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Descriptive Grammar

Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

We Communicate by Using Language

We Communicate by Using Language

Traditional Grammar and its Limitations

Traditional type grammars began long ago in classical times. Traditional grammars were prescriptive; they were written on the basis of Latin grammars, using the same technology and, when possible, the same analysis. They laid down the rules of how the language should be used. However, from as early as the first century B.C. there have been philosophers who have proposed a more liberal approach to grammar.

Varro: The brilliant scholar, Marcus Terentius Varro, a prolific Roman writer on the liberal arts, farmer, commander of one of Pompey's armies, and overseer of the public library in Rome, was among the first to propose this more liberal approach.

Priestly: Joseph Priestly was a British theologian and chemist. After founding a school in Cheshire, he was appalled to discover the poor quality of the English Grammar books available for the pupils there. In particular, he criticised the traditional use of Latin terminology, seeing it as awkward and unsuitable for the English language. He undertook a scientific and objective examination of English grammar, pointing out the ways in which it differed from that of Latin. In 1761, he wrote and published his own descriptive approach to grammar in his book, The Rudiments of English Grammar.

Descriptive Grammar and Language Use

Descriptive grammar had the advantage that it observed the actual way in which language is used. This approach to grammar does not teach specific rules but instead provides an explicit description of a speaker's basic linguistic knowledge; it describes the rules of cognitive grammar that are already known to every native speaker of the language.

Descriptive grammar gives a detailed account of

  • how it is possible to speak and understand the language
  • what the speaker knows about the sounds, words, phrases and sentences that he uses.

Although the method surveys the different levels of language: written, spoken, standard, substandard, formal and colloquial, Descriptivists maintain that the proper object of linguistic study remains the actual language that is spoken.

  • Descriptivists' technique is inductive; it involves the collection of many samples of sentences spoken by native speakers of the language being examined.
  • These linguists then classify the material they have collected, emphasising elicitation rather than empirical observation.
  • The findings are then classified, beginning with an examination of the phonology (the sound system) used, and ending with a description of the syntax (the way in which words and phrases in the language are arranged).

Some Significant Descriptivists

There have been several well-known writers and supporters of descriptive grammar methods, mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their work has been widely acclaimed.

Franz Boas: In the USA, Boas is known as the 'Father of American Anthropology.' In his writing he stressed the importance of detailed description of the phonology of the language being studied and its grammatical form. However, it was said that his attempts to describe Indian languages were hindered by his tendency to represent their grammars in a form analogous to that of European grammars.

Edward Sapir: Born in Germany, Sapir emigrated with his parents to the US. An an anthropologist and linguist, he examined the ways in which language and culture influence each other. Sapir, influenced by Boas, was also interested in deductive theories, focussing on psychological explanation rather than on conventional grammatical processes, he was especially interested in the area of basic categories, including the ordering of words in all languages. He developed the concept of the phoneme, the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes between two words in the same language, e.g. in English, bat and pat.

Charles F. Hockett: US linguist Hockett was influential in linguistics and linguistic anthropology. He used item and process grammars that had earlier been employed by both Boas and Sapir. He was critical of some of Chomsky's theories.

Noam Chomsky: US linguist and cognitive scientist, Chomsky was known as the 'Father of Modern Linguistics.' Building on the work of Zellig Harris, he proposed links between linguistics and human psychology and was probably the first to provide detailed arguments linking the nature of language to the nature of the mind. Chomsky agreed with Boas' descriptivist view that phonology and syntax should be described as purely formal systems without reference to semantics.

Ferdinand de Saussure: Perhaps the best-known in this field was the nineteenth century Swiss, de Saussure. He was influential in separating diachronic and synchronic studies and in delineating appropriate objects and goals of linguistics. He laid the foundations for descriptive linguistics and the fundamentals he introduced remain the basis of many approaches to understanding the phenomenon of language.

The Contribution of the Descriptivists

The descriptivists clarified distinctions and definitions in relation to the systematic nature of language. They held that language is a system of conventions and signs that are related to the individual variations of the speech of each speaker of the particular language.

These conventions also relate to what is stored in the minds of all the members of a particular community and it is this which allows members of that community to communicate.

Australian and English Dictionaries and a Thesaurus

Australian and English Dictionaries and a Thesaurus

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  • The History of Grammar
    A brief look at language study and grammar, including traditional types of grammars and universal grammar as seen by grammarians and linguists.
  • Grammar and Structural Analysis
    Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
  • Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar
    Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics.
  • Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Grammars
    This is the final article on linguistics and the changes that have come about between descriptive and prescriptive ways of looking at grammar.


Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on October 25, 2015:

Yes, languages continually change, adding new words and discarding others. We have some people at our church (in Australia) whose first language is Afrikaans. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my article and thank you for your comments.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 24, 2015:

Language is a living entity, it grows all the time. I think my home language, Afrikaans, is the youngest in the world - it was born in 1652 when the Dutch people started to turn it into a Dutch dialect by adding words of other languages in order to improve inter-racial communication. It was only officially acknowledged as a true language in 1925.

Thanks for this interesting hub about descriptive versus prescriptive grammar.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on June 04, 2015:

mckbirdbks: Thank you so much for your commiserations. At the moment I find I'm still looking to see where she is, as she had a habit of being right where I was going to step.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on June 03, 2015:

I am so very sorry for the great lose of your beloved dog.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on June 03, 2015:

mckbirdbks: Thank you for reading and for your comments. Also for your good wishes - I've been busy writing my books lately and also being sad as I had to have my little dog euthanised. I plan on being back and writing again on HubPages soon. I hope all is well with you, too.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on June 02, 2015:

Hello, I picked this article to read this evening from a long list in the Creative writing category. Informative and educational. Interesting to see the way this was approached. And your use of 'books' to highlight the article sets it off nicely. Hope all is well.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on February 04, 2013:

acaetnna: Thank you. I find it interesting, too.

acaetnna from Guildford on February 03, 2013:

Fantastic and totally interesting too!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on January 29, 2013:

Frank Atanacio: Thank you, Frank, for reading and your comment.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on January 29, 2013:

thank you so much blossoms for keeping my grammer sharp bless you :)

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on January 28, 2013:

jambo87: Thank you for your lovely comment.

Highland Terrier: I'm glad you found it interesting.

always exploring: I think it's interesting, too. Especially how the study of languages has escalated in the last hundred years.

jainismus: Thank you for reading.

Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on January 28, 2013:

Thank you for sharing this interesting information.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 27, 2013:

Very interesting. I still find myself wondering why certain people speak in a particular tongue in different areas of the world. Thank you for sharing history about descriptive grammar. Well done...

Highland Terrier from Dublin, Ireland on January 27, 2013:

Good information and very interesting. Thank you.

jambo87 on January 27, 2013:

An informative introduction to the leaders in descriptivist grammar. Good stuff!

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