Sunday, November 20, 2016

Spoken American Grammar

"If he was to go to the White House..."  
"A group of men were on their way..."

Languages change. We know that.  Years ago, working for yet another software development firm, I asked the engineers to write up management summaries of their parts of this project. One of them turned in work that was below high school level.  I went to his office and asked him about it.  "You write in a computer language," I said. "It has grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.  How can you not write well in your native language?"  He replied that in his mind, he was not writing sentences, but stringing connections on pulleys.  He built machines with computer code as his "Erector Set."  A few days later, he came into my office.  "Languages change," he said.  I agreed, of course.  "So, how does this happen?  Do academics and professors get together and write new rule books for us to follow?"  Of course not, I admitted. Languages change and somewhere along the way, it is noted and rules are amended. "So," he replied, pressing his point, "if you follow the manual, you are not using the current version."

Our local NPR affiliate (KUT-FM), also carries the BBC World News.  I heard a collective noun used as a plural: "The team were traveling to ..."  I perceived that as an older construction, not a modernism.

It is an interesting generalization that so-called "primitive" languages have more complicated grammars than the languages of civilized peoples.  In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe noted that Chuck Yeager sometimes fell into an archaic verb form of "helped" as "holped."  We have three tenses now with "help" as a weak verb: help, helped, has helped. In Anglo-Saxon and Old German, it was: help, halp, holpt, yholpen.  

When I was in the first grade, one of my classmates, newly arrived in Cleveland from West Virginia, always began sentences with consonants even when reading: "Hit is a dog. See the dog." Later, at the College of Charleston, my professor of German, a philologist, identified that as another archaism.  Some years later, working in Cleveland, a Slovenian colleague said that European Slovenians find American and Argentinian Slovenians speaking with rural forms no longer heard back home.

Another change, brought into common American by African-American urbanites is the strong past tense.  "I had gone to the store." for "I went to the store."  

I believe that the reflexive is also fading.  "I did it for me." rather than "I did it for myself." 

Maybe I just notice these because I heart languages.  I believe that the fundamental purpose of language is to enable thinking.  Communication with others is a secondary consequence.  It is true that human language evolved from animal calls. However, that is in our past, and for about 5000 years, self-awareness has been the primary function of modern language.

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