Is modern grammar writing simply better?

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imperialismus
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Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by imperialismus » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 20:08

I've been looking at grammars of various languages, hunting for a nice target for some a posteriori conlanging. And I'm struck by how poorly most of them are organized, putting up another hurdle in addition to that of learning, or at least gaining a good understanding of, a foreign language. To clarify, the title doesn't refer to linguistic analysis in itself, but rather the writing and organizing of a grammar.

Maybe I've just been living a life of luxury by reading a lot of conlang grammars and Wikipedia articles; conlang grammars, at least for well-made conlangs, have a very nice regularity to them because the writing of a grammar is itself an act of conlanging. Having this stuff organized in tables and schemas and so forth is useful as a tool for organizing your thinking and actually making the language... We might even say that the grammar is the conlang, in addition to the dictionary.

Anyway, these natlang grammars have what I consider to be a lot of flaws as far as readability and usability for learning or understanding a language is concerned, especially but not always so for extinct languages. But maybe there are good reasons for it? The biggest issue, for me, is that the grammar is usually organized as a single block of text. Everything is sequential, very little is summarized in the form of tables and inventories. Phonology and morphology are often represented in a kind of list form, intermingling forms and their uses or allophones with evidence for those assertions, historical asides, and other stuff. Not saying this level of detail is unwarranted. Merely that I'd love to be able to get an overview before I delve into the particulars of each case.

For instance, I'm glancing through what appears to be the standard reference text for Punic Phoenician (Carthaginian). This text was published 17 years ago, it's not even that old. But it doesn't use IPA, the phonology section is one long block of text with no tables in sight, and glancing at the first chapter after that, it has a table of pronouns without specifying which pronouns they are (is this 1st person singular or 2nd dual? who knows?). The next sections then go through each pronoun in detail, intermingling historical evidence with analysis. The result is it's really damn hard to figure out just what is going on. It's like the grammar was written only for the half-dozen experts in the world who are not the author; everyone else is just screwed, unless they want to spend years dedicating themselves to a new subfield when all they wanted was a basic understanding.

This is not unique to that grammar or even to grammars of ancient languages, that was simply the last grammar I looked at. Am I totally off track with this rant, or has grammar writing simply improved a lot in recent years?
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Creyeditor » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 20:20

Okay, so I think there are two developments in grammar wirting that are mostly independent of each other.
The first one is technology. A lot of older grammars I read, seem to be written with a typewriter. This means that most tables and figures are hand-drawn (kind of). I guess it was just easier with a typewriter to write one big block of text then.
Another development is fading euro-centricity. In a grammar of Khoekhoe that I one read, everything was compared to Latin and how this language expresses things that Latin expresses in a certain way. This has become less and less of a problem I guess.
What is still a problem for me, is traditions in certain branches/philologies. There seems to be a set of shared assumptions (not only about certain natlangs, but also about style and analysis) in some areas that I just do not know in advance and I find it really hard to figure it out.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by eldin raigmore » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 20:30

Subject: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

I think it's simply more modern; and so are we. So, it's more suitable ("better"?) for modern users.

You could probably make good money re-writing those grammars into forms more suitable for modern uses.

There are several uses for a reference grammar; and they don't all impose the same requirements. Some may even be incompatible with others.

Here are a few. (The order listed is not really significant.)

1. Conlanging. (I put it first because it's probably most important to your current audience. :mrgreen: )
2. Typology.
3. Use as an example for and/or against various schools of linguistics or to compare/contrast such schools.
4. Teaching yourself to understand, and/or speak, and/or read, and/or write the language.
5. Diachronics.
6. Study of areal features (commonalities due to geographic contact rather than genetic relatedness).

.... And almost certainly others.

[hr][/hr]

I speculate that, since Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and Greenberg's Universals of Language and Backus's FORTRAN, the arguments in favor of and against their schools and various others that sprang up in their wakes, as well as the extra precision needed when designing and implementing and using computer languages, led to authors of reference grammars having a much loftier goal of completeness than the old-timers did. I believe, however, it was probably a gradual process, beginning before the 1950s and continuing long after Chomsky's and Greenberg's and Backus's careers.

That's just my guess; any part of it, even all of it, could be wrong.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Lambuzhao » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 20:45

It's like the grammar was written only for the half-dozen experts in the world who are not the author; everyone else is just screwed, unless they want to spend years dedicating themselves to a new subfield when all they wanted was a basic understanding.
I think pulling out a Punic Grammar and trying to prop it up against living language grammars is not fair to either camp. That sort of book's probably was/is/will be written for the 2-dozen or so folks each generation that study the language as a dead language. Unless there's a push to revive Punic à la Gaelic, Hebrew, and (my prayers go with them) Coptic, among other langs, then don't expect anything as spiffy and schematically octarine as what goes on with more commonly-studied tongues. Therefore, there are probably a lot of lacunae or assumptions b/c the other folks who are reading it precisely have dedicated years to this discipline. I haven't seen the text myself (Link, por favor?),and I may agree with you that a yellow-card needs to be raised for maybe one too many explanatory lacunae or ellipses.

A basic understanding? [¬.¬] When one formally studies a language like Punic, presumably it's in Graduate School, not even Undergrad, like, say Greek or Latin or Hebrew, or mebbe even Sanskrit (?).
Folks who study Punic are not paying tens of thousands of dollars to only sniggle just a few mere motes of salt from Carthage's briny linguistic fields. They want the Fullest of Hamilcarian Monties possible, pink Mountaineering Yodeling Elephants and all. It's like when I studied :non: in Grad School. We churned through a bunch of texts. We didn't really go through much actual Grammartime (MC don't hurt 'em) b/c
from our various backgrounds, we knew that either this was comparable to North Germ langs, or Old English, or PIE, or whatever; in short, a lot could be taken for granted, or cursorily referred to in class, and it was up to us to do the research to find out what our blessed professor was talking about, Zoega be praised!

I'm sorry if I sound like a grumpy old grumpus, but this sounds a lot like I want my MTVPunic .
The best advice I can give is when I talk about my own textbooks I use in class. Sure, they're slicker, and
more pictureful, and I like the charts, and I love the videoclips, and ooh heavens more realia (! [:D] ! ) but, is it a perfect textbook? Nope. There aren't enough practice examples for a classroom of 40+ students. The online exercises are either too easy or too inaccessible. There is not enough writing-practice for the heritage-speaking students in the audience.

It's why I still have at least one copy of prolly every different series I've used since I started teaching (4 or 5), plus 3 or 4 other textbooks I picked up :roll: along the way, b/c I found some things in them I liked, or I was referred to by a colleague that they present something that makes more sense than other books, or it clicks better with students, or whatever. So the advice is, no matter what the language: one reference grammar is good, two is better, three better still.


…except :grc: Smyth is pretty much the be-all and end-all. It's also about as thorough a grammar of any language as ever made. Even if you don't know :grc: I suggest you get your hands on (if only at a library) and page through a copy of Herbert Weir Smyth's Grammar of Ancient Greek (for heaven's sake, it's not the same experience as getting trapped in the cybergluey version at Perseus). The organization, the thoroughness, the unbelievable horde of examples. I've spoken with some conlangers who've wrote some really fine grammars. They all have said that they have referred to Smyth in some way or other. It's good.
Real good. A benchmark. Una experiencia glosso-religiosa.
[;)]
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Lambuzhao
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Lambuzhao » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 20:49

Eldin wrote:led to authors of reference grammars having a much loftier goal of completeness than the old-timers did.
Seven words:

Herbert Weir Smyth.
Old Timer.
Brilliant Grammar.

[:)]
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by imperialismus » Tue 18 Jul 2017, 22:25

Lambuzhao wrote:
It's like the grammar was written only for the half-dozen experts in the world who are not the author; everyone else is just screwed, unless they want to spend years dedicating themselves to a new subfield when all they wanted was a basic understanding.
I think pulling out a Punic Grammar and trying to prop it up against living language grammars is not fair to either camp.
I don't want an "MTV grammar", simply the chance to get my bearings straight before diving into the nitty-gritty. That grammar was just an example; I've observed the same with other grammars, such as various grammars for Native American languages that are (if endangered) still spoken today. Given the chance to publish what may the last and only grammar of a language in the next 10-20-30 years, possibly ever, one would think the author would want to make it usable and accessible to as many people as possible.

That particular grammar is Khramalkov's Punic-Phoenician Grammar, available from here, but as I said, that was just the last one I happened to look at. Far from the only or even the most egregious example, although I don't have a bunch of concrete examples laying in handy. Just something I've noticed. That link has more than a thousand grammars; just pick a few at random and compare.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Iyionaku » Wed 19 Jul 2017, 05:57

There are indeed reference grammars that are organized very nicely, with a lot of tables, decent typography and many, many excourses to contemporary usage. I've been studying Basque a lot, and I see where your problem is, many of the older grammars are very poor in terms of design. The worst kind for me are old typewriter documents because the writing just appears to be fading.

However, there are also very good ones. One I'd point out is Bendel (2006) (ISBN 978-3-87548-419-9). It's in German unfortunately, but even without understanding the language you could take a glimpse at it. There are previews at google books. I'm currently writing a reference grammar for Yélian and I'm heavily orienting myself by it.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by qwed117 » Wed 19 Jul 2017, 10:23

I think grammar writing has undoubtedly become significantly more clear over the last 200 years as more of the linguistic terminology that we refer to is standardized. That isn't to say it's 100% standardized right now, or even can be 100% standardized. Think of picking up something like Panini's grammar of Sanskrit over the Wikipedia page on Sanskrit.

I don't think this is really your question though, since you appear to be lamenting a text from merely 17 years back.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by abi » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 05:27

My biggest gripe is with grammars that use nonstandard conventions. A lot of old grammar and phonology texts have some weird transcriptions before the IPA was standardized (like ħ for ç), and even now I come across a paper or two that is well aware of the IPA but chooses not to use it for some esoteric reason.
imperialismus wrote:
Lambuzhao wrote:I don't want an "MTV grammar", simply the chance to get my bearings straight before diving into the nitty-gritty. That grammar was just an example; I've observed the same with other grammars, such as various grammars for Native American languages that are (if endangered) still spoken today. Given the chance to publish what may the last and only grammar of a language in the next 10-20-30 years, possibly ever, one would think the author would want to make it usable and accessible to as many people as possible.
Well it wasn't up until recently that many grammars would never be published beyond the limited scope of people they were intended for. It wasn't until very recently that someone who wanted to know about the verbal paradigm of an obscure new guinea language was freely available at the touch of a button. Most of these linguists knew it would be read by the 8 people on a PhD university board and maybe a few other students picking through archives over the years.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Egerius » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 10:13

abi wrote:My biggest gripe is with grammars that use nonstandard conventions. A lot of old grammar and phonology texts have some weird transcriptions before the IPA was standardized (like ħ for ç), and even now I come across a paper or two that is well aware of the IPA but chooses not to use it for some esoteric reason.
Something like this?
Or this?
Yeah, I hate that, too.
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Lambuzhao
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Lambuzhao » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 12:07

@ abi:

1) You misquoted me upstairs. Please to fix, por favor.

@ Imperialismus:
Okay, so this grammar is from

Handbook of Oriental Studies; Volume 54

So, what's your point?
This was in a scholarly journal that was intended for a reviewing committee of 3-4 extremely well-versed professors on the subject, and glanced at (maybe) by a dozen or so subscribers to the journal (and you! [:)] )

It was probably scaffolded from a doctoral thesis which had another (or quite possibly the same) 3-4 extremely well-versed professors review it. The author was writing for them, to get a passing mark, to get a diploma/certificate/feather-in-cap.

abi wrote: Most of these linguists knew it would be read by the 8 people on a PhD university board and maybe a few other students picking through archives over the years.
Which echoes what I said earlier:
lambuzhao, not abi wrote:That sort of book's probably was/is/will be written for the 2-dozen or so folks each generation that study the language as a dead language.
What is your point?
How many more 'grammars' in those thousands are actually 'very special episodes' in scholarly journals??

Does Khramalkov have an introduction?
What does Khramalkov say in his introduction?
Does Khramalkov say he is explicitly writing this for the accessibility of future generations of possible Punic speakers?
Does Khramalkov say he hopes to spark a revivalist movement for Punic with as clear a grammar as possible for as many people as possible, basing it on examples of successful modern language grammars/textbooks/etc?

If he doesn't actually say he's going to do this, then, really, he isn't.
And, again, if this grammar (or any) appears in a scholarly journal, well, chances are really good that was never his intention.

But, if you can quote me where he says this in his document, I'll get my spork and bib for the filét de mes pròpres mots. And I don't mind saying I'm wrong, if I am.
imperialismus wrote:That link has more than a thousand grammars; just pick a few at random and compare.
Yeah. I'm sure. So, how many are/were scholarly journal articles, again?
[:(]

Otherwise, still yet once again, not a fair comparison.
[¬.¬]
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Lao Kou » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 12:09

Egerius wrote:Or this? Yeah, I hate that, too.
Personally, while it may involve a little more slogging, I enjoy the patina of this one. Though online, it's like experiencing the delectations of browsing through an antiquarian bookshop, using a Mandarin dictionary in Wade-Giles or a dialect dictionary compiled by the Jesuits (other romanizations based on French), or perusing an early Esperanto reader.
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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Lambuzhao » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 12:51

Lao Kou wrote:
it's like experiencing the delectations of browsing through an antiquarian bookshop,
Ooh. Haven't treated myself in far too long!
using a Mandarin dictionary in Wade-Giles or a dialect dictionary compiled by the Jesuits (other romanizations based on French), or perusing an early Esperanto reader.
Mostly for Imperialismus:

No one grammar is perfect. And I do not have all the time in the world to surf the 'Net. But what I, and you, and we all have to develop is a very particular set of skills to read and dare I say "translate" grammars for our own selves. Skills that we have acquired over long careers & love-affairs with language.

Skills that make us nightmares for esoteric grammars. If you let the grammar go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not research you, I will not annotate you. But if you don't, Punic will look for you, Punic will find you, and Punic will kill you.

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Re: Is modern grammar writing simply better?

Post by Egerius » Mon 07 Aug 2017, 13:01

Actually, the latter transcription system (from Carl Faulmann's Das Buch der Schrift, second edition of 1880) was clear enough, so I could reconstruct the pronunciation of ca. 1880s England-English. And I own a copy of that book (a 2012 reprint), so I could get used to that transcription method after a while of reading and actually thumbing through the book.
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