Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby cwconrad » August 5th, 2012, 8:37 am

Laudator Temporis Acti by Michael Gilleland (noreply@blogger.com):
French Lesson
Letter from Stephen MacKenna to Stephen McKenna (October 29, 1927), in Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna, ed. E.R. Dodds (London: Constable & Co Ltd, 1936), pp. 247-249 (at 248):

Jamesy Stephens and W.B. Yeats once hired a Frenchman to teach them French together: he began with a quarter of an hour on the rules for the agreement of past participles: Jamesy at last broke in "Excuse me, M. Dupont, what is meant by the agreement of the past participle?", and W.B. said "I was just going to ask you, Monnshure, what is a past participle?"


I don't know whether this is "cool stuff" or not, but it was"seen on the web" -- and I think it's funny. Why is it funny? I don't really know, but I'm guessing that it's funny because none of us is so very far removed from our original "innocence" about the meaning of traditional grammatical terms. It's the foggy feeling that I often have when confronted with a linguistic terminus technicus (often enough when confronted with one I've seen several times). This is the sort of experience that has led me relatively recently in my long years to the conviction that understanding a text or an utterance in an alien tongue is not fundamentally a matter of grammatical/linguistic analysis.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
… ἐπειδὴ καὶ τὸν οἶνον ἠξίους
πίνειν, συνεκποτέ’ ἐστί σοι καὶ τὴν τρύγα Aristophanes, Plutus 1085
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby Stephen Carlson » August 5th, 2012, 11:44 am

Yeah, I thought that was funny too.

I should note in this connection that Rosetta Stone is teaching grammar with absolutely no metalanguage, by showing constructions were one form is right another is wrong. Presumably, I am supposed to infer what the grammatical governing the constructions is. (Personally, after a while, it is more helpful to consult a grammar and get the rule in a nicely distilled format).
Stephen C. Carlson, Ph.D. (Duke)
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Faculty of Theology, Uppsala
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby David Lim » August 5th, 2012, 9:06 pm

Stephen Carlson wrote:(Personally, after a while, it is more helpful to consult a grammar and get the rule in a nicely distilled format).


I would agree with this. I think it is extremely useful to be able to draw our own inferences simply based on what we know is accepted as correct or rejected as incorrect, and then to be able to check with references or someone else just in case we missed something. Personally I feel neither should be completely discarded, and some English dictionaries even use proper complete English sentences to explain each word, followed by illustrative examples taken from a large corpus, but they still elucidate grammatical rules wherever the examples might not give a clear picture. But we must still beware that sometimes "distilled rules" are incorrect! Has anyone not been taught that we should not begin a sentence with "And" or "But", or end a sentence with a preposition? And I would say that prescriptive grammar is something we should refer to but not rely on. ;)
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby MAubrey » August 5th, 2012, 10:47 pm

David Lim wrote:ut we must still beware that sometimes "distilled rules" are incorrect! Has anyone not been taught that we should not begin a sentence with "And" or "But", or end a sentence with a preposition? And I would say that prescriptive grammar is something we should refer to but not rely on.


This statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of descriptive grammar.

You're confusing prescriptive rules that you learned in grade school with language description. Prescriptive rules are about making value statements about particular constructions with a specific social class, where following the "rule" demonstrates your higher social status and breaking the "rule" demonstrates that you're less educated than someone else (whether that's true or not). Prescriptive rules function in such a way as to allow the control of social power over others.

The purpose of a descriptive reference grammar is to distill the language. Though whether a given grammar is successful at that is another question. But you will never find a descriptive reference grammar of English that lists "don't end a sentence with a preposition" as one of the "rules" of the language.
Mike Aubrey
Canada Institute of Linguistics & Trinity Western University Graduate School
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby Eeli Kaikkonen » August 6th, 2012, 4:07 am

David Lim wrote:Personally I feel neither should be completely discarded, and some English dictionaries even use proper complete English sentences to explain each word, followed by illustrative examples taken from a large corpus, but they still elucidate grammatical rules wherever the examples might not give a clear picture. But we must still beware that sometimes "distilled rules" are incorrect!

In the field of lexicography BAGD (or BDAG) is a good example. Function words are described technically and if you understand such descriptions they may be valuable, but at least the beginners must also read the examples – and English translations! – and base their understanding on them. On the other hand, example-based understanding is easy and intuitive but may need the description to make clear what it's all about. I think the problem in abstract descriptions is often the language (technical words) used in them, not so much the idea of a description itself. The description should be plain easy English as much as possible.

In BAGD we can also see how descriptions are often so inaccurate, or so restrictive, that sometimes the examples and functional translations make you wonder whether the example belongs under that description at all. But that's the nature of descriptions: they must be understood in the light of examples, and must not be understood too rigidly. They need creative, intuitive interpretation.
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby David Lim » August 6th, 2012, 10:24 am

MAubrey wrote:
David Lim wrote:ut we must still beware that sometimes "distilled rules" are incorrect! Has anyone not been taught that we should not begin a sentence with "And" or "But", or end a sentence with a preposition? And I would say that prescriptive grammar is something we should refer to but not rely on.


This statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of descriptive grammar.

[...]


Your statement represents a fundamental misreading of my statement. I said "prescriptive", not "descriptive". ;) There is a grey area as to how much of an actual grammar is descriptive and how much is prescriptive. I fully agree with you that a descriptive grammar is good. But you don't know what prescriptive grammar is; it is nothing to do with social class, but rather it prescribes rules rather than describing the language usage, typically without solid statistical corpus-based evidence. Without evidence it is not descriptive.
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Re: Metalanguage, shmetalanguage

Postby MAubrey » August 6th, 2012, 10:52 am

David Lim wrote:Your statement represents a fundamental misreading of my statement. I said "prescriptive", not "descriptive".


*Sheepish look*

David Lim wrote:But you don't know what prescriptive grammar is; it is nothing to do with social class, but rather it prescribes rules rather than describing the language usage, typically without solid statistical corpus-based evidence. Without evidence it is not descriptive.


#facepalm

Well, after reading your post too fast and missing the word "prescriptive," it is nice, at least, to have some company. Thanks for joining me by putting your foot in your mount, too.
Mike Aubrey
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