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Greek and Roman antiquity

The emergence of grammatical learning in Greece is less clearly known than is sometimes implied, and the subject is more complex than is often supposed; here only the main strands can be sampled. The term he grammatike techne (“the art of letters”) had two senses. It meant the study of the values of the letters and of accentuation and prosody and, in this sense, was an abstract intellectual discipline; and it also meant the skill of literacy and thus embraced applied pedagogy. This side of what was to become “grammatical” learning was distinctly applied, particular, and less exalted by comparison with other pursuits. Most of the developments associated with theoretical grammar grew out of philosophy and criticism; and in these developments a repeated duality of themes crosses and intertwines.

Much of Greek philosophy was occupied with the distinction between that which exists “by nature” and that which exists “by convention.” So in language it was natural to account for words and forms as ordained by nature (by onomatopoeiai.e., by imitation of natural sounds) or as arrived at arbitrarily by a social convention. This dispute regarding the origin of language and meanings paved the way for the development of divergences between the views of the “analogists,” who looked on language as possessing an essential regularity as a result of the symmetries that convention can provide, and the views of the “anomalists,” who pointed to language's lack of regularity as one facet of the inescapable irregularities of nature. The situation was more complex, however, than this statement would suggest. For example, it seems that the anomalists among the Stoics credited the irrational quality of language precisely to the claim that language did not exactly mirror nature. In any event, the anomalist tradition in the hands of the Stoics brought grammar the benefit of their work in logic and rhetoric. This led to the distinction that, in modern theory, is made with the terms signifiant (“what signifies”) and signifié (“what is signified”) or, somewhat differently and more elaborately, with “expression” and “content”; and it laid the groundwork of modern theories of inflection, though by no means with the exhaustiveness and fine-grained analysis reached by the Sanskrit grammarians.

The Alexandrians, who were analogists working largely on literary criticism and text philology, completed the development of the classical Greek grammatical tradition. Dionysius Thrax, in the 2nd century BC, produced the first systematic grammar of Western tradition; it dealt only with word morphology. The study of sentence syntax was to wait for Apollonius Dyscolus, of the 2nd century AD. Dionysius called grammar “the acquaintance with [or observation of] what is uttered by poets and writers,” using a word meaning a less general form of knowledge than what might be called “science.” His typically Alexandrian literary goal is suggested by the headings in his work: pronunciation, poetic figurative language, difficult words, true and inner meanings of words, exposition of form-classes, literary criticism. Dionysius defined a sentence as a unit of sense or thought, but it is difficult to be sure of his precise meaning.

The Romans, who largely took over, with mild adaptations to their highly similar language, the total work of the Greeks, are important not as originators but as transmitters. Aelius Donatus, of the 4th century AD, and Priscian, an African of the 6th century, and their colleagues were slightly more systematic than their Greek models but were essentially retrospective rather than original. Up to this point a field that was at times called ars grammatica was a congeries of investigations, both theoretical and practical, drawn from the work and interests of literacy, scribeship, logic, epistemology, rhetoric, textual philosophy, poetics, and literary criticism. Yet modern specialists in the field still share their concerns and interests. The anomalists, who concentrated on surface irregularity and who looked then for regularities deeper down (as the Stoics sought them in logic) bear a resemblance to contemporary scholars of the transformationalist school. And the philological analogists with their regularizing surface segmentation show striking kinship of spirit with the modern school of structural (or taxonomic or glossematic) grammatical theorists.