Wednesday 5 May 2021

Grammar - what it leaves out

For several hundred years, some people have been interested - at times obsessed - with dividing the world up into categories, 'sets' or 'classes'. Some of these become so fixed in our mind that we can easily forget that they are made by people. They are not identical to the way the world is. They are human inventions, devised ultimately for our own use. Think of the distinctions we make in education between say, History and Geography, or between PE and Dance or between shampoo and soap. 

We have to also remember that some of our activities are not directly about the process of classifying even if they use classifications or 'types' that others have made. You could argue that the moment we begin to write or say something, we write in a 'genre' that has evolved over time: a letter, a poem, a tweet, an insult, a song...and so on. 

Some people tend to view these as rules, while others are more easy-going about it. I'm up the easy-going end of things because these are not laws, there are no genre police, and doing a bit of genre-busting can be interesting. 

This is all by preamble to what we do with language. The grammar that is taught to primary school children in England is obsessed with categorising and classifying language. It's done according to some ancient systems and in so doing slices off some crucial parts of speaking, writing, reading and listening. For a start it is based entirely on written standard English - one small part of total language output. Within this, it is based entirely on the sentence, which again is a main part of SE but not entirely so. Secondly, its systems of terminology, categorising and classifying are either based on itself or it starts from itself and maps it on to activity outside. 

So the basic notion of 'subject' and 'verb'  is not derived from how humans relate to each other. It's derived from categories from within observing language. Or if you look at a category like 'command', this isn't based on how we 'command' each other in  its entirety, but is mapped from a verb form (the 'imperative' so called) on to the way we command things of each other. However, we command each other in many different ways. This kind of 'grammar' excludes these as not being commands! 

When we are immersed in the language and classifications of this 'grammar' it's hard to see what kind of system it is, and how weak it is in explaining how we use language, how we behave with language, why we behave with language in different ways and how we change language. It is in fact a descriptive-prescriptive mess. It claims to describe but in the hands of those who demand that it be taught, instantly becomes prescriptive: you will make the subject and verb 'agree'! You will not use 'informal language'. You will use a fronted adverbial. You will expand your noun phrases. You will not mix tenses...and so on. 

I heard a national broadcaster say that she is  'bad at grammar'. What did she mean? That she didn't speak properly? That she didn't write properly? That she didn't know the names for the things she was saying and writing? How could someone end up blaming themselves for not knowing this stuff or thinking that there was something imperfect about how they spoke and interviewed people nearly every day on the radio?

The main reason is that this system - 'grammar'  - is an abstract code, a kind of maths of language - far removed from how we actually use it most of the time. It is positioned at some distance from our feelings, our reason for saying or writing something, our reason for wanting to listen or read, our emotions as we read and listen, and indeed many of our social needs to persuade, convince, coax, condemn, organise, hustle, and hundreds more.

What a bizarre state of affairs! 

Humans invent something that is fluid and total in the way that it is part of our behaviour and along came some people who've classified it in such a way as to not include the social reasons for having created it! 

The thing is though, not all 'grammars' are like this. Some people have tried to incorporate our social, historical and psychological reasons for our speech, writing, our ways of being affected, and our ways of understanding. People like M.A.K. Halliday, Dell Hymes, and a host of others who've worked in fields of eg cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, sociohistorical linguistics, the grammar of genres and styles, or 'communicative competence' and others.

I'm no expert in these but the more I dip into them, the more I am impressed by what it is many of these people have tried to do: to  locate language in our social behaviour (perhaps all behaviour is 'social'!) and in our needs. They have looked at language as a matter of eg choice, purpose, an effort to make meaning, as part of how we are with each other (social organisation, social conflict), and how we feel, how we are affected by language and how we produce 'affect' and much more. 

At first glance, this kind of thing might look much too complicated for schools. But is it? How complicated is it for students of all ages to look at advertising and to discuss what is it trying to do, why and how, and where did it's phrases and slogans come from? How hard is it to compare how different people in their lives speak or write? And then to investigate possible reasons for this. Our main instrument for using language is our voice. How hard would it be to spend time listening to different voices and discuss why we might think someone has 'soothing' voice, why someone else seems to 'sound aggressive' and so on through scores of other emotions. Every school student other than those with severe speech impairment has to use their voice to express themselves. Why is that not a subject worth studying? 

One of the consequences of the kind of 'grammar' taught in English primary schools is that it fools us into thinking that this 'grammar' has captured how language makes meaning. Its grammarians have broken Standard English down into parts, processes and functions (within itself, not social functions!) and claimed actually or by implication that this is the meaning-making machine. I play games in my shows where I tell them a line (the only line I remember) from the first poem I ever wrote. The line is 'and now the train is slowing down'. I condemn myself for having written something boring. Then I check myself and ask the audience can we make it more interesting by changing the way I say it? Happy voice? Angry voice? Sneery voice? Sad voice? In a hurry voice..and so on. It's an exercise in changing meaning through phonology and prosody, something we do all day every day, and yet is outside of the world of 'grammar'. In other words we fib to children that meaning lies in grammar and because of grammar alone. And if the argument against this is that you can't do this in writing then a hundred years or more of advertising, signage, graphic design etc have spent trillions for no purpose, no effect, no outcome.