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date: 24 April 2018

History of European Vernacular Grammar Writing

Summary and Keywords

The grammatization of European vernacular languages began in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance and continued up until the end of the 18th century. Through this process, grammars were written for the vernaculars and, as a result, the vernaculars were able to establish themselves in important areas of communication. Vernacular grammars largely followed the example of those written for Latin, using Latin descriptive categories without fully adapting them to the vernaculars. In accord with the Greco-Latin tradition, the grammars typically contain sections on orthography, prosody, morphology, and syntax, with the most space devoted to the treatment of word classes in the section on “etymology.” The earliest grammars of vernaculars had two main goals: on the one hand, making the languages described accessible to non-native speakers, and on the other, supporting the learning of Latin grammar by teaching the grammar of speakers’ native languages. Initially, it was considered unnecessary to engage with the grammar of native languages for their own sake, since they were thought to be acquired spontaneously. Only gradually did a need for normative grammars develop which sought to codify languages. This development relied on an awareness of the value of vernaculars that attributed a certain degree of perfection to them. Grammars of indigenous languages in colonized areas were based on those of European languages and today offer information about the early state of those languages, and are indeed sometimes the only sources for now extinct languages. Grammars of vernaculars came into being in the contrasting contexts of general grammar and the grammars of individual languages, between grammar as science and as art and between description and standardization. In the standardization of languages, the guiding principle could either be that of anomaly, which took a particular variety of a language as the basis of the description, or that of analogy, which permitted interventions into a language aimed at making it more uniform.

Keywords: analogy, anomaly, descriptive grammar, grammatization, standardization, normative grammar, vernacular languages

1. The Beginning of the Grammatization of European Vernaculars

1.1 Foundations and Connections

The grammatization of European vernaculars can be traced back to theoretical foundations that were initially laid in the 5th century bce and later employed in the Renaissance for the production of grammars of these languages. “Grammatization” refers to a process in which a grammar is written for a language that has not yet been described or standardized. Auroux (1994, p. 9) sees this process as a revolution whose significance is comparable to that of the Neolithic agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

The point of departure for the earliest grammatical reflection in the Greek tradition was not the teaching of native or foreign languages or dealing with multilingualism, but rather a philosophical metalinguistic awareness which built on the use of language and which was in part connected with normative concerns and philological interests. This was different from the grammatization of Latin, which was part of a broad process of cultural transfer, in which grammars developed for Greek were applied to Latin. The grammatization of the modern European languages was even more strongly oriented to existing models, which were provided above all by the Greek grammarian Apollonius Dyscolus (2nd century ce) and the Latin grammarians Aelius Donatus (ca. 320–380) and Priscian (5th/6th century). With his discussion of word classes and their combination into sentences, Apollonius Dyscolus dealt with topics that later became core parts of grammar. He wrote a work on syntax that added to the Technē grammatikē of Dionysius Thrax (2nd century bce). Donatus wrote two grammatical manuals (artes grammaticae), the first of which, the Ars minor, was intended for elementary grammatical instruction, and the second, the Ars maior, for higher levels of instruction. Its pedagogical purpose is clearly visible in its catechism-like structure:

Partes orationis quot sunt?

(How many parts of speech are there?)




(What are they?)

Nomen pronomen uerbum aduerbium participium coniunctio praepositio interiectio.

(Noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.)

Donatus deliberately restricted himself to the essentials and made a synthesis of earlier grammars, leaving out historical linguistic aspects. Up into the modern era, the term “Donatus” served as a designation for (a short) (Latin) grammar. In the Middle Ages, the Ars minor was used in Latin classes, while the greater part of the Ars maior fell into obscurity. Owing to its pervasiveness, Donatus’ grammar exercised a considerable normative influence (cf. Holtz, 1981). Nevertheless, Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604), for example, felt the need to write in the introduction to his Moralia in Iob (ca. 600) that it would be inappropriate for him to subject the language of divine prophecy to the rules of Donatus. The Ars grammaticae also set a standard of exposition for later grammar writing, above all visible in the structuring of grammars around eight parts of speech and to some extent also in the adoption of the question-answer format.

1.2 First Descriptions of the Grammar of Vernaculars

In the 13th century, Uc Faidit in Italy wrote a Donatz proensals, in which he adapted Donatus—metonymically using the author’s name as a title—to Old Occitan, the language of troubadour lyric poetry. In this way, he created a description for would-be troubadours that enabled them to compose rhymes and texts in the courtly context. Donatus was later adapted in a similar fashion to French. The oldest extant French Donatus is the 15th-century Donait françois (Oxford, All Souls College), which was produced as a French textbook and introduction to grammar for English speakers.

The other inspiration for early vernacular grammars was Priscian, who was active in Constantinople around the year 500. Books XVII and XVIII of his Institutiones, which are devoted to syntax, were repeatedly cited and issued in new editions. Priscian’s approach is oriented to logic. He proceeds according to formal and analogical principles: in the same way that letters must be arranged in order to form syllables and syllables to form a word, words must also be arranged so as to produce a discourse. Priscian’s oratio perfecta (perfect sentence) is an utterance with a complete, self-contained sense.

The study of grammar in the Middle Ages followed Latin models and above all perfected the layout in dialog form, which continued to have a lasting effect. “Grammar” literally means the study of letters or writing; according to ancient tradition, it consisted of orthography, prosody, “etymology,” and syntax. In this sense, grammar also took on the function of teaching good speaking and writing. But this function was only attributed to grammar retrospectively, after it emerged from the projection of logical categories into language. Except in the case of learning Latin, for which purpose numerous grammars based on Donatus and Priscian were available, no grammatical aids were used for teaching native languages or even modern foreign languages.

An excellent example for the view of grammar in the Middle Ages is Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), who in his text De vulgari eloquentia (written around 1304–1305) reflected on the situation that arose from the bilingual use of a spontaneously learned native language and Latin learned at school. According to Dante, since the confusion of tongues at Babel, there have been two kinds of language: vulgaris locutio (common language), which is learned without rules through imitation of nannies, and grammatica, which has to be learned as a second language according to rules. This grammatica, Latin, is an artificial invention of scholars. It is a stable, fixed medium of communication which provides the means to stay in contact with the great thinkers of the past as well as with contemporaries at a great distance. But Dante restricts the superiority of Latin to this function alone, since the natural languages, despite their differences from one another, are more elegant (nobilior) than the grammatica. It is of course for this reason that he wrote his Divina Commedia (Divine comedy) not in Latin but in Italian. Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia was therefore to some extent an early defense of Italian. But for learning the vernacular, to which he hoped to provide praise and honor through exemplary usage, Dante did not consider it necessary to have a grammar.

The first grammars of vernacular languages were printed in the 15th and 16th centuries and proved that these languages were susceptible of grammatical treatment. They emerged from the humanistic milieu and used the categories from the Latin and Greek grammatical tradition. The Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian language, which is considered the “Spanish language” from the 17th century on) of Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), which appeared in 1492, is the first printed grammar of a vernacular that is also written in a vernacular. Nebrija dedicated his grammar to Queen Isabella of Castile, since he saw the language as the “companion of empire,” comparable with the Latin of the Romans. Nebrija’s famous pronouncement “que siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio” (that language is always the companion of empire) is often brought into connection with the expansion of the Spanish language after the colonization of America, but it originally referred to the power relations on the Iberian peninsula itself and the necessity of introducing Spanish language and culture to the Kingdom of Granada, which was reconquered from the Moors in 1492. Nebrija lists his reasons for writing the grammar in its prologue. Alongside the obligatory declaration that he hopes to serve his king and country, he mentions the changes the language has undergone which make old texts difficult to understand. This is his motivation for creating a system of rules so that contemporary and future texts may endure, in the same way that Greek and Latin texts can still be read because those languages are fixed. The normative concern of this “reducir en artificio este nuestro lenguaje castellano” (transforming into artifice our Spanish language; Nebrija, 2011, Prólogo) comes from the conviction that the Spanish language had been developing for too long a period without being controlled by grammarians. The pedagogic necessity of a Spanish grammar was justified for Nebrija above all by its usefulness to learners of Latin in presenting them the fundamentals of grammar in their native language. The idea that a grammar is unnecessary for learning the native language had not yet been given up, but the new conditions of Latin classes meant that grammar had to be studied in the native language. Nebrija attributed a propaedeutic function to his grammar as a central concern: students should first of all learn the grammatical categories in their native language in order to be able to apply them more easily to Latin. In addition, he saw his grammar as useful for teaching Spanish to subjugated peoples and also to speakers of other languages that had contact with Spain, a country that had grown in influence. To this end, he added a fifth chapter that was intended as an introduction for all those readers who wanted to learn Spanish as a foreign language.

The structure of Nebrija’s grammar followed the Latin tradition: in the first book he dealt with Spanish orthography, which was especially in need of standardization; in the second he treated prosody and the syllables, which, also following tradition, included a discussion of meter in verse. In the third book, etimología y dición (etymology and expressions), the word classes and their categories are set out. Here it is worth noting that Nebrija recognized ten rather than eight word classes, as was usual in the Greco-Latin tradition. His classes were noun, pronoun, article, verb, participle, gerund, non-finite participial noun (nombre participial infinito), preposition, adverb, and conjunction. The interjection, which was introduced by the Latin grammarians in order to arrive at eight word classes despite the lack of the article, was counted among the adverbs by Nebrija. However, he made use of the category of article, present in Greek grammars. As word classes that were specific to Spanish he added the gerund and non-finite participial noun and in this way took an important step in the direction of grammatical descriptions of individual languages. In the short description of the gerund, the description of periphrastic verb forms was tacitly attempted for the first time, while with the non-finite participial noun the problem of verb complexes formed with the auxiliary haber was solved.

The integration of the analytic verb forms of Spanish into the system of grammar oriented around Latin presented a problem. Nebrija opted to describe five verb forms (presente “present,” passado no acabado “incomplete past,” passado acabado “complete past,” passado mas que acabado “plusquamperfect,” venidero “future”), but also included tenses that occur in Latin but not in Spanish. He described how they are constructed by taking forms of the verb haber and adding a nominal verb form, the nombre participial infinito (“non-finite participial noun”; Nebrija, 2011, pp. 83–84), which conveys the action described by the verb. For example, Nebrija described a passado acabado por rodeo (complete past with periphrasis) that occurs in two forms: “Assi dize el passado acabado por rodeo en dos maneras, una por el presente del indicativo; y otra por el mesmo passado acabado; diziendo io e amado, y ove amado. El passado mas que acabado dize por rodeo del passado no acabado diziendo: io avia amado” (Nebrija, 2011, p. 79: “So the complete past with periphrasis exists in two forms, one with the present tense of the indicative, and the other with the complete past itself: io e amado and ove amado. The pluperfect uses a periphrasis with the incomplete past: io avia amado”).

The fourth chapter of Nebrija’s grammar is devoted to syntax and the arrangement of the ten word classes. In keeping with the Latin tradition, the chapter is short and contains, in addition to remarks on agreement between word classes and verb government, above all discussion of idioms and figures of speech.

The earliest Italian grammar is the Regole della lingua fiorentina (Rules of the Florentine language) attributed to Leon Battista Alberti (Coseriu & Meisterfeld, 2003, p. 192), which was first recorded in 1495 but written around 1450, in the private library of the Medici family; it is known today in a copy from the year 1508. It follows the traditional structure of the word classes but demonstrates an independent grasp of usage and is far superior to the first adaptations of Donatus for Occitan and French.

In other countries, grammars mostly took on a propaedeutic function, since grammar was not taught for the native language but rather mainly as a means to learning Latin. An exception to this principle to a certain extent was grammars of foreign languages that were written to aid specific groups of people in learning the target language. An early example of this type of grammar is the Éclaircissement de la langue française (Explication of the French language; 1530) of John Palsgrave (1480–1554), in which he sought not only to provide a grammar on the Latin model but also to describe the rules of the French language. In contrast to other textbook authors, who offered only model dialogues in order to achieve proficiency through imitation, Palsgrave attempted to systematically convey the rules of a foreign language.

The first English grammar, Pamphlet for Grammar by William Bullokar (ca. 1531–1609), was published in 1586 and followed the model of William Lily’s Latin grammar, Rudimenta Grammatices (1534), which was being used in schools in England at this time. Like other contemporary authors, Bullokar was convinced that learning Latin would pose fewer problems if learners already possessed a good knowledge of the grammar of their native language. He also elaborated a new writing system that was intended to eliminate ambiguous cases in traditional English orthography by introducing several new letters and diacritic signs (Dons, 2004, p. 7).

Many English grammarians of the 16th and 17th centuries had chosen to write their works in Latin. With his Grammatica Anglicana (1594), Paul Greaves aimed at raising English to the level of other established languages by providing both his countrymen and foreigners with a solid background knowledge of the English language. Following the Latin tradition, his grammar consists of an etimologia, which deals with phonology, syllables and morphology, and syntax. Alexander Hume (1560–1609), who probably wrote his English grammar on the occasion of the visit of James I to Scotland in 1617, was mainly concerned with the discussion of unclear cases in orthography. The Logonomia Anglica written by Alexander Gill (1567–1635) includes large sections on syntax and prosody. John Wallis’ (1616–1703) Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae (1653) addressed native speakers as well as foreigners and became a popular reference work at the time. This grammar is not free from Latin influence and tends to omit irregular forms, but it is the first work in which the fundamental differences between English and Latin are stressed (Dons, 2004, p. 13). Christopher Cooper’s (?–1698) Grammatica Linguæ Anglicanæ (1685) is the last English grammar written in Latin. Cooper’s grammar was influenced by John Wilkins’ universal grammar An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668). Cooper was not only interested in a theoretical presentation of pronunciation, orthography, word formation, and syntax, but also aimed at describing actual language data.

Grammars of this type were not intended for teaching the mother tongue. Since the mother tongue is learned spontaneously, there seemed to be no need to describe it in grammatical terms. This thinking applied to all European languages. The first grammars of vernaculars were created in response to the need for standardization, which in turn grew out of a concern to explain the language to those who were otherwise not proficient in it. As guides for learners, the textbooks of classical languages, which had to explain the morphological richness and syntactic peculiarities of those languages, held great authority. Even authors like Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558) were aware that the emphasis on usage characteristic of Renaissance grammarians was not sufficient. Although he praised those humanist grammarians who rescued Latin from its exile, he still laid great importance on the interpretative work of the grammarian, the postulation of rules based on rational principles. The goal of his treatise De Causis Linguae Latinae is to uncover the underlying principles of speech. In this way the tension between usage and the explanation of rules, between usus and ratio, became an important element that determined the character of grammar writing in the 17th century.

Closely connected to this was a further tension between grammar as art (ars) and as science (scientia). Francisco Sánchez de la Brozas (Sanctius, 1523–1600) had already defined grammar as “the art of correct speech” (ars recte loquendi), but at the same time also conceived of grammar as a science. Sanctius’ Minerva sive de causis linguae Latinae (1587, “Minerva, or On the principles of the Latin language”) is a logically grounded general grammar that makes no claim to explicate a language in terms of its functions or to contribute to its acquisition. By 1761 there were fifteen editions of the Minerva, a fact that shows its success and its conformity to the spirit of the time.

2. General Grammar Versus Grammars of Individual Languages, Grammar as Science and Art

While the difference between general grammars and grammars of individual languages may have previously only been implied, the appearance of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée (General and rational grammar) of Port-Royal (1660) generated a clear tension between the two poles, which was also felt in the grammars of vernaculars. Within the framework of general grammar, there developed a philosophical understanding of grammar that sought to explain linguistic phenomena as logically grounded (raisonnée). The grammarian-philosophers of the 18th century tied linguistic properties to thought and considered the development of linguistic categories in connection with the putative development of thought. The endeavor to not only describe linguistic phenomena but also to explain them in terms of underlying principles of thought is visible in early grammars, from at least the 17th century onwards.

General grammars distinguished themselves by treating language as the expression of the operations and contents of human thought. These operations were seen as being in principle universal and—depending on whether the grammar had a more rationalistic or sensation-based character—as being completely or at least to a certain degree of complexity independent of language. Conceptual units and mental operations were correlated with linguistic categories and units. However, rationalistic and sensualistic grammarians differ from each other in the kinds of assignment they make. The rationalists, following the Port-Royal grammar, take concept formation and judgment as the basic mental operations and align them with sentences consisting of subject, copula, and predicate. By contrast, the sensualists adopt the hypothesis that the contents of thought, such as judgments and other mental processes, can only be analyzed into individual components using linguistic signs and possibly can only come into existence through language.

The differences between individual languages are explained by the general grammarians as different realizations of mental content. Factors supposed to be relevant here are the different historical conditions under which languages developed and the arbitrary determinations of speakers. Questions of what forms, categories, and means individual languages use for expressing mental contents lie outside the interests of general grammarians. However, hardly any grammar completely avoided dealing with the categories of individual languages. Drawing general conclusions from the properties of only a few languages was justified by the premise that all languages follow the same principles.

An early example of a rationalistic interpretation is the metagrammatical explanation of word classes offered by the Cartesian Géraud de Cordemoy (1626–1684), who traced the order and the contents of the definition of word classes to natural features of language acquisition. According to this view, grammarians should describe the rules of grammar in the same way that children acquire them. First would come substantives, since children learn these first, and then adjectives, which are words that designate properties. Only then would come verbs, the words that designate actions. Since it takes children more effort to understand adverbs as words that designate properties of events, these come later in the grammar. Cordemoy saw the human capacity for language as innate and the development of language as the product of this innate ability in children.

The definition of grammar as the art of speaking well also raised the question of to what extent the knowledge of grammar forms part of the ability to speak. In light of the history of language teaching up to that point, where grammars were not used at all for native languages and only very little for living foreign languages, the expected result would be negative. For this reason, James Harris (1709–1780) estimated the number of those speakers who could both read and write and in addition knew the grammar of their languages as very small: “All men, even the lowest, can speak their Mother-Tongue. Yet how many of this multitude can neither write, nor even read? How many of those, who are thus far literate, know nothing of that Grammar, which respects the Genius of their own Language?” (Harris, 1993, p. 11). In this way, grammar that described or explained the genius of a vernacular in the manner of an art or a science was in the 18th century subordinate to the usage of vernaculars and considered separately from them.

Despite this, the necessity of grammars of individual languages was vigorously asserted in the 18th century. For example, in his 1709 grammar Claude Buffier (1661–1737) explicitly criticized the conception of grammar as an art or science whose principles precede language and to which languages must be adapted. Whether grammar is conceived of as an art or a science is not important to him; what is essential is that each grammar is adapted to the language for which it is written. Each grammar must serve to teach its respective language and represent the rules of that language as they are, since it would be ridiculous not to teach already existing rules. For this reason, every language must have its own grammar. The endeavor to use the rules of one language for the description of others has, however, led to the creation of a large number of bad grammars. Even though French has developed out of Latin, it is a fundamental error to treat French grammar on a Latin model, since French differs more from Latin in the way it combines words than it does, for example, from German (Buffier, 1709, pp. 7–9).

The distinction between general grammar and the grammar of individual languages is not identical with that between a scientific perspective and practical grammars for language teaching, but in the 18th century the two tended to become closely aligned. Especially in the second half of the 18th century, there appeared in most European countries numerous grammars for the practical purpose of language teaching which had little to do with the theoretical linguistic discussions of the day. They predominantly used the model of word classes and described their morphological characteristics, including comprehensive representation of irregularities. These grammars could be combined with model dialogs or forms of usage to be learned by rote and in this way support the needs of language teaching. In Germany such pedagogical works generally appeared under the title Sprachlehre (e.g., Hempel, 1754; Heynatz, 1770; Lindner, 1772; Anonymous, 1773). The interest of the rising middle classes in 18th-century Britain in norms of speaking and writing led to an especially intense production of grammar books in the second half of the 18th century (cf. Percy, 2008). Among these books, A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) by Robert Lowth (1710–1787) was especially influential.

The distinction between grammars of a single language and general grammar was embraced in the 18th century and emphasized above all by general grammarians. Among them was the rationalist grammarian Nicolas Beauzée (1717–1789), who became the grammarian for the French Encyclopédie after the death of César Chesneau Du Marsais (1676–1756). Beauzée defined grammar as the science (science) of spoken or written speech. As the science of speech, he called grammar orthologie, while orthographie was concerned with writing. In accord with rationalistic grammar, he attributed secondary character to speech in relation to thought; speech allows us to reconstruct thought. Thought in itself is a mental process and as such cannot be shared, but it is possible for logic, with the support of abstraction, to analyze thought and in this way provide a foundation for grammar.

Beauzée (1974) saw the universal and “immutable” principles of general grammar as dictated by thought. Alongside these, there are principles that depend on hypothetical truth and variable convention. These conventions constitute the grammars of individual languages (grammaires particulières). He defined the grammar of individual languages as the art of adapting the arbitrary and customary institutions of each language to the general principles of speaking. In contrast to this, grammatical science (science grammaticale) precedes all languages, since its principles represent eternal truth and assume only the possibility of actual languages. Grammatical art (art grammatical), however, comes after languages, since their usage must exist before it can be artificially aligned with the general principles. Despite this separation, Beauzée did not believe that general and particular grammar had to be practiced separately. The art of grammar could not provide any valid principles to grammatical practice; instead, practice had to be guided by speculation. The science could not lead to a consistent theory if it did not take the different usages and practices into consideration in approaching step by step its generalized principles. However, he still thought it worth separating science and art, to define the respective objects and to mark out the boundaries. He based the principles of general grammar on logic: whatever arbitrary decisions the different nations of the world might have made, they still had to express their perceptions, judgments, and other thought processes, and to this end they had to use words for their ideas, which they had to determine and combine. If there were no principles based on rationality for all these processes, then communication between people from different times and places would be inconceivable.

The separation between art and science also had an effect on the determination of the objects of grammar. Beauzée made the sentence the upper boundary of the units of grammar. Everything beyond that he attributed to logic, which had the task of testing the persuasiveness of arguments put in a series, and to rhetoric, which was responsible for statements on turns of phrase, style, the appeal to emotion, and the charm of expressions. By contrast, grammar should limit itself to how something has to be expressed in order to be understood.

The assumption of principles equally applicable to all languages made by general grammar was not accepted by everyone. Dietrich Tiedemann (1748–1803), for example, even though he accepted the rationalist assumption that thought follows the same laws among all nations, did not think it possible that there could be a uniform way of combining words for all nations (Tiedemann, 1985, pp. 142–143). The postulation of a connection between grammar and thought is also possible on a sensualistic basis. Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1714–1780) saw grammar as the first part of the art of thinking. To find the principles of language, we simply need to observe our thinking. In this respect, there is essentially no difference between the rationalist and sensualist thinkers on the issue of reconstructing thought through grammar.

Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) also adopted the distinction between general and particular grammar and introduced an accompanying terminological distinction: while the word “grammar” used in singular or plural designates “Grammatik die Kunst, eine Sprache richtig zu reden und zu schreiben” (Grammar, the art of speaking and writing a language correctly; Adelung, 1990, II, p. 773), “grammar” used in the singular alone designates the general art of language. He differentiates between those who work on grammar as an art and as a science with the terms “grammarian” (Grammatiker) and “language scholar” (Sprachgelehrter). His reference to the meaning of the Dutch expression Grammatjen Volk as “cantankerous mob” can most certainly be understood as an evaluation of the behavior of grammarians of his time. However, there are cases in the 18th century in which grammars of individual languages were labeled as “science.” For example, in a grammar that appeared in Russia in 1782 the word наука (clear knowledge) is used in the definition of the term grammar even though the function of grammar as an introduction to reading, writing, and speaking is explicitly mentioned (Anonymous, 1782, pp. 1–2).

3. Normative and Descriptive Grammars

3.1 The Guiding Concept of Grammar and Its Tasks

The determination of the tasks of grammar and consequently its contents continued to develop in the 17th century on the basis of traditional models. A clear example of this is Guillaume Clavier (b. 1579), who insisted on orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody as the four unalterable parts of grammar and, following classical precedents, adopted eight word classes. At the same time, he defined grammar as the science (science) that teaches good speaking and writing.

The distinction between grammar as art and as science had not yet been embraced by the writers of practical grammars. But it should also be observed that even Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694) and Claude Lancelot (1615/1616–1695) defined the “science” set forth in the general grammar of Port-Royal as the “art” (art) of speaking (Arnauld & Lancelot, 1973). While orthography and the study of word origins were usually accorded very little space in grammars, and prosody generally was hardly mentioned, the parts of speech (partes orationis) were treated at length. In the practical grammars that were written for the purpose of language teaching, word classes were important for two reasons: firstly, the grammarians sought to define the characteristics of word classes, and, secondly, this led to abstract formulations of their syntactic properties. Departures from the traditional scheme of parts of speech that went back to Donatus emerged above all through the consideration given to the structures of modern languages. For example, the article, which is not present in Latin, was included in many grammars of modern languages. However, much space was often devoted to setting out declensions for languages that possess no morphological case (e.g., Régnier-Desmarais, 1973, p. 535).

Statements on syntax proper—that is, on the combination of words into sentences—were, by contrast, rather scarce. This is partially explained by the fact that the grammars were oriented to the strongly inflecting language Latin and for this reason gave more space to declensions and conjugations than other means of establishing relations between constituents in the sentence. It can also be seen that the concept of grammar as a property of languages, that is, as the object under examination rather than the science or art that deals with it, was hardly established at the beginning of the 17th century. Grammarians had not yet realized that they were describing the grammar of a language; rather, they dealt with word classes, conjugations, word order, and so on and in this way studied grammar without a conception of the object of the activity as a whole. Of course, in some texts from the beginning of the 17th century there is a foreshadowing of the holistic concept of grammar, even though it is not yet named. Bernardo de Aldrete (1565–1645), for example, writes that there is an important thing in language alongside the vocabulary, which along with tense and case comprises everything that contributes to the combination of words and to attributing meaning and whose dimensions are hardly conceivable.

The insight that grammars are necessary for learning languages led to an increased production of practical grammars which were written for this purpose and which mostly presented the formal inventory of the languages to be learned. Even Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) declared grammars useful for learning languages and also for understanding languages that had been learned without their aid (Priestley, 1761, 1762). According to the very general understanding of grammar on the part of Michail Lomonosov (1711–1765, cf. Lomonosov, 1755), which includes every kind of language study, grammar is essential even for philosophy, history, and jurisprudence.

However, there were also warnings against relying too heavily on grammars for learning foreign languages. Noël-Antoine Pluche (1688–1761, cf. Pluche, 1751, p. 40), for example, pleaded for learning languages through practice—that is, the repetition of well-formed utterances—and only later consolidating through rules of grammar what had been learned. If the learner were to begin with the grammar, there is the danger that they will progress only very slowly or that they will never reach the goal of mastering the language. The arguments justifying the usefulness of grammars as products of language description reveal that the effortless general use of languages and their rules was seen by non-grammarians as proof that grammars were not really needed. Even the best grammarians used their languages without having to think about the grammar, just as the majority of speakers use their languages without knowing anything about their grammars. Even the difficulty of moving from a knowledge of grammatical rules to being able to use a language well could be used as an argument to undermine the use of practical grammars. Against the background of a growing emphasis on utility, the point that even the Romans made their children learn the grammar of Latin was not very convincing. For this reason, the propaedeutic function of grammar for logical thought and for other sciences had to be highlighted. Without thinking about grammar, without knowledge of the interdependence of words in text, it would not be possible to arrive at pure and exact speech.

Scattered in other sources is also the notion that grammar should not only be seen as a means for language learning, but also serves to fix languages and avoid corruption, e.g., “se fixa el lenguage, se evita su corrupcion, y los barbarismos y solecismos” (it also serves to fix the language and avoid its corruption, barbarisms and solecisms, Muñoz Álvarez, 1793, preface).

3.2 Standardization of Vernaculars

Normative features were already present in early grammars, in that they described “high” varieties of languages, with the intention that these varieties should be preserved. Initially, however, grammatical descriptions pursued the goal of offering a system of rules to foreigners to help them in learning the languages described (cf. Strauß, 1991; Swiggers, 2013; Frijhoff, Swiggers, & Suso López, 2012). For this reason, the numerous grammars of European vernaculars that were published in the Renaissance were often written in Latin, the knowledge of which on the part of learners could be assumed. But soon the additional goal of providing native speakers with rules emerged. By 1550 there were printed grammars for Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Czech. Between 1550 and 1599 the selection expanded to include Dutch, English, Polish, Welsh, Slovenian, and Church Slavonic; between 1600 and 1649 Basque, Croatian, Danish, Modern Greek, and Latvian; between 1650 and 1699 Breton, Estonian, Frisian, Lithuanian, Russian, Sorbian, and Swedish; between 1700 and 1749 Albanian, Rhaeto-Romance, and Saami; and finally in 1757 Romanian (cf. Burke, 2006, pp. 101–123).

But the publication of a vernacular grammar says nothing about its effect on standardization. That is, the existence of a grammar does not mean that even a minority of speakers followed the rules it prescribed. However, in the case of a few vernaculars, it seems that at least the elites took the rules seriously. A few vernaculars were able to establish themselves against Latin because they created authorized varieties that diverged from colloquial speech.

The question as to which vernacular variety should be authorized was discussed at length in Early Modern Europe. During the Renaissance, the humanists tried to reform some vernaculars through imitation and emulation of Latin, in order to make these languages better media for literature. Such reform attempts were made for Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English. In this process, models were often adopted from countries where humanism had become established at an earlier date. For example, Joachim Du Bellay (1522–1560, cf. Du Bellay, 2001) adopted passages from Sperone Speroni’s (1500–1588) dialog on the vernacular, the advocates of a Welsh literary language were familiar with the corresponding Italian and French models, and both the Spanish Academy and the Russian reformer Vasilij Trediakovskij (1703–1769) received stimulus from the French standardizer of language Claude Favre de Vaugelas (1585–1650).

With his Remarques sur la langue françoise (Remarks on the French language), Vaugelas presented critical remarks on usage which, although they did not attain the systematic form of a grammar, still led to the formulation of rules and were taken seriously in conversation at the royal court. For Vaugelas, the basis of these rules was “good usage” (bon usage), which he observed among the best members of the royal court and which he saw reaffirmed in the works of the best contemporary authors: “It is the fashion of speaking of the most refined part of the court, conforming to the fashion of writing of the most reasonable contemporary authors” (“C’est la façon de parler de la plus saine partie de la Cour, conformément à la façon d’escrire de la plus saine partie des Autheurs du temps”; Vaugelas, 1647, Préface). Vaugelas’ remarks were later systematized and brought into the form of a traditional grammar.

The success of the grammatization of European languages can be explained above all by the fact that the values of new communities found expression in the standard forms of vernaculars (cf. Burke, 2006). The national communities of secular elites distanced themselves not only from the scholarly culture with its Latin character, but also from the popular, regional, or dialectal culture. In Early Modern Europe, this resulted in the endeavor to enhance the status of the vernaculars, to codify and enrich them, and thereby make them suitable media for literature. This endeavor was greatly enhanced by the invention of printing, which made the mass production of identical texts possible and paved the way for the fixing of languages.

A convincing example of the role printing played in fixing languages comes from the missionaries who created standard forms of indigenous languages: Nahuatl in Mexico, Quechua and Aymará in Peru, Tupí in Brazil, and Tagalog in the Philippines. They not only wrote these languages for the first time, but also produced dictionaries and grammars. In this way these languages moved from existing in an oral form to having a printed form without first passing through the age of manuscripts (cf. Zwartjes & Hovdhaugen, 2004; Zwartjes, James, & Ridruejo, 2007; Zwartjes, 2012).

The further development and construction of national languages had in the meantime become a major issue in Europe, which had led in some countries to the establishment of language academies (Accademia della Crusca, Italy, 1582/1583; Académie Française, France, 1635; Real Academia de la Lengua, Spain, 1713). In German-speaking territories, such attempts were less successful. In the 17th century, the Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (the Fruit-bearing Society, 1617–1680, lat. societas fructifera) was founded on the model of the Italian Accademia della Crusca. This society, which was also known as the Palmenorden (Order of the Palm), was the first and, with 890 members, also the largest German-language academy.

The activity of the academies received attention across national borders all over Europe. For example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) used the metaphor of separating the chaff from the grain, as the Accademia della Crusca had described its task. Following their example, Germans should protect themselves from “rude” (unanständig), incomprehensible (ohnvernehmlich), and “foreign” or “un-German” (unteutsch) words (Leibniz, 1908, p. 349). Similar criteria for the exclusion of words were offered in Spain by Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744–1811), who opposed the “purity of usage” (pureza del uso) to the use of words or turns of phrase from other languages, archaisms, and new words without sufficient authority (sin propia autoridad; Jovellanos, 1963, p. 114).

The standardization of those vernaculars that had in the meantime become national languages was in some countries transferred to language academies, which were also given commissions to write grammars. The Real Academia Española, founded in 1713, completed this task in 1771 with its Gramática de la lengua castellana, which did not so much solve normative problems as apply the principles of language observation current at the time to the Spanish language. The Académie française, founded in 1635, produced a dictionary in 1694, but it took until 1932 before the project of a grammar was completed, with a very unsatisfactory result.

The concept of grammar as a rule-governed structure inherent in a language which exists prior to its description was already widespread by the middle of the 18th century. This is, for example, evident in the statement of Johann Peter Süssmilch that it is known that everything in languages is determined by rules and that every language has a grammar (Süssmilch, 1998, p. 16). That this grammar can be described in terms of word classes and their categories appears to be of secondary importance against this background.

3.3 Analogists Versus Anomalists

Approaches to standardizing vernaculars can be identified with two streams of thought, which were in some ways quite antagonistic to one another. “Analogy”—that is, similarity, conformity in proportions—was in antiquity already opposed to “anomaly,” that is, irregularity. According to Varro (116–127 bce), both analogy and anomaly have their proper place in language: anomaly is based on the people’s use of language, while analogy follows the dictates of understanding (Varro, 1993, p. 453). The importance of analogy was restricted in the 17th century to being a criterion for judging or, as the case may be, condemning existing linguistic forms. This is above all visible in the Vaugelas’ Remarques sur la langue Françoise (1647), which served as the basis for most French grammar writing in the 17th century. Although he appealed to the authority of Varro, Vaugelas was against the formation of new words. When the formation of new words is ruled out and usage is made the measure of correct forms, the only cases that remain to be decided on are those not yet determined by usage, which should be decided according to their similarity and conformity to usage. In these cases, analogy relates to the exemplary court usage as a copy to the original.

These two alternative principles of language standardization were also contrasted with one another in Germany. According to the “analogistic” conception, the goal was to take characteristics of a language and derive structural principles from them, which should then serve as guidelines for standardization. For example, the suggestion was made to adapt plural forms—of which there are many different kinds in the German language—to the most frequently used forms. In this way, analogical standardization broke with established usage. In opposition to this, the “anomalist” approach forbade such intrusions into the language and instead selected a particular usage as the guiding variety.

Already in the 17th century a conflict broke out between analogists and anomalists about the possibility of standardizing German on the basis of a dialect. According to the analogical model of Justus Georg Schottelius (1612–1676), correct German should be supra-regional and distinct from any specific dialect. On the basis of this ideal language, analogical structures should be revealed through deduction and then applied as a standardizing principle. This justified his generalization of the plural morpheme -e for all German words, including for example Bürger/pl. Bürgere (Modern Standard German pl. Bürger), Schwester/pl. Schwestere (MSG pl. Schwestern), Himmel/pl. Himmele (MSG pl. Himmel; Schottelius, 1663, p. 307). Against this, the anomalist Christian Gueintz demanded that rules follow existing usage rather than usage being adapted to preestablished rules (Gueintz, 1978). In this approach, he oriented himself to the usage of a specific group of speakers, which he did however hope to purify (cf. Krause, 1872; Djubo, 2011).

In texts on linguistic theory, such as Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746, “Essay on the origin of human knowledge”), analogy is explained as a result of human habit, out of which similarities in designations used in language and an extensive uniformity in usage emerge, despite the essential conventionality of language. In this manner, for example, the genders of nouns, the conjugations of verbs, and the number inflections of substantives can be derived from rules. At the same time, a stabilizing effect on language is attributed to analogy. It is only because of analogy that it was possible for grammarians to formulate rules. The utility of these grammatical rules cannot be doubted, since without them, speakers would have to laboriously derive the regularity of language themselves from actual existing analogies. In this way, analogy is seen as a real existing property of language, which can become the object of grammatical description, and yet which still exists without explicit description.

In Germany, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700–1766) engaged himself on behalf of the anomalists for the standardization of German on the basis of the eastern German dialect Saxon. In addition, he used the word “analogy” to describe the regularity in word formation and inflection (Gottsched, 1970, p. 735). But he saw the deviations from the rules as more important than analogy, and so took a clearly anomalist position. In his view, all languages exhibit irregularities. He described the opposition of analogy and anomaly in the standardization of a language as the counteracting results of “the art of language” (Sprachkunst), which describes the rules, and the “habit of usage” (Gewohnheit des Sprachgebrauchs), which does not always follow these rules. Crucial for the grammatical description is therefore not the usage of a language scholar, but rather the usage of speakers in general, although he still seeks to exclude misuse. In employing the term “misuse,” Gottsched was following the language theorists of his time, who invoked this term not only to describe the conscious misuse of language in order to manipulate, for example, but also the thoughtless use of language that would ultimately lead to corruption. The fact that Gottsched attributed this kind of misuse to the common, vulgar people (Pöbel) connects him with language standardization oriented to the best writers. Since they took greater care with their language, they were also better observers of similarity in language, or analogy, which led to less rawness (Rauigkeit) in their language. Another contributing factor to the dominance of anomaly in Gottsched’s thought is his conception of the mutability of language. Since languages are older than the standardization of their regularities, speakers follow habit in their usage. Setting down rules is only appropriate when there are different habits. In such cases, standardization should work against variation in a language. In this approach, he does indeed consider a change in language conventions, but he leaves as an open question whether such changes honor the language, since in setting down rules the current state of the language must serve as the basis. Even in turning attention to the modern language, which of course exhibits irregularities, Gottsched proves himself to be an anomalist.

Carl Friedrich Aichinger (1717–1782) took the position that the national literary language had to be a fixed form used by scholars, and therefore no single dialect could determine the literary norm (Aichinger, 1754). Augustin Dornblüth (1690–1760), a Benedictine monk from the Breisgau region, vehemently criticized the defectiveness of the Upper Saxon dialect and advocated in its place the language of 17th-century southern German chancelleries.

Regarding analogy as the decisive factor for determining the rules of a language suggests that this characteristic was considered positive. Many decided to develop the analogical patterns they saw in specific languages further as a way of extending those languages. To this end, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) thought that, if they were presented in a meaningful arrangement, all analogies existing in a language would be instantly recognizable, and redundant or ambiguous linguistic phenomena would be apparent. The most important goal of language improvement, as he thought, is the production of analogy, which would lead to more convenient and meaningful language usage (cf. Priestley, 1761, 1762).

4. Results of Vernacular Grammatization

By the end of the 18th century, the process of vernacular grammatization was completed from two points of view. On the one hand, grammars were available for the languages spoken in Europe, from which these languages could be learned and which more or less realistically recorded or even prescribed their rules. On the other hand, regional and national languages were able to assert themselves in many new fields and had achieved the status of standardized written languages. Even the indigenous languages of colonized regions were described by missionaries, although this did not impede their decline.

Accompanying the process of grammatization, there emerged metalinguistic conceptual inventories in the individual traditions of linguistics, although the Greco-Latin tradition was often superimposed on them. The grammatization of indigenous languages in colonized areas proceeded essentially according to this tradition, even when the languages described were very different from the Indo-European type. Only on a few occasions did the authors of these grammars try to note peculiarities that did not fit into this frame and describe them in their own terms.

The vernaculars were therefore grammatized using the categories of the classical languages, in particular Latin. At least for the European languages, these categories did not need to be greatly expanded. The fact that grammatization on a Latin basis was possible with more or less success demonstrates the flexibility of this system of grammatical categories. In addition, the illusion of a general grammar was created, of a system that precedes the particular grammars and manifests itself in them.


The author wishes to thank James McElvenny for the English text of this article.

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