Is Grammar Universal and Eternal?










Many classical educators claim that when you learn the grammar of say, Latin, you are learning the grammar of all language.  Isn’t this quite a stretch?  How can we be so sure that the eight parts of speech and how they function in Latin will describe how they function in all languages?  Do all languages have subjects, verbs and objects?  I think it is a large claim, and yes, a stretch.  I also believe it is true.

Most of us don’t give a lot of thought to the metaphysics of grammar, or just plain grammar for that matter.  This has  not always been the case.  Language is what sets us apart from all other creatures, as even dolphins and monkeys (as smart as they are) have not published any grammars yet.  Some may argue that monkeys do make use of subjects and verbs, with regular sounds that indicate “I hungry” and the like.  I will concede that monkeys communicate.  I will not agree that they know the subjunctive mood.

In the past, the ancients grammarians and philosophers discussed these matters.  Some thought that grammar was universal and tied to the reality of the universal Logos (to Christians, meaning Christ himself).  None other than Marshall McLuhan (the communication theorist who famously said “the medium is the message”) writes about this.  There were those who were analogists, who saw universal grammar as analogy of the universal Logos:

The analogists argued for the view that there is a universal grammar, since language is the effect of reason, which is the analogy of the universal Logos.  At the level of conjugations and declensions, this view tended to strengthen the notion of regularity.  The anomolists, one might suppose were Epicureans who denied the doctrine of the Logos… They asserted that in speech there is no order.  All is based on custom.

Then McLuhan quotes Socrates in the Cratylus.  Socrates appears to be an analogist, who thinks that names (words) are related to the inherent nature of things: “I should say that this giving of names can be no such light matter as you fancy, or the work of light or chance persons; and Cratylus is right in saying that things have names by nature, and that not every man is an artificer of names; but he who only looks to the name which each thing by nature has, and is, will be able to express the ideal forms of things in letters and syllables.”

Of course the debate between the analogists and the anomalists continues.  The evolutionary atheist will likely (I think must) see grammar as an anomaly, as a convention that has evolved but has no universal quality tied to some universal reason.  Whatever reason exists to such a person, can’t exist outside our brains, but must have evolved within them.  For the atheist, as Chesterton says, “it is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”  The theists among us, who believe in a divine and rational reality outside our brains, are likely to admit that grammar could very well be universal and even eternal.  To the theist (to the Christian certainly) language and grammar may not be mere convention or custom, but may be reflections of the divine order and even the image of God himself in humans beings. What do you think? What ever you think, you will think with words.

Well, who would have thought that the study of grammar could lead us to metaphysics and theology?  It does.  Grammar is magical, because language is magic.  We speak, other hear and understand.  And somehow, when I study grammar in Latin, it is my English that improves.