Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why is First Person Singular I always written with a Capital Letter in English ?

We may wonder   why first person singular is always written with a capital letter in English unlike  other important languages like French or German Some people believed that it showed the Englishman's  love of self-assertion and self glorification !   But  the  great savant Otto Jespersen strongly  disagrees with this view and he considers it as little short of calumny!  .  According to him this practice of using capital letter is simply an orthographic habit .

In Anglo-Saxon ic was the spelling of first person singular . During the 13 th century  c got dropped off and i was left alone. The scribes who copied manuscripts  used capital letter lest the small letter i should be easily missed by reader of the manuscripts . Thus the convention of using capital letter for I began in the 13th century which has continued to our day !

William Caxton introduced   printing in England in the 15th century and his use of capital letter for first person singular in his books  must have made the practice universal .

Thanking  you ,



Sunday, September 25, 2016

Does English have a Future Tense?

It has been said that English has no future tense. What on earth does it mean? It simply means that English does not have an inflected form  of the verb to indicate future tense. In modern languages like French we can see separate forms of verbs  to indicate future tense . In French parlerai indicates future tense of the verb parler used with first person singular.There is no such inflection in English for future tense .

The Anglo-Saxons in their wisdom did not think it necessary to evolve inflected forms to indicate future .After all , future is full of uncertainties and one can look at it in different ways . An inflected form to express such a thing as future seemed untenable to the Anglo-Saxons!Simple present forms of verbs with future time reference were  enough to express future .  This way of expressing future still continues in English when we express planned future. Example: The President goes to Britain next year .

It seems that all  Germanic people think alike  In Modern German,too, simple present is used with future time reference to indicate future tense in the informal style . Modern English has only  a made-up future  tense  will+base form of the main verb . In German ,too,future is expressed with the help of the auxiliary werden followed by the infinitive of the main verb . . Look at the following examples

I will  play tennis(English)
Ich werde  Tennis spielen (German)

This shows that English is basically a Germanic language , though it often seems to shine in borrowed French feathers!


Friday, September 23, 2016

Why were is used with singular subjects in subjunctive mood ?

Question Why do we use were with singular subjects in the subjunctive mood?

Answer The use of were with singularsubjects has puzzled  many a foreign learner of English.They may understand  the use of past tense was in subjunctive mood  because that is the way of the English language  !But why were?

There was a time when two words existed side by side in English - was and were .  They were derived from the root word wesan which means to be in Anglo-Saxon.The  word was became were due to the operation of Verner's Law.

In course of time were came to be associated with subjunctive mood and was with indicative mood . This  practice has survived to our days , at least in formal style!

In my next blogs I will try to answer some commonly asked questions about the English language.   thanking you

Prof V.P.Rajappan

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  


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 .


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


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 :

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