Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is Grammar?

Before I get into this week's topic, I'd love to respond to the request that Rachel made in her wonderful observations and comments on my last piece, "It's Just a Formality." Rachel mentioned that perhaps I could guide her “… in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing” as far as how they address her as their patient. (And, by the way, Rachel, thank you for your terrific comments and observations!)

I’ve been in similar situations, and I’ve only found one tactful way to get my message across about not caring to be addressed by my first name when the person doing so is in a position that I feel could adversely affect my well being in one way or another. I just use that person’s first name, too. So if my doctor were to call me Richard, and I didn’t feel comfortable about him doing so, I’d simply start calling him by his first name, too, and avoid calling him “Doctor.” If my medical practitioner reacted negatively to that, I hope he’d get the message, subtle though it may be. But if he didn’t seem to mind, well, so be it. We’d both just keep addressing each other as if we were old pals. That would be fine with me ― as long as it were mutual.

I once had a principal who always called me “Firsten,” just “Firsten.” It used to drive me nuts. One day, out of total irritation, after he again addressed me as "Firsten," I called him "Leyva" (his last name). He was quite taken aback and actually came right out and said to me, “You mean Mr. Leyva, don’t you?” I retorted, “Then you mean Mr. Firsten, right?” He got the message, although with somebody like him subtlety didn’t work. But from then on, he called me “Mr. Firsten” and I called him “Mr. Leyva.” So that’s my suggestion, Rachel.
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Betty Azar posed a great question in her comments on my last piece. Betty wrote, “I have a question for you. People talk about there being a spoken grammar and a written grammar. When they say that, aren't they really talking about register and style being different? Isn't the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?”

This question couldn’t have come at a better time. One of our wonderful members in the Azar Grammar Exchange, an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia by the name of Ismael, posed a question to me that I told him would best be answered here on my blog. His question ties in perfectly with Betty’s. Ismael asked, “Is pronunciation a part of grammar?”

I smiled both when I read Ismael’s question and when I found Betty’s waiting for me, and here’s why. To begin, I’d like to quote a linguist’s definition of "grammar" to help answer these questions: The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules, which is part of every grammar of every language.*

We can tell immediately from this linguistic definition of grammar that pronunciation is indeed one of the integral parts of all the internalized rules that govern a language, and we certainly have “rules” that tell us which sounds are or are not acceptable in any given language. In fact, that’s what’s meant when we say that somebody has “an accent” in another language. It means that the speaker is imposing certain sounds of his native language onto the sound system of the other language he’s speaking. So, for example, if I use my rounded English /r/ when I speak Spanish, which has a trilled /r/, Spanish speakers will say to each other right away that I have “an accent,” an “English accent,” in their language. So that would be one part of the “grammar” of Spanish that I haven’t mastered. I hope that answers your question, Ismael.

As to what Betty has asked, I think the answer can get quite complicated. First, we probably don’t need to define what we mean by “spoken language,” but perhaps we need to do so for “written language.” I would venture to say that “written language” or “written grammar” refers to the standard, educated language and its rules used in writing and understood by all educated people who use the language in question in one specific country.

With that said, if we use the linguistic definition of a grammar, I imagine that we can say there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar, since the standard ― and I stress “standard” ― written language doesn’t need to take pronunciation, intonation, or dialectal variation into account. Here’s one case in point: In certain parts of New England, it’s perfectly correct for Person B to utter the following response in this mini-dialogue:

A: I like nothing better than watching football on Thanksgiving Day.
B: So don’t I.

Now the standard way of responding to that comment would be to say, “So do I,” and I daresay that in the written language, that would be the only acceptable sentence. But "So do I" certainly isn’t the only acceptable sentence in the spoken grammar in that part of the US. So can we say unequivocally that Person B’s response is ungrammatical? I don’t think so, not in the spoken grammar.

So I don’t think those who claim there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar are just talking about register and style. There seem to be some real differences that we can find if we look closely enough without even accounting for the areas of spoken grammar that don’t need to be dealt with in the written grammar. At least that’s my take on this topic.

I’d love to hear what others think about this issue. Have an opinion? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. What you have to say is always most welcome!


*Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1988

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