A while back, we surveyed some of the reasons English has such a large and varied vocabulary, and why its spelling is nothing if not irregular.
Today, let’s take a quick look at some of the peculiarities of something sometimes not well studied in our “Grammar” Schools and High Schools: Grammar.
What is Grammar?
Grammar is one of the components of natural, human language. Others include spelling and punctuation, although punctuation can also be considered part of Grammar. Grammar itself is the set of structural rules that govern how words are arranged and formed into phrases, clauses, and sentences.
In English, we derive meaning using two primary structures: fusion (inflection) and analysis (position indicating the role of the word in its sentence. English is less fusional than most Indo-European languages (especially those like Latin, Greek, Russian, and German, among many others, who use prefixes, suffixes and infixes to convey the role of many types of words.
For example, the noun “human being” in Latin is listed in the dictionary as Homo. Depending on its role in the sentence, its form will change. These changes are called cases, and the list falls into five basic patterns, called declensions:
- Subject (Nominative): homo, homines the human(s)
- Possessive (Genitive): hominis, hominum of the human(s)
- Indirect Object (Dative): homini, hominibus to the human(s)
- Direct Object (Accusative): hominem, homines the human(s)
- Adverbial (Ablative): homine, hominibus by/from the human(s)
- Direct Address (Vocative): homo, homines O Human(s)
The Genitive, Dative, Accusative and Ablative Cases are also used as objects of prepositions, and some verbs take other direct objects than the Accusative.
In Latin, Adjectives and Pronouns follow similar patterns of change, while Verbs are quite different, as would be expected.
A quick example from Greek will illustrate the role of prefixes, suffixes and infixes in the formation of verbs:
Λύω “to loose” has the typical Classical Greek 6 principal parts:
- Present: λύω (luō)
- Future: λύσω (lusō)
- Aorist: ἔλυσα (elusa)
- Perfect: λέλυκα (leluka)
- Perfect middle/passive: λέλυμαι (lelumai)
- Aorist passive: ἐλύθην (eluthēn)
We can see all three types of change operative. From these six forms, all the rest of the verb forms can be built, over 200 for most verbs! Some reasons for so many forms is because Classical Greek has more moods than we do, and also a dual number (together with singular and plural).
Inflection in English
We don’t think about it much, but English does have some remaining inflections. That is why we are (partly) a fusional language. For example, in nouns we have some inflection:
- Subject/Object: human, humans
- Possessive: human’s, humans’
In Personal Pronouns, more cases have survived. The declension of “I” yields the following:
- Subject: I, we
- Object: me, us
- Reflexive*: myself, ourselves
- Possessive: mine, ours
- Possessive Determiner: my, our
*While the Reflexive is not precisely a grammatical case, it is an inflected form.
Verbs also have conjugations in English, and these show the Germanic ancestry of our language. We have two ways we vary verbs, called “strong” and “weak” by analogy with German.
The “weak” verbs in English are those that form the past and the past participle by adding “-ed” at the end of the verb:
- Look, looked, looked
- Like, liked, liked
“Strong” verbs have internal or other changes:
- See, saw, seen
- Do, did, done
- Take, took, taken
The bare infinitive is the infinitive without “to.” It is used in some situations: we say “I can see,” but “I like to see.” Both are infinitives.
There are also suppletive verbs, which I like to call sandwich verbs. This is a linguistic phenomenon in which two or more verb roots are blended together to form a complete conjugation. English has two: “to be” and “to go.” As an example, “to go” has these three principal parts:
Go, went, gone
Clearly, “went” is not cognate with go, gone. Go (gone) is from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰēh₁-
For the past tense, Old English used another verb, ēode “he went.” By the 15th century, another verb, wenden, had become synonymous with “go.” Its past tense “went” replaced ēode in the conjugation of “to go.” We also have wend and wended from wenden, perhaps not as common today as previously: I wended my way home. She wends her way home.
There is more, but that’s enough for today! Wacky English is a big subject!
— Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant