Two of My Favorite Johns on Grammar

by Jan 22, 2017Linguistics1 comment

John Frame:

In natural languages, there are many variations in grammar, style, and accent. Grammarians tend to elevate one group of variations as a standard. So the predominant speech in Berlin is considered to be “good German.” The predominant speech of Amsterdam is “good Dutch,” and so on. There may be some value in this as a means of encouraging uniformity of language in public writing and speech. But it is somewhat arbitrary. We need to remember that it comes from human grammarians, not from divine revelation. No divine norm requires us to speak in what grammarians may describe as “good” language. God never tells us to speak the language of the academic elite, or to disparage variations from that language as “errors.”
Doctrine of the Word of God

John McWhorter:

The very idea that grammatical “mistakes” eternally tempt the unwary is the spawn of three illusions that seduced these bewigged martinets.… The second was that when a grammar changes, it must be decaying rather than just, say, changing. So we were taught to lasso and hold on to whom, though at the time it was fading from English just like all the other words and constructions that differentiated Modern English from Old English—a foreign tongue to us that none of us feel deprived not speaking. (15–16)

Important: my argument is not that people need not be taught standard English in school; they do and likely always will. My point is more specific: the casual speech constructions that we use alongside standard English, that we are taught, are illogical; wrong, and mistakes, are in reality just alternates that happen not to have been granted social cachet. (17)
Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

Note: John and John (and I) are not saying that people should flout the social conventions we call “Standard American English” (or the ones we call “Standard Malay” or the ones we call “Standard Urdu”), anymore than we’d instruct kids to put their elbows on the table or men to wear hats at a nice restaurant. We’re only saying that Standard English is a convention, not a delivery from on high—and that that realization will change the way we think and talk about language. The kind of person who purposefully flouts any of the conventions I’ve just named is perhaps rightly (I’d have to know the full circumstances) considered gauche. But the person who never learned the conventions is not thereby proven to be morally deficient. And—and this is the real key—the conventions can and will change over time, and (especially in language) such change is not necessarily a sign of degradation, just difference.

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1 Comment
  1. Richard A. Smith

    Unchanging Word: your friends comments on language and its evolutionary nature just prompted me to share a discovery about the unique speech of Jesus: the Word. His words in the Matthew Sermon on the Mount follow a strict pattern of the Lord’s Prayer. I.e., Kingdom come to Poor in Spirit, there’s is the Kingdom, and Persecuted for My sake, theres is the Kingdom. Again the Meek inherit EARTH is with Salt of the EARTH and with Do not Treasure up things on EARTH.
    Or again in the FOOD section, Give us this day our daily bread connects to Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness and Don’t worry about your body what to eat, but seek first Righteousness. Then next there is the Merciful receive Mercy phrase form is with Forgive us our Debts as we forgive..and Judge not lest ye be Judged ending with Do unto others as you would…
    Following these in the grid-like form is the Pure in Heart beside Adultery and hands causing sin (theft included) and swearing by anything is of Evil…dealing with first Temptation and then Deliverance from Evil. Yes,yes or No,no, or its from EVIL. Duplicitous! Double-minded! Relate that to Not everyone who says, LORD,LORD…
    All of the above show a pattern of Jesus’ own specific words and phrase forms in a context to which ALL of his sayings spoken everywhere can be associated to (original Greek) interpret and increase knowledge of his meaning within the context. Some are simpler to find than others. Such as: Martha, Martha, and Simon, Simon and Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Truly, truly. All these deal with double-minded relating to himself. Martha’s many things,
    Peter’s denials, Jerusalem’s denial. It can even be more telling on the cross: Eloi, Eloi, when He is Divided from His Father.
    Here is a difficult one: I SAY TO YOU, arise, to the son of the grieving mother from Nain. That only relates to His use of the SINGULAR Greek word for YOU (soi). Other places in the Sermon Jesus uses the phrase I SAY TO YOU, but it is always the Plural word for YOU – to the group! The only place where He uses the phrase in the singular is “But, I SAY TO YOU, that you will not come out of there until you pay the last cent!” By associating this phrase in His speech the meaning of the youth being raised to life is not only to reunite him with his widowed mother, but also to bring the boy back from forever perishing!
    Blessings to all,