Evolution of English Grammar

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For some people grammar is just a set of rules that they sometimes don’t even bother to use, for others – it’s the way of communicating and expressing themselves. As humans, we were born with an ability to understand language and a sense of how it’s supposed to be used. In early days, people used grammar without having any set of rules, without even thinking about it, till writing was invented. Even Shakespeare was sought of as a breaker of grammar rules. Nevertheless, they give our speech a certain structure and enable us to understand each other more.  

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The beginning of grammar

William Bullokar was the author of the early English grammar book called “Pamphlet of Grammar” that saw the world in 1586. Bullokar took as a basis for his work a Latin grammar book “Rudimenta Grammatices” that was written by William Lily and published in 1534. Henry VIII prescribed Lily’s book to be used in educational institutes in England in 1542. Even though Bullokar used English in writing his book and made changes in spelling, inventing his own system, many books of such content even after his effort were still employing Latin, especially those that aimed to be used in schools. The last Latin grammar book “Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae” by Christopher Cooper was published in 1685.

At that time any attempt to claim an independent English grammatical rule specifically for English language was soon abide by an identical example in Latin. Even the author of the most popular grammar book at that time, Lindley Murray, had a necessity to refer to “grammatical authorities” when trying to claim that some parts of English grammar are differ from Latin or Ancient Greek ones.

However, other social aspects had started to play their roles. Increasing commerce created a lot of social changes that influenced grammar writing as well. The place of Britain in international deals made a big request for English grammar books to be made for people who spoke other languages. In the second half of seventeenth century a lot of English grammars in different languages, spoken in Europe, were published for use. Moreover, English grammar books became widespread among British people. They travelled from privileged groups of people to other native speakers, including women, tradesmen, merchants and others. Because of that a lot of grammar books, such as “Essays towards a practical English grammar” by James Greenwood and “A Grammar of the English tongue” by John Brightland, were created to target British that didn’t have an opportunity to learn Latin.

Starting from the second part of seventeenth century, only 16 grammar books were published, but by the last period of eighteenth, no less than 270 new additions appeared on the shelves. Furthermore, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, that number changed to 900 fresh titles. Lack in the originality was justified by the unmet needs of a certain target group or some “grammatical point” that wasn’t given as much attention as it should. For example, a very popular book in the middle of the century by William Cobbett had a title “A Grammar of the English language, In a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but more especially for the use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys”.

The prescriptive grammas of eighteenth century

The most imitated grammarian of eighteenth century, Robert Lowth, who was also Oxford professor of poetry, scholar of Hebrew poetry and a humble clergyman, published a work called “A Short Introduction to English Grammar, with critical notes” in 1762. It was the only thing that he wrote on this subject and it didn’t contain his name on it. He influenced the works of his famous at that time pupils – Lindley Murray and William Cobbett.

A student Karen Cajka in 2003 told about nine British women, who issued grammar books in nineteenth century. Together they published twelve works and more than hundred additions. Studying the grammar of the language was considered to be crucial in learning it and other ones later.

From the 18th century to today

During nineteenth-century language studies, systematization began to happen. As for the English language, this started in multicaltural Europe, where it was studied by linguists. A philologist from Denmark Rasmus Rask in 1832 published a book on English grammar as a segment of his studies. Jacob Grimm, a German philologist and the oldest of the famous storytellers Brothers Grimm, made English grammar as a part of his monumental grammar of Germanic languages.  Eduard Adolf Maetzner, a German historical linguist, published his “An English grammar: methodical, analytical and historical” in 1865, and a version in English in 1874. These works showed that professional linguists all over the Europe are studying the English language.

By the last part of the nineteenth century, phonology became a field for studies that created global enterprise aiming to find out more about the structure of English language in a scientific way. Scholars and students, learning to be English teachers and journals, making new researches, were constitutes of that enterprise. Henry Sweet’s work “A new English Grammar: logical and historical” that was published in two parts – Phonology and Accidence and, later, Syntax, became the first work that claimed to the new scholarship. The title shows contrast and continuity with Maetzner’s book and a close relationship with “A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” that in 1895 became known as Oxford English Dictionary.

Danish and Dutch linguists wrote the next selection of English grammars. Otto Jespersen, Danish linguist and co-author of some Henry Sweet’s books, started his work “Modern English grammar on historical principles”, that consisted of seven volumes, in the beginning of the twentieth century. The tradition of Dutch linguists of writing English grammars gained popularity in the twentieth century with the help of works, published by Etsko Kruisinga, Hendrik Poutsma, and Reinard Zandvoot. During this period a vast amount of new words has been added to English vocabulary. Even though the greater number of these words had Latin or Greek origins, many of them also came from the languages that were spoken in British colonies. In the 1950s the number of people, who were using English as a second language, outgrew the number of native speakers.

English grammar that we use today, have changed and modified through centuries, new words have been added to the Oxford dictionary every year. That can only make me wonder how English grammar will look like in the next century. Find more interesting topics and great quality essays online.

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