Is English Grammar Based on Latin Grammar and is that Bad?

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Is English Grammar Based on Latin Grammar and is that Bad?

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feb 17, 2008, 6:46pm

I've long wondered about part of Bill Bryson's book The Mother Tongue where after he skewers a few of the absurdities of English grammar (the only form of sentence where you cannot use the present tense form of drive, is the present tense) he claims that it's because early English grammarians based their grammars on Latin which English had little in common with. I haven't heard this anywhere else and I'm not sure how much validity to place on it.

feb 17, 2008, 7:35pm

It is commonly said that early English-language prescriptivists like Bishop Lowth drew on their knowledge of Latin--considered grammatically "perfect"--to make rules about English--considered grammatically degraded, but the claim is perhaps a tenuous one.

From Wikipedia, for example:
It is sometimes claimed that in centuries past, English prescription was based on the norms of Latin grammar, but this is doubtful. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as one who did this, but in fact he specifically condemned "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language". It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used as substantiating arguments, but only when the forms being thus defended were in any case the norm in the prestige form of English. A good example is the split infinitive: supporters of the construction frequently claim the old prohibition was based on a false analogy with Latin, but this seems to be a straw man argument; it is difficult to find a serious writer who ever argued against the split infinitive on the basis of such an analogy, and the earliest authority to advise against the construction, an anonymous American grammarian in 1834, gave a very clear statement basing his view on descriptive observation.

feb 17, 2008, 8:12pm

But Bryson also casts doubts on the validity of the parts of speech, saying that to deal with all the anomolies they must be defined so broadly so as to be meaningless (p. 135 if anyone wishes to follow along). Yet, as far as I know, every language in the world has parts of speech and inflected forms of verbs. Do they all have these features because Latin had them and all grammars descend from Latin or do they have intrinsic meaning across languages?

feb 18, 2008, 10:46am

Bryson's books about language are just hideous messes (as is his book about physics and cosmology). The man has extremely poor research skills, little comprehension of the subject, and displays an inability to communicate concepts clearly. (His travel writing, however, is delightful.)

This is a perfect case in point. He states, "we possess a language in which the parts of speech are almost entirely notional." Of course they are. Any classification system is going to be notional, that's a given. Classification is an abstraction we add to better understand and describe.

His problem with parts of speech is that he expects there to be a one-to-one correspondence between lexeme and part of speech: "suffering" should be a verb or a noun, but not both. But that's not how it works. The parts of speech describe functions, not lexemes. It is incorrect to say "'suffering' is a noun;" you must say, "in this particular sentence, 'suffering' performs the function of a noun."

On p.137 he says of English grammar, "its rules and terminology are based on Latin." That's half right. Most of the terminology used to describe English (and most other languages) grammar is indeed from Latin. But its rules are from English. Grammar is determined by how we speak the language. Some rules ("patterns" is actually a better term) of English grammar do come to us from Latin, via the Normans. But most are from its Germanic progenitors.

feb 19, 2008, 12:52pm

The Indo-European had a grammar which can be posited. As Latin and English are both Indo-European, there is to some degree a common heritage, but it is not always very recognizable. Latin, as learned by English speakers in the last 3-4 centuries, is taught with a very fixed grammar. So, I guess some have looked back to a presumptive "golden age" of Latin, and hope to get English into a similar shoebox.

When I began taking Latin in 8th grade, I thought it was a really neat and orderly language. Then when I added in French and Greek, with limited forays into German and Russian, I realize that that neatness was a construct. The advantage of taking Latin, however, was that It required you to be more exact in what you were writing (even saying) than English which allows a lot of latitude. Latin also gets you into the Indo-European grammatical categories which help when you are learning other languages which use many of the same categories. It is more useful to know something about accusative and dative cases when learning most Indo-Eur languages than relying on whatever one might have learned about the "objective" case.

mar 3, 2008, 1:23pm

I took a few linguistics courses in college for my degree. English is primarily derived from German...see History of the English Language. While English borrows elements from a variety of Indo-European languages, Latin included, it is still primarily from the German line, and gains much of its structure from there, but no language is completely comparative.

Modern English also dropped most inflections and most (if not all) genders, which in turn changed the way the sentences had to be structured. Technically, one can structure a Latin sentence in a variety of ways and still say the same thing as long as the inflections, declentions, and cases are done correctly. Not so with Modern English.

The above points are pretty simplistic. I like the above listed work the best for a nice overview on the history of Modern English.

mar 3, 2008, 3:28pm

The Story of English and Do You Speak American?, both of which are associated with PBS series, and Robert MacNeil, are good friendly books to look at the English language.

mar 3, 2008, 6:23pm

This thread has reminded me of two books that had escaped cataloguing. They live on my CD pile, because they are each accompanied by a couple of CDs. The Routes of English by Simon Elmes. I've not read them yet, but they're pretty short. The aural version was a Radio 4 series presented by Melvyn Bragg. I need to eject a CD from my autochanger in the car, so these seem like excellent candidates as replacements.

mar 3, 2008, 10:30pm

I actually have a cassette tape that accompanies the Accents of English, but I don't think I know where it is at this time -- and I know I haven't entered it into LT.

sep 20, 2008, 7:44pm

To #1: you may not have heard it, but anyone who's studied modern English at all extensively has to have encountered it. It's perfectly true. When the first grammars of English were constructed, the people doing it had been trained in Latin and saw it as a "perfect" language 8-) Quite apart from that, the only grammars they were familiar WERE Latin(and maybe Greek) grammars, so those were their models. After all doctoral theses were still being submitted in Latin as late as the 17th century.

(Note: I'm a Germanic philologist who got there via linguistics)

okt 21, 2008, 12:20pm

The simple fact is that Latin is a whole lot easier to classify, because it doesn't jump around a whole lot while you're trying to do it. English language is a living language, and that makes it a democracy. There is no right or wrong, simply what makes you look like an uneducated rube, at this particular moment.

If you don't want to sound like a welfare child from South Central LA, don't use "disrespect" as a transitive verb form. (yes, of course, it is a transitive verb form, but it isn't attractive.) If you don't want to sound like trailer bait from West Virginia, don't say "y'all." (Join with the rest of us in distilling the second person to a single verb form) If you don't want to sound like a London chimney sweep, for heaven's sake, pronounce your Hs. (don't want anybody thinking you're French, do you? Yes, I know that your great-greats picked this up specifically so they would sound French) In living language, grammar is a matter of style.

Exclusionary linguistics: Not because it's right. Not because it's wrong. Just because you said it, and you're not one of us.

But yes, the people who fail to appreciate the transitive nature of a living language base their grammars on Latin. (or at this point, on grammars based on Grammars based on...etc Latin) And those same people usually don't speak Latin, and therefore have serious issues with it. I keep butting heads over the subjunctive, which seems to be my latest pet peeve.

okt 21, 2008, 1:52pm

Well, at least English has no ablative to worry about 8-) (It's been multiple decades, but I did once study Latin) However, as someone who began learning German even more decades ago, I already knew about dative, accusative, and genitive in advance, but had a really solid grasp of indicative, conditional, and subjunctive, including ALL the subjunctive forms, so I've been conscious of their remnants in English since before I began teaching it. Trying to drill it into American teenage heads even as a weird "exception" works about once in a couple hundred tries at best, and then it tended to be my top advanced level German students who got it right on a regular basis in English. . . . hmmmmm

okt 21, 2008, 3:10pm


You could make a whimsical case that "whence" and "thence" are ablatives of where and there.

And I have read some place that the use of word "the" in: 'the' more you eat 'the' fatter you get greater -- is an example of the instrumental.

Some old English grammars talked about accusative vs. dative infinitives, where the latter require the word "to."

okt 21, 2008, 5:12pm

#11 If you don't want to sound like trailer bait from West Virginia, don't say "y'all." (Join with the rest of us in distilling the second person to a single verb form)

Both Fogies speak southern American English as an adopted dialect. We consider it simple courtesy to our neighbors, just as when we lived in Kyoto we spoke Kansai Japanese rather than the officially approved Kanto form. We freely use “y’all” even when speaking midwest American English; it’s a useful innovation, though not one that is yet acceptable to journal editors.

Your characterization of us as “trailer bait”, absurd as it is to suppose we might be eaten by trailers, is nonetheless offensive. In the first place, “y’all” does not characterize West Virginia speech nearly so much as it does that south of the Appalachians. In the second place, we have good friends—one of us has relatives—in West Virginia. Neither they nor we are “trailer bait”. And in the third place, who do you think you are in the first place? Poor people are poor. They don’t mind being called poor—that’s what they know they are. They wish something could be done about the geographical discrimination that helps keep them poor, and they recognize that cheap slurs like “trailer trash” or “hillbilly” are among the mental shortcuts that lessen others’ willingness to help them.

disdainful remarks about snobs deleted here

okt 21, 2008, 5:58pm

OE actually HAD both dative and accusative, as well as traces of instrumental, which latter, I seem to recall thinking, acted a bit like ablative. There's also a German preposition, bei, that translates into so many different ones in English that it feels a bit like instrumental or ablative. Other than learning its more common uses as "idiomatic expressions", the best way I can describe it is "in some kind of association with". Try getting that across to American teenagers! Just the difference between dative and accusative was complex enough. However, I did have students who, for the first time, could see the difference between direct and indirect objects they'd never learned to distinguish in their English classes.
This was when I was no longer teaching English myself. I did occasionally correct something they'd "learned" from their non-grammar-teaching English teachers, however. None of the latter ever tried to claim _I_ was wrong. They didn't have the background to try it 8-)

Redigeret: okt 27, 2008, 8:46pm

Deleted thread killer.

nov 2, 2008, 11:28am

My Biblical Greek teacher in an on-line course this sommer had us use 'y'all' when translating 2nd person plural from the Greek to English.

I had to teach my son some English grammar in Middle School so he could cope with Dative and Accusative in German - He'd never heard of direct and indirect objects. I'm trying to believe that that was covered when he was out with complications after an appendectomy.

nov 2, 2008, 2:53pm

MarthaJeanne, it may well be that your son's school doesn't teach formal grammar. I used to teach in a high school where at least one English teacher didn't. This showed up in German class 8-) Some of my students told me about it more than once.

nov 2, 2008, 3:27pm

I've had several language teachers tell me that they have to teach English grammar to teach foreign languages. But Steven was in Middle school, and had had at least German or French besides English every year he had been in school, and noone had ever taught him the difference between direct and indirect objects! It was obvious that the whole concept was really strange to him.

Of course I scandalized the Greek course this summer by insisting that German and Greek have the right number of cases to help you follow the grammar (4) as opposed to English that leaves you high and dry without them, and Latin and Russian that overload you with more cases than you really need.

nov 3, 2008, 10:17am

Well, I don't know about French, but they certainly look different in German 8-) Back when I was learning Latin(from my first German teacher--long story) I sometimes translated parts of exercises into German because it gave me another case to work with 8-) And then there was ablative 8-(

jan 15, 2010, 5:53pm

Thanks for putting Mr. Bryson in his place. I have to add that responses in this discussion come from people who are clearly experts and others who know very little.

Latin terms and some Latin rules were imposed upon English in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A few of the rules (such as the vilification of the split infinitive) were silly in English. The terms, however, were used simply to describe what was already there. Much of what the terms described had been essential practices in English well before the Norman conquest.

It's a difference between splitting an infinitive, on the one hand, and using "I" as the object of a verb or a preposition. The first really matters little, but the second matters quite a bit.

Oddly enough, many writers have gotten it into their heads that one must always split infinitives. Others, and many of them academics, have embraced and propagated "I" as an accusative.

In the end "grammar" is a complicated term. It needs to be defined for this discussion.

jan 15, 2010, 8:16pm

Welcome to LT, pgrudin.

The best reason for explaining English in Latin categories is that gives someone a basic Indo-European grammatcial foundation when learning other languages from the saem family like Greek, Lithuanian, or Albanian. Prescribing very Latin rules for another language is not very useful.

Redigeret: jan 16, 2010, 12:03am

Another book discussing English and how, indeed, it differs in many respects from other Germanic and most Indo-European languages can be found in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter gives somewhat compelling arguments for how English lost case endings, uses "do" which carries no meaning, and has nouns without gender.

Fun reading!

Edited for an egregious spelling error..

jan 16, 2010, 12:05am

Answer to the question in the subject: NO. Good or bad has nothing to do with it. It is what it is.

jan 16, 2010, 1:14am

Curse the split infinitive in English. It is distracting, ugly, and wrong.


jan 16, 2010, 3:06am

Then, again, sometimes we must dare to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Try "boldly to go" and it just doesn't quite work. Sorry. Infinitives in English have always been two words. Nicer that way.

jan 16, 2010, 2:51pm

Having looked with disdain at split infinitives in English for maybe 50 years, I realized just yesterday that I would like to know more about whether they really are two words. We conjugate mostly with suffixes. There is nothing however to keep us from using other affixes with prefixes in the spotlight here. Is the 'to' possibly a prefix? Accidentally printed or copied as a separate word because, for example, it looks like one?

I think that if we had heard 'to go boldly' or even 'boldly to go' from the beginning we might have preferred it. Or the directive could have been given to a poet to recast it entirely.


jan 17, 2010, 1:51pm

Thanks for the welcome. Glad to meet you.

I do hope I made myself clear in distinguishing between rules on the one hand and terms on the other. For instance, English writers decided not to split infinitives because present-tense infinitives in Latin are one word. This decision was a dumb idea, a useless and, eventually, pernicious imposition of the rules of one language upon another.

Terminology, however is a different matter. It is useful to understand how words like "accusative, "subjunctive," and "pluperfect" (inter al.) apply to English. Knowing the terms leads to understanding the objects they describe and, perhaps, applying that understanding to speech and writing. We simply have to have a minimum set of terms if we are to discuss or teach grammar at all.

I agree, of course, with your point about learning other kindred languages.

jan 17, 2010, 4:30pm

I need to reply to this bit: "Oddly enough, many writers have gotten it into their heads that one must always split infinitives. Others, and many of them academics, have embraced and propagated "I" as an accusative. "

One of my college English profs called the latter "nominative kickback". People who do it often tend to do other odd things to language in an attempt to hypercorrect. Maybe they're related to the "must split infinitives" types. 8-)

jan 18, 2010, 6:30pm

" . . . (an) absurdit(y) of English grammar(:) the only form of SENTENCE where you cannot use the present tense form of drive is the present TENSE."
#1 (emphasis added)

To jwilson61:

I understand the main idea of your post, but not the "absurdity" that Bryson is citing:

In the sentence "I drive to work five days a a week" is that not a use of the present tense of "drive"? How can a tense be a "form of sentence"?

Whatever is the answer to this question (and I may even be understanding the question wrongly)
I don't think Latin had any influence on how it turned out in English.

The Romans' own Latin grammars that we know of were written after the Classical Period. Vergil and Horace probably would not have known an ablative from a dative or a future perfect from a perfect subjuctive, though they could use them "correctly." (Julius Caesar is said to have been a grammarian, but his grammatical works have not survived.)
I would suppose that many basic things, e.g. the parts of speech are derived from an origin in Latin grammar. Other things like the noun declensions have all but disappeared in modern European Romance languages, and have been greatly simplified in the Germanic. The former still have an influence; the latter cannot have any.

So my answer to the question in the post would have to be "Yes and No": Many Latin influences
still survive, but not so many that you can blame it on Latin, every time there is an absurdity in English grammar.

feb 1, 2010, 12:21pm

To Rolandperkins:


I agree about the Roman grammar books. Don't you think, however, that the Romans must have had some way of teaching their children to speak and write Latin and that, in doing so, they must have referred to correct and incorrect ways of speaking and writing?

Just to enrich your point, I note that the present tense is not a "form of sentence". It is--and this may come as a surprise to some--a tense.

feb 1, 2010, 6:20pm

To pgrudin:

Yes, I suppose the Romans did have a way of teaching children to speak and write (esp. the latter) Latin. There isn't much evidence from primary sources on how fussy they were about usage. One poem of cCatullus riducules a speaker name d Arrius who put in an H before inti initial vowels This is a matter of pronunciaion rather than of grammar. Sec ondary sources have deduc ed that they objected to elisions like "tammodo" for "tantummodo".

Thanks for the corroboration about the present tense's being a tense, no a "Form of sentence".

(Sorry I can't at present make corrrections in my usual way with the back spacer. e.g. "cctullu
"cCtullusriduc ules" should be "Catullus ridicules".
Cancel "inti" in line 7.