Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mystery of the Grammatical Gender

A student of primitive languages is often baffled when he or she  is  confronted with the phenomenon of grammatical gender . Why did the ancients ascribe sex to inanimate objects? What made the Anglo-Saxons consider stone as masculine and gift (giefu) as feminine? The purpose of this post is to demystify as  far as possible grammatical gender and clarify matters for the benefit of students of primitive and ancient languages .
The practice of using labels like masculine and feminine  to designate classes of nouns was started by Panini who wrote Ashtadhyayi 2500 years ago . Grammarians since Panini have followed his example,  and this has caused a lot of confusion  to students . Panini could have used labels like Class A  Nouns  and Class B nouns nstead of masculine and feminine . He used the labels masculine and feminine most probably  because . the two lists of  nouns were dominated by nouns with identifiable natural gender   Besides, masculine and feminine are the universal criteria of classification . The basis for classification was , of course, their identical grammatical behaviour ( which may not be noticeable to modern students ) .  You may not fault the ancients with bungling sex anymore! The  fault lies in later grammarians and not the founding fathers of the ancient languages !

How  did these nouns which fall under two separate heads behave in an identical manner ? If you look at the list of Old English masculine nouns . you won't see anything common  which should make them members of a class . Then how come these disparate nouns behaved in an identical fashion ? We should credit the ancients with some reason ! They could not have done anything without valid reason . , particularly because they were free from the compulsion of prescriptive grammar . and prescriptive phonetics .   The only compulsion they worked under  must have been clarity and ease of pronunciation . 

Why did the primitive people find it expedient to make their nouns  terminate  in easily articulated vowel sounds like  a: , i: and o? Rhyme and rhythm must have  fascinated  these men  in the infancy of their languages . A clue is provided by modern languages like Spanish ( which descended from Latin) and Hindi which descended from Sanskrit, a member of the Indo- European family of languages . 
Look at the following Spanish sentences 

La puerta está cerrada

Las puertas están cerradas 

Nobody can read these sentences without being struck by their internal rhyme . This internal rhyme must have ensured greater ease of articulation  and better clarity in communication of thoughts . Even a casual listener could get the message right thanks to the internal rhyme .  As man's cognitive powers increased his language no longer needed internal rhyme and  so it became  more and more restricted to the language of poetry .

 That grammatical gender makes for better clarity goes without saying .   .As for the ease of pronunciation there is nothing in the modern survivals of  these nouns to suggest  that the nouns belonging to one class made for greater ease of pronunciation than the other These words have changed so muh from their original forms  In some languages like Spanish , Sanskrit and its descendants the change is not so drastic as in the case of  English and French . .  Besides,  Old English and its parent Indo-European  had some phonetic  feature or features  like voicing, nasalization, aspiration  stress etc ,  which are  now lost to us . In short, we do not know for sure how the ancients  actually pronounced the words . So we cannot say with any certainty how  ease of pronunciation and clarity of expression   were  achieved  in connected speech  except in terms of internal rhyme . . We cannot reconstruct the pronunciation of Old English  or its ancestor Proto- Germanic with as much certainty as we reconstructed the pronunciation of Elizabethan English .  We can only grope in the dark and make intelligent and informed guesses ! 

Thank you for visiting

Prof V.P.Rajappan  





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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Passive Voice and Principle of End-Focus

English verbs have fixed meanings . Their transitivity or intransitivity is pre-detaermined as a result of this . For example, beat always means to give blows and not to receive blows . In other words , beat is a transitive verb which should have a performer (subject) and a sufferer (object) . In English subject always begins a sentence  and object follows the verb . This rigid word-order may sometimes create problems . For example,  in a passage about Mahatma Gandhi, sentences are expected to begin with  the subject viz. Gandhi . If I were to write a sentence like this  in the passage "Godse assassinated Gandhiji on 30 Jan, 1948" , it might sound a bit discordant . But as assassinate is a transitive verb with fixed meaning , I would be forced to begin the sentence with the inappropriate subject .. What is the way out ? The answer is passive construction !

The English language discovered as long ago as the Anglo-Saxon period that past participle of a verb had the force of an adjective . This led to the emergence of present perfect tense and later to the emergence of several perfect tenses . This characteristic of the past participle was put to excellent use for passive construction towards the end of the Middle English period .

As the past participle has a dominant adjectival quality ,the object of the transitive verb  can be shifted to the subject position ,and the relevant form of be verb  made  to  precede the past participle. .  .This  is what is happening in the passive construction . The active voice subject can be shown , if necessary, as a prepositional phrase ( by+ agent) at the end of the passive sentence .

Passive construction gained ground owing to the influence of French during the Middle English period . In French ,  the past participle behaves exactly like an adjective . It agrees with the  subject in number and gender. Hence, be is the regular auxiliary verb before past participle in French in passive construction . English followed the French practice .

In present-day English,  however,  passive construction is widely used whenever the subject is not worth mentioning . such as in scientific  writing , official documents , law etc There is no need for the past participle to have the quality of an adjective  for passive construction in present-day English . .  Passive construction is possible even when the past participle has a dominant actional aspect .

The construction get+ past participle did not find favour with English speakers""My car was repainted last year" is better than"My car got repainted last year " , at any rate , in formal English

Passive construct6ion is preferred when 1) the object  is  more important than the subject 2 )when the subject is unknown and 3)wnen the subject is too obvious to mention it The subject of an active voice sentence can be retained as a prepositional phrase by+ agent in the passive version . As the agent comes at the end of the sentence , it receives end-focus . Thus passive construction  enables us to emphasize the subject of an active sentence by changing it into passive voice .

Examples 

My son painted this picture 
( no emphasis on my son )

Who painted this picture ? 

This picture was painted by my son 
( focus on my son
N.B Contrastive focus on my son is an alternative way for emphasis . ., but end-focus is generally preferred in  English 

Thank you for visiting

Prof . V.P Rajappan


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Monday, November 5, 2012

Dative-Shift and Principle of End-Focus

In  my previous post I explained the Principle of End-Focus . In this present post I propose to examine Dative- Shift or Dative - Alternation in the light of the Principle of End-Focus .

What is dative- shift? You know that there are a few verbs which are capable of taking two objects . Such verbs are called ditransitive verbs . The object which is answer to the question what? is the direct object and the object which is answer to the question to whom / for whom is the indirect object . Look at this example

I gave her a ring .

In this sentence a ring is the direct object and her is the indirect object or the personal object . The indirect  object always precedes the direct object in this type of construction :

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subject +verb+indirect object+direct object .


When we view the sentence as an information structure , a ring  is the new information and it gets end-focus .  Ring is pronounced with tonic accent . Thus ring gets prominence or emphasis by virtue of its final position .

It follows from this that in a normal English sentence with ditransitive verbs the direct object gets end-focus .


However, it is possible to re-phrase the sentence in such a way that the indirect object moves to the end of the sentence . As the indirect object  is still playing the recipient role , it is in the dative case . It is preceded by the preposition to or for , depending on the verb used .


1 I bought her a gift.

I bought a gift for her .

    
2  She made him tea .

She made tea for him . 

3  I gave her a gift .

I gave a gift to her 

When indirect object is shifted to the end of sentences (as in the examples given above), the focus is on the indirect object as it carries new information . 

For whom did you buy a gift? 

I bought a gift for her .

Look at the following examples 

The whole sentence as new information 

What happened at the party/ 

John gave Jane a gift . 

(Here focus is on gift  by virtue of its final position)

To whom did John give  the gift? 

John gave the gift to Jane. 

(jane  gets focus through dative-shifting )

Thus it is possible to emphasize the indirect object by placing it at the end of sentences . 


Thank you for visiting!

Prof .V.P.Rajappan



 


    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Principle of End-Focus in English Sentences

What is the Principle of End-Focus in English sentences? This elusive principle is the despair of most ESL learners of English . Simply put, it denotes the tendency of the English language to reserve to the end of the sentence the most important piece of information . It may sound a bit paradoxical to most ESL learners of English They may wonder how any sentence element can get prominence by being "relegated" to the end ! Last is the least in their way of perceiving things .

An English sentence conveys a message . A message may comprise an expected or assumed piece of information together with a piece of new information .  Surely, the new information should be given some degree of prominence . The best way to ensure this is by putting it to the end of the sentence where the tone-group  also ends . The last lexical word in the sentence which co-extends  with the tone-group of the sentence receives the tonic accent .The tonic accent  thus highlights the last lexical word . The new information , by being placed at the end of the sentence ,,  will receive more prominence than  it would in any other position in the sentence .

Now take a look at the syntax of a typical English sentence :

subject+verb+object+adverbial

As the sentence co-extends withe the tone-group , adverb receives tonic accent . It follows from this that adverb receives prominence in a typical English sentence . as it receives end -focus by virtue of its final position .

However, the English language has resources which permit it to highlight any  sentence element by shifting it to the end where it can receive end- focus . Take thisexample

There is a temple on top of the hill

The lexical element hill receive focus by virtue of its final  position which coincides with the end of the tone-group . If you wish to highlight temple  you need only to turn around the elements in such a way that temple comes at the end of the sentence .

What is on top of the hill?

On top of the hill , there is a temple

In its new position temple gets end-focus , doesn't it?

In my next posts I will explain passivization and dative -shift in the light of the Principle of End-Focu.

Thank you for visiting !

Prof V.P.Rajappan

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Omission of Auxiliary do in Wh-Questions

The omission  of the auxiliary verb do in wh- questions  will  often confuse English language learners . The general structure of a wh- question involving do is 

Wh -word + Auxiliary do  + subject + main verb++adverbial

When the wh-word  is the object of the verb , do is obligatory .It has been obligatory  in Modern English since the 18 th century 

Look at the following sentence:

You saw somebody.

Somebody is the object of the verb saw.  If we ask a question based on somebody , it would be

Whom did you see?

Whom is the object of the verb see and , therefore, did  is used as an auxiliary .

Look at another example :

You wrote something

Something is the object of the verb wrote . If we ask a question based on something , it would be 

What did you write ?

Please remember that the question-words whom , what  which and who are interrogative pronouns When they  are the subject of the verb,  the auxiliary do is not used in questions .  Look at this sentence :

Somebody called you on the phone ..

Somebody is the subject of the sentence , isn't it ?

If we ask a question based on somebody  it would be 

Who called you on the phone? 

Who is the subject of the verb called and , therefore, do is omitted in the question.  

What frightened you ? 

Here, do is omitted because what is the subject of the verb frightened . Something frightened you and the question is based on something which is the subject of the verb .

The English language omits do- support only  when the question  word is the subject of the verb
The question-word itself is the subject  , though. in an interrogative form . Subject-operator inversion is an invariable syntactic feature of an English  interrogative sentence. But as there is no subject   in the body of the  question ,  there is no need to bring in the dummy auxiliary do .for subject-operator inversion .



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Thank you for visiting 

Prof . V.P.Rajappan












Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why English doesn't have Future Tense

It is indeed an intriguing fact that English does not have future tense . The Anglo-Saxons of yore did not bequeath future tense to the English language . While other languages have separate verb-forms to indicate future tense English is left with nine! 

We must bear in mind the fact that the early shapers of the English language the Anglo-Saxons ,  lived in an atmosphere with no constraints like prescriptive grammar . The only thing they cared for as far as their language was concerned was communicative effiency and ease of pronunciation -the two forces that shaped  all primitive languages in their infancy . 

If the Anglo-Saxons did not find it necessary to evolve separate  verb- forms to indicate future , they must have had reasons to do so  . I personally  think that the versatility   of their present tense verb- form was the reason . This verb-form was capable of being put  to diverse applications . It could be used to express actions that occurred in the past , which practice  survives today in historical present . It could express action in progress .It could express universal truths and habitual actions . Ii could express
future tense with suitable future time references,  a practice that survives , though in  a limited  way .No woderthe Anglo-Saxons did not see the need for a separate verb-form to express future! 

I wish to conclude this post by expressing the view of the great savant Otto Jespersen that the Anglo-Saxon language (Old English)) had enough internal resources to become a great language in future even if there was no Norman Conquest in 1066!

Thanking you for visiting 

Prof. V.P.Rafappan

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