FunStruct Grammar

Part 1. A Possible Origin of Grammar

We have no direct evidence of how language began, but I have a rather fanciful theory about how grammar began. It didn’t begin when our distant ancestors first used their vocal cords. I imagine they started making various noises to express emotions, like fear and excitement. We have evidence of those early utterances in our speech today, in English expressions such as “Ouch!” and “Good Grief!” In Traditional Grammar, the kind you almost certainly began learning in elementary school, these expressions are one of the “parts of speech” called “interjections.” Their name implies where they appear: inserted before, between, or after what today we call “sentences.”

Our ancestors didn’t even use grammar when they began pointing at people, places, and things while giving them names, like our modern English words “Elgar,” “fire,” “cave,” and “wolves.”

No, it wasn’t until our ancestors began to use a certain kind of word with a name that they created grammar. Think what a breakthrough it was for them, and for language, when they could couple a name, like our modern English “wolves,” with a word or words that could bring that name to life, like a moving picture in their minds. In modern English, we often have to use more than one word, working as a unit, to bring a name to life; “are coming” is an example.  I call a unit of words like that an “animator” because of its life-giving power when coupled with a name.  

Name    +   Animator

Wolves are coming! Shazaam! (to insert a gratuitous interjection!)

People’s survival skills were enhanced when they could quickly convey that kind of vital information from mind to mind using only words.  

But how was “grammar” created when an animator was added to a name? To answer that question, I need to provide some definitions.

Grammar can be defined as the ways words work together to form phrases and clauses, and the ways clauses form sentences.

A phrase is a group of words that can’t contain both a name and its animator.

A clause and a sentence are word groups that must contain both a name and its animator.

So, in “Wolves are coming!” we have the three words, two of which are forming a phrase (“are coming”), and all three words together are forming both a clause (“wolves are coming”) and a sentence (“Wolves are coming!”).

But is the only difference between a clause and a sentence that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, exclamation point, or question mark? Of course not. I’m sure you already know that a sentence may contain more than one clause, and you might also know that not all clauses may be sentences.  So clearly I’m presenting only some basics of grammar here.

But perhaps you think you know of an exception to my claim that every clause and sentence contains a name and its animator. Maybe you’re thinking of an example like “Run!” and you know that’s a sentence. You’re right: it is a sentence. But also remember that our early ancestors didn’t write–they spoke. And when they spoke, they were looking at the person/people they were speaking to. Therefore, there was no doubt as to the name(s) of the person/people they were animating with a word like “Run!” They clearly meant “(You) run!” Talk about animating a name! I’m sure that one word really got people moving!

We have evidence of these early vocal utterances in our language today: They’re known as the “understood you” in sentences like “Watch your step!” And “Take these to the counter.” So while we don’t write down the name (“you”) that the animators “Watch” and “Take” are animating, it’s there, or should be, in our minds, thanks to our speech-only ancestors.

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So that’s a story about how grammar might have begun.  And in my telling you that story, you learned that for grammar to exist, we need a name plus its animator, which creates clauses and sentences, and we need phrases that don’t contain both a name and its animator.

You also learned that we can insert certain words (such as interjections) and delete certain words (such as the “understood you“) and still have correct clauses/sentences.  

And as a bonus, you’ve learned three of the four types of sentences, defined according to their purpose: you learned the statement, the exclamation, and the command. If followed by a period, “Wolves are coming” is a statement because its purpose is to convey information, but if followed by an exclamation point (therefore its purpose must be to convey emotion), it’s an exclamation. And “Run!” is a command, as its primary purpose is to tell someone to do something. Even though this example ends in an exclamation point, that “understood you” is a really strong marker, so “Run!” is a forceful command, not an exclamation.

The fourth kind of sentence according to purpose is the question, but tit involves changing word order, so I’ll discuss that later. I’ll also discuss the other four types of sentences–the ones that are defined according to the number and kind of clauses they contain.

The statement is by far the most common kind of sentence, and it’s the one I’ll focus on most as I discuss grammar.