to that I gave the money has disappeared’ is clearly ungrammatical. For that reason, Aarts does not an analyse that as a relative pronoun, but as a subordinating conjunction.In (4), for example, he would say that there is an implicit relativized element, for which he uses the symbol Ø, so ‘The man that [Ø] I gave the money has disappeared.’
Where the relativized element is not the subject of the relative clause, the additional word may be dropped, as (2) shows. That is not possible where the relativized element is the subject. Then, either the relative pronoun who or the subordinating conjunction that must be used. That gives us, in the case of the former, an example such as:
(5) The man who lent me the money wants it back.
Using that, we get:
(6) The man that [Ø] lent me the money wants it back.
Some might object that a relative clause that refers to a human antecedent cannot be introduced by that. That may well be true of supplementary ('non-defining' or 'non-restrictive') relative clauses, but it has never been true of integrated relative clauses. The objection has even less ground once that is no longer seen as a relative pronoun.
Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. All Swiss learn at least one language other than their own at school. French-speaking Swiss learn German as their second language, but they learn the standard variety, Hochdeutsch. The Education Department of Canton Geneva is now proposing that French speakers should first learn one of the regional German dialects before learning Hochdeutsch. Details (auf Deutsch) here (note the multi-lingual headline) and here.
To get an idea of what this means, imagine that Welsh was the first language of most people living in Wales, and was a national language that could be used for official purposes throughout the United Kingdom. Imagine, too, that the Welsh have been learning Standard English at school, alongside Welsh, but that the Welsh Education Department thought that children should learn one of the regional dialects of the English-speaking part of the United Kingdom before learning Standard English.
It, of course, is a false comparison. The UK is not a federal state in the way that Switzerland is. English regional dialects do not differ as much as Swiss German ones, and Welsh is not spoken as widely in Wales as French is spoken in French-speaking Switzerland. But it does highlight the status given to regional dialects compared with the standard variety of a language. As I have previously posted, no Swiss German regional dialect is regarded as linguistically, socially or intellectually inferior to any other, or to the standard. This latest move by the authorities in Geneva reinforces this position, and Switzerland, in this area of public life, as elsewhere, can give a lesson to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t listening.
Further discussion, uf Schwiizerdütsch, here.
In the early twentieth century, researchers such as John Firth (1890-1960) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) paved the way for a new approach to language which sees language in terms of what it does rather than what it is. This approach is known as systemic functional linguistics, and the term functional grammar is used to describe how words function in a clause. The linguist most closely associated with functional grammar is Michael Halliday (born 1925).
Halliday’s work and that of his colleagues produced a system which analyses texts in terms of three metafunctions. The Experiential metafunction is concerned with meaning, that is, with the way language interprets experience. The Interpersonal metafunction is concerned with the personal relationships that a text establishes and reflects. The Textual metafunction is concerned with the way in which information is organised in a text. The three metafunctions show how texts vary according to register. The broadest distinction is between written and spoken registers, and there are increasingly fine distinctions to be made within each register. The register variables which constitute the Experiential metafunction are referred to as Field, those which constitute the Interpersonal metafunction as Tenor, and those which constitute the Textual metafunction as Mode. Conversation, for example, may be characterised by elements of Mode, such as turn-taking and interruptions. A certain distance between speaker and audience, an element of Tenor, may, on the other hand, be found in a lecture or a sermon.
In analysing a clause, traditional grammar uses terms such as subject, object, verb and so on. These are useful in describing clause structure. Functional grammar adds to this by using descriptions which relate the grammar more closely to the world it describes. For example, traditional grammar analyses a sentence such as ‘Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo’ as
(1a) Wellington [Subject] defeated [Verb] Napoleon [Object] at Waterloo [Adverbial].
Functional grammar sees it as
(1b) Wellington [Participant] defeated [Process] Napoleon [Participant] at Waterloo [Circumstance].
Participant and Process are generic terms which can be made more specific according to their nature. In (1), defeated is a Material Process, in that it describes something which happens in the world. The Participants in Material Processes are Actors that initiate a process, and Goals that complement it.
There are three other main kinds of Process.
A Mental Process describes what goes on in the mind rather than the external world. In a clause such as
(2) Wellington hated Napoleon
the grammatical relationship between Wellington and Napoleon seems to be different from that in (1). In (2), nothing directly happens to Napoleon if Wellington hates him, but in (1) something very clearly does happen to him if he defeats him. Traditional grammar analyses the two clauses in the same way – Subject, Verb, Object – but that seems inadequate, given the different type of relationship between the protagonists. Functional grammar overcomes this difficulty by treating them differently. In a Mental Process such as this, the first Participant is said to be the Senser and the second the Phenomenon.
A clause such as
(3) Wellington was a great general
is centred on a Relational Process in functional grammar terms. Traditional grammar analyses it not as Subject-Verb-Object, but as Subject-Verb-Complement, because be is a type of verb called a copula, which equates the two parts of the clause. (The Complement in such cases is also known as the Subject Predicative.) This is helpful, but, again, functional grammar uses a different set of terms to indicate more precisely the various functions involved. Wellington is a particular kind of Participant known as the Value, and a great general as the Token.
A Verbal Process introduces a further set of terms. In a sentence such as
(4) Wellington explained the battle plan to his troops
Wellington is the Sayer, explained is the Verbal Process, the battle plan is the Verbiage and to his troops is the Receiver. Traditional grammar, by contrast, sees no difference between the battle plan, and Napoleon as in (1) or (2), and yet there is clearly a different relationship between these elements of the clause.
Functional grammar is not well known in the UK or North America and seems, indeed, to have its intellectual home in Australia, perhaps because Michal Halliday, British by birth, was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. Those wishing to study and use it must get used to a new analytical apparatus, with many unfamiliar terms. Those terms often have fuzzy boundaries, and don’t always seem to fit the text under examination. Deciding what kind of Process is expressed in any particular clause can be a subjective matter. The same element seems sometimes to occur in more than one register variable. Nevertheless, any system which considers language as meeting a particular need, at a particular place at a particular time is to be valued. As Halliday has said, ‘The particular form taken by the grammatical system of language is closely related to the social and personal needs that language is required to serve.’
Anyone who is prompted by this to take the subject further might like to try Geoff Thompson’s. ‘Introducing Functional Grammar’.
English plural and genitive nouns give plenty of scope for variety. A garden centre near where I live has a restaurant. Its website speaks of
a Hungry Gardeners Breakfast
Panini’s and ciabattas
tasty homemade pies, quiches and ploughman’s
The apostrophe has much confusion to answer for.
‘One Language, Many Voices’ was the title of an exhibition at the British Library in 2010-11. It sums up what English is and always has been. This simple truth is overlooked by those who take a one-size-fits-all approach to language. An historical perspective may help to set the record straight.
English has its origins in the various north-west European dialects which were spoken by the tribes who invaded England from the middle of the fifth century, and which displaced the native Celtic, which remains only in a few words like brock (badger), cwm (valley) and some place names. The surviving literature from the period allows us to identify an Anglo-Saxon language, now usually known as Old English. However, the texts we have still show dialectical differences, and it seems likely that the spoken dialects of Old English were sometimes mutually incomprehensible.
For a period, the Wessex dialect was the most prestigious, showing that then, as now, any one variety of the language predominates not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social ones. However, the language was by no means static during this period, because the rule of the Wessex king, Alfred the Great, coincided with the Viking invasions, which brought new words and new grammar into English which remain with us today.
The next most significant influence on the language was the Norman invasion of 1066. So pervasive was Norman French that it eclipsed English for many years in the administration of the country, but although Norman French was the official language, we may suppose that English, in all its varieties, continued to be spoken by the majority. English later resurfaced in public discourse, and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading allowed it to be used in Parliament. Soon after this time, Chaucer was writing the first great works of English literature in a form of the language that is much more recognizably English than its Old English predecessor. Chaucer wrote in his own dialect, which happened to be that of the east Midlands, spoken in the triangle formed by Oxford, Cambridge and London. The language spoken and written at this time is known as Middle English, but great literature survives in dialects other than Chaucer’s, including William Langland’s ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’.
Chaucer had a stroke of luck when William Caxton, the first English printer, came to print Chaucer’s works. Because of the proliferation of dialects, Caxton was unsure which to use in his printed books, so he just chose the one he was most familiar with, his own. This happened to be Chaucer’s as well, so the combination of a great writer and the first printer determined the course of English ever after. This particular dialect, which was to become the basis of what we now know as Standard English, was not chosen because it had some particular linguistic merit that other dialects lacked. Any other dialect would have served just as well.
Middle English turned into Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, but there is evidence from his plays that other dialects existed alongside what was becoming the standard one. The conscious process of standardisation didn’t begin until the eighteenth century, when speakers of English, most of whom until then had probably never given the matter a second thought, started to become self-conscious about their use of language and sought guidance. As today, there was no shortage of self-styled experts willing to help them out. They made up rules about English, which reflected their own personal preferences, and were based on Latin, a language which has a quite different grammar from that of English and other Germanic languages. Their idiosyncratic prescriptions remain with us. To some they are as holy writ and are stoutly defended by people who know little of their origins. In truth, they are shibboleths, whose main purpose is to allow those with a little education to show their assumed superiority over those who have been unfortunate enough to have had less.
Since the eighteenth century, English has changed, and become more widely spoken, in ways that earlier speakers could not have imagined. It has absorbed vocabulary from around the world and, thanks first to the British Empire and, since the start of the twentieth century, to the global influence of the United States, has become the first international language since Latin.
The history of English is complex and long, but this very brief summary is necessary for countering the prejudices that all too often typify discussion of the language today. It is the failure to appreciate that English exists in many varieties, as it has always done, that is behind much misunderstanding. Within the United Kingdom alone, some regional dialects can be almost incomprehensible to those from other regions, and so can some social dialects to those from different social classes. More widely, there are varieties of English spoken in Singapore, New Zealand, Nigeria, India, Canada and the United States, to name just a few places where English is either a first or second language, and within these English-speaking communities there will be further sub-varieties.
All varieties, standard and non-standard alike, have an internally consistent system of grammar, and speakers of non-standard varieties are not, by that fact alone, inarticulate, unintelligent or ignorant. The difficulty in understanding those who speak differently from ourselves often lies in accent rather than grammar or vocabulary. As Peter Trudgill has shown, the grammar of nonstandard varieties does not differ so very greatly from Standard English. Where it does, it can be more complex. For example, as Trudgill says,
‘Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I does, he does or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary did and main verb done, as in You done it, did you?’
Nevertheless, some form of commonly understandable norm is essential, and Standard English fills the role. It is the variety of the language used in published work, and in education, journalism and broadcasting, the law and public administration, and by the small minority of people for whom it is a native spoken variety. Provided it is understood as a neutral term, not implying ‘high standard’, Standard English is preferable to alternatives such as BBC English, Oxford English or The Queen’s English, and is the one used by professional linguists. If not universally spoken and written, it is widely understood, and for that reason schools in the United Kingdom and in other English-speaking countries have a duty to teach it.
None of this should be seen as undervaluing the linguistic merits of nonstandard varieties. They contribute to the richness of the language which we have inherited from those diverse tribes who came to Britain so long ago. We should celebrate rather than condemn them.
The use of I in coordination, both as object and following a preposition, arouses much passion. I’m thinking of cases such as between you and I and They invited my wife and I. I mentioned its use by David Miliband in a previous post. Perhaps the first thing to say about it is that those who regard the construction as an abomination of modern times are suffering from the Recency Illusion. One of the earliest instances of it recorded in the OED is the following (first brought to my attention by Peter Harvey's post) from ‘The Merchant of Venice’:
‘Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death.’
It is dramatic dialogue, and the words are Bassanio’s rather than Shakespeare’s. In fact, they’re not even Bassanio’s, because they’re in a letter he has received, but the language is otherwise unexceptionable. There is nothing here to suggest that Shakespeare was trying to make a point about the character of the writer of the letter. Still, let us suppose that such a construction was not what the best people were using at the time. The mere fact that Shakespeare reproduces it can only mean that it had some currency in at least the colloquial language of his contemporaries.
We cannot, of course, argue that, because a usage is found hundreds of years ago, we are justified in using it today. However, the OED has citations for these constructions from every century from the sixteenth to the twentieth. There is thus good evidence of continuity in its use from Shakespeare onwards. The OED, it is true, does comment that ‘it has been considered ungrammatical since the 18th cent.’, but the OED, as is its practice, steers clear of saying that it is ungrammatical and fails to tell us who considers it so.
Inflections in general, and those of pronouns in particular, have been subject to erosion over many centuries. For personal pronouns alone, Old English had inflections for four cases, and singular, dual and plural numbers. No one, I imagine, suggests we return to that. The variation that has been apparent for several centuries in the use of the first person singular pronoun seems to be part of the process of erosion. Constructions like between you and me and between you and I and They invited my wife and me and They invited my wife and I will co-exist until one, quite possibly the second in each case, becomes universal. After that me could disappear altogether from Standard English, surviving only in nonstandard dialect forms such as Me and the wife was down the pub last night. There seem to be similar developments in other persons of the pronoun. Language Log has recorded examples such as in I'll be voting for he and for Vice President Joe Biden next month, and I recently saw familiar to all we cat lovers.
The language peevers, like the poor, are always with us, as I have been reminded in re-reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. Here is an exchange between the mayor, Michael Henchard, and the daughter he takes to be his:
It was dinner-time—they never met except at meals—and she happened to say when he was rising from table, wishing to show him something, “If you'll bide where you be a minute, father, I'll get it.”
“'Bide where you be,'” he echoed sharply, “Good God, are you only fit to carry wash to a pig-trough, that ye use such words as those?”
She reddened with shame and sadness.
“I meant 'Stay where you are,' father,” she said, in a low, humble voice. “I ought to have been more careful.”
Much later, when he is out of office and out of favour, he addresses her thus:
‘You must be tired out, too, with sitting up. Now do you bide here with me this morning. You can go and rest in the other room; and I will call ’ee when breakfast is ready.’
Does he, like other peevers, say one thing and do another, or is Hardy trying to reflect Henchard’s reduced circumstances in his language?