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History of Grammar

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The earliest known grammarians were those who gave remarkably precise descriptions of Sanskrit. Outstanding among them was Panini (who probably lived some time between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC), whose grammar has been described by Bloomfield as 'one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence... No other language, to this day, has been so perfectly described'.

It was not, however, until the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that Sanskrit began to be known in Europe. Western grammatical tradition therefore derives from the Greeks who, in addition to speculating on such problems as the relationship between words and things, studied and analyzed their own language. Grammar was not for them an independent discipline but was for a long time bound up with the study of logic, philosophy, and rhetoric. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics successively analyzed aspects of their language and gradually a grammatical system, relating to parts of speech and grammatical categories (case, number, tense, mood, and voice) was established and was codified by such grammarians as Dionysius Thrax of Alexandria (1st century BC) and, in the 2nd century, Apollonius Dyscolus. Latin grammarians were much influenced by the Greeks, the most important among them being Varro. Donatus (circa AD 400), and Priscian. The works of Donatus and Priscian enjoyed a long popularity and were widely used for the teaching of Latin throughout the Middle Ages.

No great advances in grammatical theory were made during the Middle Ages. Grammar came again under the sway of philosophy. The 13th-century grammarian, Peter Helias, and the later Modistae (so called because their grammatical treatises were entitled De Modis Significandi), based their analysis of Latin grammar not on a valid linguistic analysis of the language but on preconceived ideas of a universal grammatical structure based on reason and external reality and underlying all languages.

Although Dante, in his De vulgari eloquentia (circa 1303), concerned himself with the problem of dialect and vernacular literary language, and there were some brief treatises in Old Provencal, composed with a view to helping poets, such as Uc Faidit's Donatz proensals (Provenqal Donatus: the title is significant), it was not, generally speaking, until the time of the Renaissance that the vernacular languages were studied in their own right and that grammars of them began to be composed. The first of these appeared in the 15th century (such as the anonymous German grammar, Tractatus dans modum teutonisandi casus et tempora. circa 1451, and Nebrija's Spanish grammar written in Spanish, 1492). Among the many grammars published in the 16th century were the following: (1) in vernacular tongues, Pedro de Alcala's of the Arabic of Spain (in Spanish), 1505, R. Etienne's of French, 1569, Domingo de San Tomas's of the language of the Peruvian Indians (in Spanish), 1560. and the Welsh grammar published in Milan by the exiled Roman Catholic, Gruffydd Roberts, 1567-94; (2) in Latin, Reuchlin's of Hebrew, 1506, an anonymous grammar of Church Slavonic, 1516, Victorius's of Ethiopic, 1548, and A. de Olmos's of Mexican languages, 1555-60. Among the many languages of which grammars appeared either in the vernacular or in Latin in the 17th century were Tagalog, Malay, Persian, Armenian, Huron, Finnish, Irish, Lithuanian, English, Chinese, Tamil, and Russian. In the 17th century in France there was much interest in the creation of literary norms, with the work of Malherbe, the salons, Vaugelas's Remarques sur la langue francaise, 1647, an interest which is borne out by the foundation and activities of the Academic Franijaise.

Although many of the grammars mentioned above were descriptive and written without philosophical preconceptions, the idea that it was possible to construct a general grammar valid for all languages was by no means dead. It found its most celebrated formulation at this period, in the Grammaire generale? et raisonne, published in 1660 by Arnault, Nicole, Lancelot, and others of the Port-Royal community: the grammar, usually known as the Grammaire de Port-Royal, was influential for a long time in much of western Europe.

Grammars of other languages were published in the 18th century. But before the end of the century, Sanskrit was becoming well known to western linguists and a new era in the study of grammar had begun. New scholarship, beginning with the studies of BOPP (1816) and RASK (1818), laid the foundations for radically new approaches in comparative grammar and for the modern systems of grammatical analysis referred to above. The work of the 19th-century Neogrammarians was significant in marking the separation between the old grammars and the new studies in linguistics and semantics.

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