Tuesday, July 03, 2007


When I signed up to be an English teacher, I thought I’d be teaching stories and grammar, which I took to mean sentence diagramming -- which I love, taking it to be a kind of architecture of language. Alas, I discovered that what everyone else thought was “English” was simply conformity to standard usage, achieved by browbeating and repetition, which is why so many people hate English. Of course, on a reservation one had the added twist that “English” was the language the people were FORCED to speak while they were beaten for speaking Blackfeet, considered to be a language of rebellion, quite apart from “having no grammar at all” -- which simply meant that English speakers couldn’t tell when Blackfeet was spoken properly from when it wasn’t. The view that Blackfeet was the language of rebellion became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

German speakers have a headstart with Blackfeet because, like German, it often uses words that add particles to refine the meaning. It’s “agglutinative.” (In fact, it’s even “gutteral” sounding to an English ear because, like German, the words include sounds made in the back of the mouth and with the glottis (that little thing that dangles down in the middle). At a certain point in history the sounds of the English language moved to the front of the mouth -- as in the speech exercise: “the tip of the tongue, the lips and the teeth.” This was understood to be more elite for some reason. (The Scots, who kept back-of-the-throat sounds, are likely to disagree.) If you say to an Indian that his language is “gutteral” he is likely to think you mean it is “of the gutter” and to become very angry, the same as those infamous Black students who got their teacher fired for using the word “niggardly.” (It’s a Scandinavian word meaning “stingy,” and the Scots would like you to know that they are not necessarily niggardly either, but simply natural conservers.)

The big thing with the grammar of English language is the subject/verb engine at the center, which diagramming makes clear. Everything is appended to this relationship through the use of modifiers and conjunctions. Since there are some words that are nearly always verbs, the verbs of being which are also often “linking verbs” that form verb phrases, it helps to learn these little verbs by heart:
be, am, is, are, was, were, been
have, has, had
do, does, did
shall, will
may, can
must, might
could, would, should.

This is the alphabet of verbs as taught by Agnes Carter at Vernon Grade School in Portland, Oregon, in the Forties and Fifties. This litany serves as a password among certain persons. It’s a code for cracking sentences. There are a few others, which I’ll get to later.

Once in a whlle grammar will help solve a usage problem, but not often and not usually the kind that many people worry about. Things like the difference between “whom” and “who,” for instance. (“Whom” is objective, when the word is the object of a verb or preposition, while “who” is subjective, either the subject of the sentence or a “predicate word” which is a synonym for the subject and thus is following “be, am, is, are, was, were or been.”

Markers for social class, ethnic origin and education are now all scrambled up. People say “ain’t” knowing that you know they know better. Some will even defend it as merely archaic rather than improper. People speak “ebonics” as a political matter. Some have gone so far as to learn to speak Blackfeet. Usage is like clothing: one must fit the occasion, one can go around shabby with rips and stains, one can mis-button one’s shirt and leave one’s zipper down, one can relax “en deshabille” or one can dress snappy -- a little more stylish and polished than anyone else. Much depends on whether one is responding to necessity, distraction, sarcasm or pride.

But if you get too far out of line with grammar, no one can understand what you’re saying. “With hammer the” means nothing. Words must be in the right order and that order is dictated by grammar, because where the word is in the sentence tells you at least part of what it means. Luckily, we all (or most of us) learn grammar when we’re toddlers without the slightest consciousness of what we are doing. Part of the difficulty of addressing the subject in school is that everyone already knows their grammar and, like the centipede who started to think about which foot came next and ended up lying on his back in the ditch waving all the feet in the air, becoming conscious of an unconscious skill is all very awkward and leads to a lot of blunders at first.

At Heart Butte Star Wars came along at just the right time for several reasons, but one of the most amusing ones was Yoda’s grammar, which was rather Celtic. “Angry I am!” he exclaimed instead of “I am angry!” because he was in the habit of putting his predicate words ahead of both subject and verb. The seventh grade so enjoyed “talking like Yoda.” That took a little of the sting out of grammar.

Spike Jones’ old song about “Get out of here with that... thumpety-thump” -- the thumping standing in for the object of a preposition -- was also helpful. “Get out of here with that xertypootwap!” makes grammatical sense, even if you’ve never in your life ever heard of a xertypootwap! (One needs to be on the alert for euphemisms, though, given the seventh grade mind. Saying to someone, “Fern YOU!” is likely to make trouble.)

I do not endorse the elaboration of grammar into a major political structuralist argument, but it does seem obvious to me that we organize our sentences around the presumption that there are things (nouns) and what things do or are (verbs) and that a bit of reflection about how they “work” is very helpful when it comes to clarifying both sentences and thought.

Originally, I’d planned to confine these reflections to merryscribbler.blogspot.com, but now I’m thinking I’ll put some of the issues on this blog and keep the other blog alive mostly for the posting of exercises. Reflecting I am, while I type this rumpety-tum.

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