Liberal Art #1—Grammar

I can hardly begin talking about grammar without being reminded of the epiphany I had long ago, from Quintilian, of all people. I was reading an English translation, of course, but he would have been writing in Latin, and he explained to his audience that the Greek word “grammar” was based on the root “gram,” which means “letter. Quintilian then casually explains that the Latin equivalent is “lit,” which also means “letter, and therefore grammar is essentially the same thing as literature. I can only imagine how amused Quintilian would have been by the reaction of a woman at the turn of the millennium, nearly 2,000 years later. It was a shocking revelation to me at the time, though I’ve encountered the idea elsewhere since then. But lots of people still haven’t, so I include it here. If you want a full understanding of grammar in the liberal arts tradition, remember where it comes from. “Grammar” is “literature,” with all that implies.

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain introduce their discussion of grammar with this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:

I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in Grammar.

It would be so, so easy to gloss over that while reading this book, but you shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. Without reading a word further, you should stop right there and think for a while about why that would be so. Why would “believing” in grammar support a belief in God—make it difficult to “get rid” of God? Just working out a hypothesis for that yourself will alter your perspective of grammar forever, I think.

Consider, for example, what a reader should know in order properly to interpret the Aeneid, and one will intuitively grasp the nature of grammar in its classical sense.

The authors remind us gently that the historical place of grammar in the liberal arts was not about learning the “rudiments of all subjects,” but about exploring language and the way it was used to convey meaning. Greek and Latin were studied, not for their own sake but for the sake of reading texts in those languages.

The notion that the primary goal of studying classical languages is something other than the reading of the classical texts would have been foreign to earlier generations.

I couldn’t agree more.

Speaking of grammar, Charlotte Mason wrote:

It requires some effort of abstraction for a child to perceive that when we speak, we speak about something and say something about it; and he has learned nearly all the grammar that is necessary when he knows that when we speak we use sentences and that a sentence makes sense; that we can put words together so as to make utter nonsense, as,— “Tom immediately candlestick uproarious nevertheless”—a string of words making perfect nonsense and therefore not a sentence. If we use words in such a way as to make sense we get a sentence; “John goes to school” is a sentence. (Philosophy of Education, p. 209)

Why do you suppose Charlotte Mason says that is “nearly all the grammar that is necessary”? (In practice, her students learned more detail than that!) I think it is because it cuts to the heart of language and reveals the inherent structure of language, without which there could be no communication at all, no sense. It is the very logos of language, not of English alone, but all language. And that is why Nietzsche fretted about grammar making it difficult to dispense with God, who alone could create such an order, such a law, like the law of gravity, which no one can break. There are different types of grammar, but they share certain inherent properties, for which I refer you to Augustine. A noun is a noun in any language, and it may be that the contemplation of noun-ness rather than memorizing  a definition and identifying random nouns is what makes grammar a university-level art.

Clark and Jain ask “What does all this mean for schools in the Christian classical renewal?”

That is a really good question, and the only answer I have to suggest is that we keep on asking it. Because I don’t think a fully satisfactory answer for 21st century America has yet been found.

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