A few comments on grammatical terminology old and new

I know its regularly said by those whose background is in classics and the tradition of classical philology that much of linguistics today and its own set terminology creates a sort of ivory tower situation, where it is almost impossible to follow a discussion as an outsider. And I certainly do not doubt that this is true to some extant for many of the descriptive and theoretical frameworks commonly used in linguistics, particularly in the more structuralist traditions. This problem is one that I’ve tried to fight against where I can, attempting to sufficiently define terminology as often as possible and linking to accessible sources for definitions, such as the SIL glossary of linguistic terms or the Leipzig Glossing Rules and its “appendix” of category labels.

On the other hand, whenever I open up a standard Greek grammar that’s written in the classical tradition, I cannot help but recognize the exact opposite problem. For example, for a contract project I’ve been working on, I’ve spent a little time examining the difference between ού and μή, Greek’s two negative particles. Here’s an example of the kind of obtuse, generally useless description of these two:

The two principle negative adverbs are ού and μή. Οὐ is the objective negative and μή is the subjective. It is hard to say which is stronger. Ού is stronger because it is simple, straightforward and uncompromised. Μή is stronger because it has an underlying sense of passion and rejection. The fervour and unction of μή suits the tone of much expression in the literature of the Hellenistic and Roman ages. So μή tends to supplant ού in many of its uses at writing. Some irregular uses of μή in Classical times, which do not fit into the idiomatic pattern then prevailing, are doubtless to be explained by the touch of passion beginning to make μή  win out even in the earlier period. Another important facet of the meaning of μή is its appropriateness as a generic and so hypothetical negative. The idea of rejection it retains always, at least subliminally, can prevent an idea that is to say specifically, and so the suspended idea passes into the sphere of the typical or conditional.

Gary L. Cooper, Attic Greek Prose Syntax Vol  2., 1997.

The degree is nonsense in that quote is simply overwhelming. But I do not mean “nonsense” in that Cooper is wrong. No, most of the paragraph is fine, assuming one parses the actual proposition accurately (which may or may not be feasible). The nonsense is created by the sheer lack of well-defined terminology at all. What in the world does it mean for a negative to be “straightforward and uncompromised,” anyway? So much of this paragraph reads like filler solely designed to increase one’s word count. It certainly doesn’t help contribute to understanding the difference between ού and μή.

Here’s that same paragraph again with some commentary from me in bold bracketed text:

The two principle negative adverbs are ού and μή. Οὐ is the objective negative and μή is the subjective. [This is good and helpful. Now could we get a technical definition of what these two terms mean in relationship to negation?] It is hard to say which is stronger. [Stronger in what way?] Ού is stronger because it is simple, straightforward and uncompromised. [Yeah, no idea what that means…] Μή is stronger because it has an underlying sense of passion and rejection. [Well, “rejection” is something useful, at least etymologically, but passion? Other grammarians talk about μή being used to denote caution assertion, how does that relate to “passion”?]The fervour and unction of μή suits the tone of much expression in the literature of the Hellenistic and Roman ages. [This may be the first time I’ve see language change attributed to “unction.” Nice.] So μή tends to supplant ού in many of its uses at writing. Some irregular uses of μή in Classical times, which do not fit into the idiomatic pattern then prevailing, are doubtless to be explained by the touch of passion beginning to make μή win out even in the earlier period. [Which “irregular” uses are these? They’re never explicitly marked in the following detailed discussion?] Another important facet of the meaning of μή is its appropriateness as a generic and so hypothetical negative. [The term “hypothetical,” I can understand, but “generic”?  Exactly what makes μή “generic” and does that mean that ού, by implication is *not* “generic”?]The idea of rejection it retains always, at least subliminally [Yeah, I don’t but it], can prevent an idea that is to say specifically, and so the suspended idea passes into the sphere of the typical or conditional.

I hope that gives you a sense of the kind of things that go through my head when I’m reading traditional grammars. The nearly total lack of specificity  in terminology, definitions, and explanation is incredibly frustrating.

About these ads

19 thoughts on “A few comments on grammatical terminology old and new”

  1. I’ve never taken a liking to Cooper. Does anyone really use him? Rijksbaron’s review in the Classical Review, after pointing out that Cooper “revels in elaborate and impressionistic expressions” (like the ones you’ve pointed out), concludes with: “In sum: an ill-considered enterprise, and a very strange book.” I think that’s right.

    1. C. S. Bartholomew refers to Cooper regularly. So yes, at least one person uses him…

      Cooper is certainly the most extreme example of what I’m talking about. He’s more useful if you want copious amounts of (incredibly poorly formatted) examples. But to some extent, I would say this tendency is a result of his adaption of Kruger and is derived primarily from the nature of old grammars. I could demonstrate the same thing from Robertson, as in this discussion of μή:

      “There is a certain aloofness about μή here that one can feel as in Plato who, “with his sensitiveness to subtle shades of meaning, had in μή an instrument singularly adapted for purposes of reserve, irony, politeness or suggestion.” This use of μή with the relative and indicative is clearly a remnant of the literary construction. This literary use of μή with the relative was often employed to characterize or describe in a subjective way the relative” (1169).

      Robertson never actually states precisely what this “literary construction” is–nor does Moulton who he cites for it. There’s so much here that’s ambiguous, unnecessarily complex, and downright confusing.

      But I think Rijksbaron’s review is right on. There’s a part of me that regrets buying Cooper because of it, but it was such a steal price-wise that I couldn’t resist and makes me want to complete the set (I have volumes 1-3, not 4).

      1. 3 comments:
        (1) I found Cooper less than helpful on matters of voice usage; on other matters I’ve been aware of what he has to say almost exclusively from comments by C.S. Bartholomew and Elizabeth Kline.
        (2) I wonder, Mike, how you would evalutate Smyth’s Grammar in terms of its use of terminology and precision of description. After consulting it for 50 years I’m still surprised at how helpful it is.
        (3) I do indeed find Cooper’s discussion of oὐ and μὴ as you’ve cited it troublesome, while at the same time I discern in it what strikes me as a valid sensibility/sensitivity to the difference of usage of the two negative adverbs. In my own experience I’ve sometimes felt conscious that I “know” what a Greek expression means but can’t find an adequate way to express what I “know” intelligibily. That may be one reason (of many) that I’ve not tried to write a grammar. On the other hand, you complain of A.T. Robertson’s comparable want of precision — and yet we continue to find ATR a valuable resource despite its age. In a different category altogether, I guess, is Wallace’s GGBB, which seems (to me, at least) to command a wide respect for which I can see little justification.

        In sum, I think there’s much in linguistic expression that is quite elusive: it’s not at all easy to formulate clear descriptive terminology and cogent accounts of how the spoken/written sequence communicates its meaning. It seems like there’s something of a “Ding-an-sich”-ness το some clearly important usages.

        1. There are certainly exceptions and some older works are more exceptional than others. Robertson maintains his usefulness despite his verbosity, but he generally makes it hard on his reader to find the actual point, but unlike Cooper it doesn’t feel like bloat for the sake of bloat. The strength of Robertson is that you can be pretty sure he’s talked about whatever you’re interested in…assuming you can also find that discussion, which is a whole other question.

          It seems that the more concise grammar older reference grammar, do better at getting to the point. Smyth, I think, is a good example of that, as is Gildersleeve’s Syntax. The latter doesn’t have a discussion of μή and οὐ, though, and I don’t have Smyth on hand to look at his.

          One old grammar that I’m growing to appreciate more and more as I use it is Raphael Kuhner’s grammar, specifically the early edition untouched by Blass and others, along with its English translation by William Jelf.

  2. I don’t know the specifics of those two adverbs, but I’d be surprised if the difference couldn’t be stated clearly in a sentence or two. When they write paragraphs like that it makes me wonder if they actually really understand the meaning of the words. Or perhaps they do, but they cannot identified the prototypical sense, or they mix up polysemy too.

    This btw is essentially the raison d’être for the Natural Semantics Metalanguage framework. I know you’re not convinced by it, but I think it has the potential to solve such messy definitions. Maybe one day I’ll take a stab at writing a Greek grammar using it.

    1. The distinction is simply described: realis vs. irrealis. That’s just about it.

      The reasons that I’m not convinced by NSM are kind of complicated. I agree with the motivation and many (but not all) of the basic principles. To the extent that NSM is inline with the (similar) conclusions of Prototype Theory and Cognitive Grammar, I’m fine with NSM. The short version is:

      (1) NSM maintains too close of a connection with structuralist semantics to be cognitively convincing.
      (2) NSM method and approach to analysis isn’t empirically falsifiable.

      These issues are probably best expressed in Paul Kay’s article, “NSM and the meaning of color words,” Theoretical Linguistics 29:3, 237–245. Or more succinctly and organized in relation to the broader history of semantic theory over the past few centuries: Dirk Geeraerts’ book: Theories of Lexical Semantics (Oxford Linguistics).

      1. Then why didn’t he just say that? Now realis and irrealis can be complicated categories, but wouldn’t it be better to deal with that in one place rather than wherever they surface, like these adverbs?

        I haven’t yet formally studied NSM, but I hope to soon. I’m sure there are valid criticisms, whether they’re fatal or not I couldn’t say. I’ll take a look at Kay’s article sometime, thanks for the reference.

        1. I’m guessing the reason he didn’t say that was because he’s translating a grammar from the late 1800s. I think his idea of “objective” vs. “subjective” is trying to get to the same thing idea, while never actually defining how he is using the terms.

          If you have digital access to Kay’s article, let me know. I’d love to have a digital copy…especially since my access to university libraries is ending fairly soon.

      2. The distinction is simply described: realis vs. irrealis. That’s just about it.

        What’s your view on Jo Willmott’s work on οὐ and μή in ancient Greek?

        1. Yeah, I’ve known about her work on modality–I enjoyed reading her monograph of mood in Homer.

          As for her work on negation, well, now I’ll say that I like it (aside from the use of Cinque’s generative framework). The issues are a little different in the Koine as compared to Homer, but there’s plenty that relevant and certainly useful.

        2. Yeah, I find some of the generative stuff more obscuring than illuminating, but chacun à son goût.

        3. If you want a good survey and critique of the generative paradigm from two insiders, Culicover & Jackendoff’s book Simpler Syntax has a great discussion in the first few chapters.

        4. @Mike: “If you want a good survey and critique of the generative paradigm from two insiders, Culicover & Jackendoff’s book Simpler Syntax has a great discussion in the first few chapters.”

          I finally read this book. Really thought provoking. Searching around, however, it does not appear to me that it has had much of an impact in the field. Is my impression correct?

        5. Well, it has received some attention, but Borsley, one of the prominent non-Chomskyan generativists, wrote an excellent refer of it. in some sense, also, mainstream generativism was never actually as big or as popular as it seemed.

          The linguistic wars of the 1970′s (less exciting than it sounds) didn’t really have a satisfactory conclusion. Nobody won; they just stopped talking to each other. And I think the precedent of not talking is too strongly established. Fredrick Newmeyer is the only mainstream generativist that shows interest in functionalism…and most functionalists wish that he wouldn’t.

    1. “Decent” is a good word. His account is certainly “decent;” it is not, however, sufficient. The statement at the end of paragraph 2689: “Greek often conceives of a situation as marked by feeling where English regards it as fact; and hence uses μή where we should expect οὐ,” is quite clear evidence that Smyth’s account is not a sufficient account.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s