Chapter 1: Human Language and Language Science

1.2 What grammars are and aren’t


The previous section was a very quick tour of some of the parts of the mental grammar. We’ll be discovering a lot more about grammar throughout this book. Notice that we’re using the term grammar a little differently from how you might have encountered it before. Maybe your experience of grammar is as a textbook or style guide with a set of rules in it, rules that lead to consequences if you break them — you’ll lose points on your essay or get corrected with a red pen. What we’re most interested in this book is the mental grammar: the system in your mind that allows you to understand and be understood by others who know your language. Every human language has a mental grammar: that’s how the users of each language understand each other!

This is a really important idea. One way that people sometimes express racist, colonialist and ableist ideas is to deny the validity of a language by claiming that it “has no grammar”. But the truth is that all languages have grammar. All languages have a system for forming words, a way of organizing words into sentences, a systematic way of assigning meanings. Even languages that don’t have alphabets or dictionaries or published books of rules have users who understand each other; that means they have a shared system, a shared mental grammar. Using linguists’ techniques for making scientific observations about language, we can study these grammars.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that no grammar is better than any others. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t speak real Italian, just a dialect,” implying that the dialect is not as good as so-called real Italian. Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that Québec French is just sloppy; it’s not as good as the French they speak in France. Or maybe you’ve heard someone say that nobody in Newfoundland can speak proper English, or nobody in Texas speaks proper English, or maybe even nobody in North America speaks proper English and the only good English is the Queen’s English that they speak in England. From a linguist’s point of view, all languages and dialects are equally valid! There’s no linguistic way to say that one grammar is better or worse than another. This is part of what it means to study grammar from a scientific approach: scientists don’t rate or rank the things they study. Ichthyologists don’t rank fish to say which species is more correct at being a fish, and astronomers don’t argue over which galaxy is more posh. In the same way, doing linguistics does not involve assigning a value to any language or variety or dialect. We also need to acknowledge, though, that many people, including linguists, do attribute value to particular dialects or varieties, and use social judgments about language to create and reinforce hierarchies of power, privilege and status. We’ll look at some examples in Section 1.4 and in Chapter 2 we’ll go into more detail about the terms terms language, variety, and dialect.

One of the most fundamental properties of grammar is creativity. One obvious sense of the word creative has to do with artistic creativity, and it’s true that we can use language to create beautiful works of literature. But that’s not the only way that human language is creative. The sense of creativity that we’re most interested in in this book is better known as productivity or generativity. Every language can create an infinite number of possible new words and sentences. Every language has a finite set of words in its vocabulary – maybe a very large set, but still finite. And every language has a small, finite set of principles for combining those words. But every language can use that finite vocabulary and that finite set of principles to produce an infinite number of sentences, new sentences every single day.

A consequence of the fact that grammar is productive is that languages are always changing. Have you heard your teachers or your parents say something like, “Kids these days are ruining English! They should learn to speak properly!” Or if you grew up speaking Mandarin, maybe you heard the same thing, “Those teenagers are ruining Mandarin! They should learn to speak properly!” For as long as there has been language, older people have complained that younger people are ruining it. Some countries, like France and Germany, even have official institutes that make rules about what words and sentence structures are allowed in the language and which ones are forbidden. But the truth is every language changes over time. Languages are used by humans, and as humans grow and change, and as our society changes, our language changes along with it. Some language change is easy to observe in the lexicon: we need to introduce new words for new concepts and new inventions. For example, the verb google didn’t exist when I was an undergraduate student, and now googling is something I do nearly every day. Languages also change in their phonetics and phonology, and in their syntax, morphology and semantics. In Chapter 10 we’ll look at the systematic ways that linguists study variation and change.

Check your understanding


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition Copyright © 2022 by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book