English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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English grammar in context

2.2 The history of grammatical description

Of these approaches, prescriptive grammars are probably the best known. Originally associated with describing ancient Greek, a system of labelling parts of speech developed into a way of laying down rules on the socially correct usage of language. Because of their origin in the ancient languages, prescriptive grammars introduced rules into English which arguably imposed labels and expectations that had not evolved from within the living language.

Descriptive grammars in the USA and Europe have a more recent history. Linguists, and particularly grammarians, take examples of language that they have read, heard or invented to work out the rules underpinning our language use. The rules underlying actual practice are the structure or grammar of the language. The most notable attempts to make thorough descriptions of language occurred in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century when anthropologists sought to describe North American Indian languages which were disappearing as English became more powerful. There was no written record relating to these languages so careful description of speech patterns was necessary.

At approximately the same time, a European anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, was working among islanders in the Pacific. The importance of his work lies in his understanding that it is not enough to translate words into their rough equivalents in English or another language. In order to understand a language it is necessary to understand the contexts in which language is used and the cultural significance of different choices of words and grammar. Words and their meanings are not independent of their culture or of the situation in which they are being used.


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