Grammarians versus Linguists

User With No Name

Senior Member
English - U.S.
My guess--although I can't prove it, is that most of the people who post in these forums are interested primarily in grammar and usage as traditionally understood. Whether language students, teachers, writers, editors or translators, most of us are looking for answers to things like "Should this verb be singular or plural?" or "Does this sentence sound natural to a native speaker?"

Some participants, however, clearly have a background in linguistics. They speak an entirely different, well, language. They use very different terminology, and they tend to be very reluctant to be prescriptive about any aspect of usage.

Sometimes, of course, the two groups have meaningful interactions. But in several cases that I've observed, they don't seem to communicate particularly well, and I suspect it leaves both groups frustrated at times.

So here's my question: What is the relationship between grammar/usage and the science of linguistics? Do grammarians (for lack of a better term) and linguists even have very much to say to each other? Or is the relationship perhaps more like that of physician and biologists, who in some vague sense have the same object of study, but whose approaches and goals are completely different, and who probably have very little in common professionally?

Discuss, please.
 
  • Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    If asked what colour wild poppies are most people will say they are red. Now, if you are a botanist who sets out to study poppies you may do so believing they are all red. However, field research may reveal that some poppies are a different colour. say white or yellow. Clearly you cannot ignore that and need to record it, noting how many white or yellow poppies you found. You will not describe white or yellow poppies as "incorrect". If someone asks if there are blue poppies and you have never seen one, the correct response is not that there are no blue poppies, but that none are recorded.

    The approach of a linguist (here for the avoidance of doubt meaning someone versed in the social science of linguistics as opposed to someone who speaks foreign languages) is similar to that of the botanist - he reports what he finds and not what he expected to find. Linguistics as a subject ranges over many fields in some of which value judgements play more of a part than others. What is being focused on here is the branch of linguistics which focuses on describing a language in terms of its grammar, in particular its morphology (how words are formed) and syntax (how words are ordered). Those aspects can be described without engaging any value judgements, though opinions may differ on the terms in which the language should be described. The linguist therefore sets out to describe a language according to what he finds without any notions of correctness.

    The terms "linguist" and "grammarian" can overlap and were once perhaps more or less virtually synonymous, but what I think is being suggested here is that a grammarian is someone who perceives his task to be didactic, that is to set out rules for the correct use of a language.

    The role of the linguist as set out in the second paragraph ("descriptive") and the role of the grammarian ("prescriptive") are not opposed but complementary. Linguists do not object to the grammars (i.e. books) used for teaching languages as they are a necessary tool. It is perhaps when standard language comes up against non-standard language that misunderstandings arise. A linguist will insist that both standard and non-standard languages are complete systems with their own rules. He will argue that, whilst it is perfectly proper, if not desirable, to teach children the canons of the standard language, it should not be done insisting that any non-standard variety is incorrect or inferior. They do not advocate an "anything goes" attitude when it comes to the standard language.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I am primarily interested in those rules of language that, basically, all native speakers can apply by the age of about eight or ten, and that all native speakers broadly agree on. Such subjects as tense, aspect, conditionality, modality, syntax. These rules often prove extraordinarily difficult to describe and explain. They seem to relate to logic processes and to other underlying ways to think about the world.

    I am also interested in how language varies from place to place and from time to time, such as when we try to understand writing from centuries ago or from far-flung places.

    Some grammarians spend their time attempting to define standard English. The purpose of this can be to promote understanding, which is fine. But I worry that the purpose is often to perpetuate shibboleths.

    (I think #2 says a lot of this in a different way.)
     
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    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I am primarily interested in those rules of language that, basically, all native speakers can apply by the age of about eight or ten, and that all native speakers broadly agree on. Such subjects as tense, aspect, conditionality, modality, syntax. These rules often prove extraordinarily difficult to describe and explain. They seem to relate to logic processes and to other underlying ways to think about the world.

    I am also interested in how language varies from place to place and from time to time, such as when we try to understand writing from centuries ago or from far-flung places.

    Some grammarians spend their time attempting to define standard English. The purpose of this can be to promote understanding, which is fine. But I worry that the purpose is often to perpetuate shibboleths.

    (I think #2 says a lot of this in a different way.)
    Grammarians became popular objects of hate and ridicule in the English speaking world, but I think their attempts at regulate the language are praiseworthy. They try to* keep a kind of system and predictability in the language, which has a tendency to split and run in all directions like a herd of scared sheep.

    I would not use the fashionable form"try and keep", because it sounds so nonsencical to me.
     
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    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    My feeling is that the English language is becoming more uniform across the world, a process that has accelerated over the past one or two hundred years as the influence of global mass media has increased. There has been some fightback in the form of argots, but basically dialects are disappearing like Amazon rain forest species!
    I doubt the puny prescriptive linguists are an essential part of this process.
     
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    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    My feeling is that the English language is becoming more uniform across the world, a process that has accelerated over the past one or two hundred years as the influence of global mass media has increased. There has been some fightback in the form of argots, but basically dialects are disappearing like Amazon rain forest species!
    I doubt the puny prescriptive linguists are an essential part of this process.
    Quite opposite! Nobody speaks standard language in Britain any longer. More and more incomprehensive dialects take over.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Posts 5 and 6 are both right in different ways. As a written standard, English used internationally is essentially one thing. Any local differences are minor and the written language can hardly be described as pluricentric. That is unlikely to change any time soon.

    Certainly in England, regional varieties are evening out. I was recently in the West Midlands and Liverpool and rather disappointed not to hear much speech which matched my idea of what I imagined the locals would sound like. That may at least in part be attributable to most people being bivarietal. If I had been able to eavesdrop on a conversation in a pub involving a discussion of the fortunes of the local football club it might have been different.

    Equally though, new varieties are emerging. Some though will only turn out to be ephemeral argots with limited circulation. A young person wanting a sub from granny will make she understands.

    As for comprehensibility, go back 70 years and a Cornishman would have a more than a spot of bother understanding a Geordie in full flow.
     

    Michael Zwingli

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.A. - New England)
    My feeling is that the English language is becoming more uniform across the world...
    My thought is that @Hulalessar is right, but that there is more than one phenomenon occurring. Here's an anecdote. I participated in a history forum for a time. One brief interaction that I had there was with an obviously young Swiss kid, who annoyingly wrote as if he were a young "urban" American. Absurdly, I had a mental image of a young, blond kid wearing lederhosen and a New York Yankees cap turned sideways! I chastised him for what I viewed as unabashed mimicry, and a failure to "be himself" by developing his own manner of exression. Point is, there is a certain mode of (young, urban) American speech which seems to appeal to young people all over the world in speaking English. Unfortunately, there seems to be a certain asocial mindset (the American malady...apotheosis of individualism) which accompanies these speech patterns.

    I offer the foregoing in support of my opinion that dialectal globalizations are, indeed, occurring, but in new ways, aided by the omnipresence of global communications and media. Whether we like it or not, it seems to be occurring within social strata and subgroups in countries across the world, and in complete ignorance of the old national cultures.
     
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    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    I haven't really seen this division in these forums. Practically everyone who answers is descriptive: this is what native speakers say, this sounds natural, and so on. Very few people argue for prescriptive rules against what is commonly said. (And I'm thankful that we don't have to constantly fight against that.)

    The division of trained linguist against general user is only that some of us have a background in theory that allows us to do various things - perhaps to compare against other languages, perhaps to formulate examples that test various possibilities. I don't always have a confident answer. But sometimes my linguist's knowledge of the theory lets me construct situations that test whether a certain phrasing is possible.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Nobody speaks standard language in Britain any longer. More and more incomprehensive dialects take over.
    Have you ever tried listening to recordings from the first half of the twentieth century of, for example, coal miners from Yorkshire or Lanarkshire, or sugar cutters from Jamaica or Barbados?

    It is useful to have a global standard form of English that everyone can understand, and that everyone can speak if they wish to contribute to the global culture of the English language in a way that is widely understood. But I think that it is also important to value and celebrate diversity in language (like all other kinds of tolerant diversity) as an essential tool to promote respect and integration.

    It is important to remember that there are many parts of the world where it is difficult to celebrate diversity in language. I am thinking of Ukraine, where the role of Russian language, the Ukrainian language, and no doubt various inbetweenies, are political footballs in a deadly struggle. I feel that, fortunately, this need not be a problem in the English-speaking world.
     
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    User With No Name

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Thanks to all who replied. Despite being the original poster, I haven't had much to add to the discussion, but I have been following it with interest.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    English has a variety of different sounds. We call them "regional accents". They are only mutually intelligible after practice. At age 6, I only understood local people. Over the years I've learned how to understand many others -- even some UK accents :eek:.

    Even so, English is more unified than some languages: for the most part, people use the same words and just pronounce them differently. Some languages have "regional dialects" that are almost different languages.

    To a grammarian, English consists of phonemes. All those different sounds (in all those dialects) mean the same word. The usage of those words in sentences is what matters, not the sounds. "Grammars" are an attempt to describe how things are actually spoken (in phonemes, not sounds) -- how words express ideas. Each language has its own grammar.

    To a linguist, each dialect is a different set of sounds. They research, study and describe those sounds. They often study multiple languages. They might study a speaker from Maine, then one from Texas, then a Russian speaker from Moscow, then publish a paper comparing the sounds.
     

    Michael Zwingli

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.A. - New England)
    To a grammarian...The usage of...words in sentences is what matters, not the sounds. "Grammars" are an attempt to describe how things are actually spoken (in phonemes, not sounds) -- how words express ideas. Each language has its own grammar.
    Out of curiosity, how would you classify Jamaican Patois under this definition? It's grammar differs from standard British and U.S. English in a number of respects. For instance, the formation of the continuous aspect of a verb omits "to be": "Me go de store now" = "I am going to the store now". I have always considered Patios to be a dialect of English, but under your paradigm, if a language is construed as something defined by a grammar...by a set of grammatical rules, it might seem to be a different language entirely.
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    There is definitely a "grey area", including pidgins, creoles, and Patois languages. From what little I've read, some people consider Jamaican Patois a language, while others consider it a dialect. Some also distinguish "Jamaican English" from "Jamaican Patois". This article considers them different languages. It says that about 50,000 Jamaicans speak Jamaican English, while 2.7 million speak Jamaican Patois:

    What Language Is Spoken In Jamaica?

    Me, I'll let the linguist decide...or is it the grammarians? :)
     

    Sobakus

    Senior Member
    What @dojibear calls “grammarians” in #17 is actually linguists, and those who study and describe sounds are linguists who specialise in phonetics, i.e. phoneticians.

    “Grammarians” as a term is outdated today. Originally it referred to anyone who studied or taught anything language- or literature-related, or in other words, to the study of letters, Grk. γραμμά/-ή. Today we would distinguish linguists from philologists from literary historians from school teachers from university lecturers, while in Latin all can be described by the term grammaticus.

    The narrow definition of “grammar” as referring to syntax and morphology only, and the focus on the same two areas at school grammar lessons, leads to the use of “grammarian” to mean “author of normative works on syntax and morphology”. But as this term is clearly associted with old-timey snobbish prescriptivism and beating children with sticks, I would not expect even those authors to label themselves with it today.

    The term thus remains in use predominantly to refer to those scholars of language or literature who lived and worked before the rise of modern linguistics in the latter part of the 19th century, when it gets replaced by “Sprachwissenschaftler”, “linguist” and other terms.

    As a piece of related trivia, Russian грамоте́й /grama'tej/ formerly meaning “a literate person; a grammar teacher” and uttered by peasants with an air of reverence and envy, is now only used ironically to mean “smarty pants”.
     
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    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    There is a word "linguistician" (first attested in 1895) but it has never caught on. "Linguist" dates back to the 1580s and meant "master of languages" before it meant "professional versed in linguistics". Most dictionaries give the former as the first definition. Context usually tells you which is meant, but "polyglot" can always be used for the first sense. The Chartered Institute of Linguists is an association for professional translators and interpreters.
     

    Michael Zwingli

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.A. - New England)
    Linguist" dates back to the 1580s and meant "master of languages" before it meant "professional versed in linguistics".
    Thanks...love etymology. Rather, I think "teacher of languages", eh? Not so much the Greek -ισμός, but Latin (particularly Late/early Medieval Latin) -ismus (whence our suffix) carried the sense of "the adherence to, teaching of, or indeed preaching of, a doctrine (connoted by our "-ism")". The semantic leap from Ancient Greek general abstract nouns in -ισμός to Latin particular abstract nouns denoting schools of thought in -ismus is, I suppose, evidence of emerging Medieval theological discourse...a product of the church, though I think it predated scholasticism.
     
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    User With No Name

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Sorry, my choice of the word "grammarians" was probably unfortunate. Rather than a certain type of specialist in language, I was referring more to those of us who use the traditional vocabulary for speaking about language (subject, verb, preposition, direct object) and who are generally more concerned about deciding whether a particular utterance is "correct" (whatever that means). In other words, people like writers, editors, translators and language learners. The conflict I sometimes see on these forums is between that group on the one hand and professional linguists (think "professors in university departments of linguistics"), whose criteria and goals for describing language tend to be quite different.
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    "Linguist" dates back to the 1580s and meant "master of languages" before it meant "professional versed in linguistics". Most dictionaries give the former as the first definition. Context usually tells you which is meant, but "polyglot" can always be used for the first sense.
    I suspect that each of these terms is used (mis-used?) by many people with many different meanings.

    I know "polyglot" is. Many Americans lump everything together: you either "speak" a language (read, write, listen, speak, and do them all fluently) or you don't. That definition leaves most of the people in the world "in between": they are not fluent in every skill, in one or more languages they use frequently and comfortably. Real polyglots complain about the term "polyglot". Other foreign-language-learners avoid the term. Why should "fluency in all skills" be a goal? Do I get a prize? "Hello Kitty" stickers?

    Of course many Americans speak only English, so they have no clue how to learn to use another language. They use "polyglot" as if it meant "mighty magician".

    At least "linguistics" is a well-define field of study, taught at many universities around the world. If you are studying in that field, you're a "linguist". It's that simple.

    Of course the field of "linguistics" has many branches, so "linguists" says nothing about what you actually do. Do you want to learn and write down a new language spoken by only 200 people? Do you study Viking history? Do you love the intricacies of Japanese grammar? Whatever happened to the letter 'ash'? Do you want to learn how the sound "oo" is pronounced in Scotland? Congratulations -- you're a linguist. You don't even need to speak more than 1 language. That isn't linguistics.

    (cross-posted)
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I suspect that each of these terms is used (mis-used?) by many people with many different meanings.

    I know "polyglot" is. Many Americans lump everything together: you either "speak" a language (read, write, listen, speak, and do them all fluently) or you don't. That definition leaves most of the people in the world "in between": they are not fluent in every skill, in one or more languages they use frequently and comfortably. Real polyglots complain about the term "polyglot". Other foreign-language-learners avoid the term. Why should "fluency in all skills" be a goal? Do I get a prize? "Hello Kitty" stickers?

    Of course many Americans speak only English, so they have no clue how to learn to use another language. They use "polyglot" as if it meant "mighty magician".

    At least "linguistics" is a well-define field of study, taught at many universities around the world. If you are studying in that field, you're a "linguist". It's that simple.

    Of course the field of "linguistics" has many branches, so "linguists" says nothing about what you actually do. Do you want to learn and write down a new language spoken by only 200 people? Do you study Viking history? Do you love the intricacies of Japanese grammar? Whatever happened to the letter 'ash'? Do you want to learn how the sound "oo" is pronounced in Scotland? Congratulations -- you're a linguist. You don't even need to speak more than 1 language. That isn't linguistics.

    (cross-posted)
    The most hilaurious (British) use of the word linguist was in a James Bond film, with Roger Moore. Moneypenny: "you are a cunning linguist, James".
     
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