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Syntax – Who Owns the English Language?


When writing these blobs, a friend of mine made a comment, perhaps complaining, of my syntax. In fact, I occasionally get complaints about my English. In elementary school I was sent to some specialist who helped me read, like I had problems reading. I never really enjoyed reading because I found it extremely slow and tedious, but this has changed over the last ten years because of my full time job of either translating or responding to emails.

In university at least one of my professors said that, if I want to graduate, I need to improve my English. So I took an English correspondence course, unfortunately twice, because I did not give it the same attention as courses I frequented in person. Which is perhaps ironic considering my present main profession functions entirely in a correspondent manner (meaning remotely, on my own, by myself in front of my computer and in my tin box ship while traveling Europe).

And occasionally now, even after so many years of translating, I also get complaints about my English. But I researched this through professionals and the complaints most often seem to come from the snobbish Brits, whose feathers might be ruffled by my American references to "the bottom of the ninth" and other ways of expressing concepts. Instead, the professionals I asked about this said my English is rather good and only found a few minor mistakes. But it is true that, when I write these blobs on the internet, I do not put hardly as much attention to the text as I do when I am translating for a living, although I have been trying to change this recently.

Anyway, this objection to my syntax intrigued me, perhaps because I didn’t even know what the heck syntax means and was forced to look it up on wikipedia Perhaps that shows the level of my sordid English!

Anyway, researching this issue has brought to my attention a subject which has been percolating in my mind for some time: one’s expression through language, and the English language in particular.

I once read a report by possibly the world’s leading figure on linguistics, Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, that for the purpose of choosing a single world language, English is shite (that’s British English for "shit"). Not only are its words inconsistently and not phonetically pronounced ("people" is not pronounced pee-awpl but peepl), it’s sentence structure is a bit awkward as well. It is a mishmash of many languages, Germanic in origin and mixed with the Celtic and Gaelic of that odd little island the UK. In German the verb can often end at the end of the sentence. Now how odd is that? Do they want to keep us in suspense as to the action of sentence? This leading world figure on linguistics is the same person who invented Esperanto, which he created as a logical alternative to a single world language. Zamenhof is fluent in something like seven languages, and whose roots are Slavic (I believe Polish).

Actually, this may be the reason why I occasionally get complaints. Having grown up in a Czech household and Czech being my first language (although English eventually became my "native"), perhaps I was formulating sentences with my knowledge of Czech in the background. During my decade of translating, I often found I had to dissect every Czech sentence into about five phrases and reorganise them in a different order before formulating the English. The structure of Esperanto is based to a large degree on the sentence structure of the Slavic language, which is logically superior to that of English <come up with example>.

And knowing another language (I know five in total) may have influenced the way I correspond in general, as I no longer translate but mostly process emails, corresponding with translators and remote employees from all over the world. Translators whose native language can be of all sorts, and whose English is subsequently not native. So when I communicate with all or them, not only may my syntax and logical order of phrases within a sentence be influenced by the varying order of such phrases in the languages I myself know, but I tend to write to these remote employees in a way that they would understand (reflecting, to a certain degree, how they write to me); because, after all, that is the purpose of our communication – not so I could express my pride that I have the upper hand in the conversation, being a "native" speaker in English, but rather to clearly communicate our thoughts in a quick and efficient manner.

And this might be the way the English language is diverging in general. After all, languages are alive and constantly changing. If the British want to be snobs and claim that their language is truly "proper", maybe they should start speaking Shakespearean, that arguably being the peak of their language (although recently I’ve dabbled in the argument that it was not Shakespeare’s work but actually Francis Bacon’s [refer to Mark Twain's Shakespeare is Dead]). Therefore, in this new age of globalisation, with business partners drawn from the farthest reaches of the world, and who use English as a common language although they themselves are not native in it, the participants are making deals via email and slowly crafting a new, international, and more easily understood version of English. I am therefore fully willing to admit my sin in taking part in this bastardisation of the already shite English language, but getting the point across is number one and I am not an English teacher, thank you.

And lastly, another possible reason for the complaint of my syntax may be due to the way I think. I am a computer geek and I have an engineer’s mind. I naturally tend to think very logically, so when I give instructions to my translators, I tend to write them out in very logical, and hopefully easily understood ways. Using brackets to insert sub explanations within phrases and sentences, and this may generate goulash what concerns traditional syntax.

Concerning the subject of syntax... Taking some excerpts from what I found on wikipedia:

Syntax is the study of the rules, or "patterned relations", that govern the way words combine to form phrases and phrases combine to form sentences.

It is unconcerned with prescriptive grammar.

Theories of formal syntax have in time risen or fallen in influence.

In the framework of transformational-generative grammar (of which Government and Binding Theory and Minimalism are recent developments), the structure of a sentence is represented by phrase structure trees, otherwise known as phrase markers or tree diagrams. Such trees provide information about the sentences they represent by showing the hierachical relations between their component parts.

There are various theories for designing the best grammars such that by systematic application of the rules, one can arrive at every phrase marker in a language and hence every sentence in the language. The most common are Phrase structure grammars, preferred by Noam Chomsky's MIT school of linguistics, and ID/LP grammars, the latter of which some argue has an explanatory advantage (especially those in opposition to the MIT school of linguistics such as Ivan Sag, and Geoffrey Pullum.) Dependency grammar is a class of syntactic theories separate from generative grammar in which structure is determined by the relation between a word (a head) and its dependents. One difference from phrase structure grammar is that dependency grammar does not have phrasal categories. Algebraic syntax is a type of dependency grammar.

A modern approach to combining accurate descriptions of the grammatical patterns of language with their function in context is that of systemic functional grammar, an approach originally developed by Michael A.K. Halliday in the 1960s and now pursued actively on all continents. Systemic-functional grammar is related both to feature-based approaches such as Head-driven phrase structure grammar and to the older functional traditions of European schools of linguistics such as British Contextualism and the Prague School.

Tree adjoining grammar is a grammar formalism with interesting mathematical properties which has sometimes been used as the basis for the syntactic description of natural language.

A problem faced in any formal syntax is that often more than one production rule may apply to a structure, thus resulting in a conflict. The greater the coverage, the higher this conflict, and all grammarians (starting with Panini) have spent considerable effort devising a prioritization for the rules, which usually turn out to be defeasible."

Well, sounds like a lot of complex gibberish to me, but if I were a translator of complex gibberish to laic terms, I’d say there are many ways one can express the shape of an apple, and that as English, as any other language, is continuing to develop in this modern age, it is increasingly taking into consideration the diverse nationalities of its many readers and increasingly diverging from its formal origins, whatever that murky and mushy world may be. To tell you the truth, it seems that most of the complaints I get would be from those who only know one language –English– as if accepting any compromise to what they are used to would mean giving up their comfortable tradition and the roots of their childhood. But contrary to their popular notion, they are not the centre of the universe and I gather this is something they will have to get used to. Some 85% of the world’s population knows at least two languages, and if 85% of Americans (comprising a mere 5% of the world’s population) only know one language, a language which, some argue regretfully, is becoming the world’s adopted medium and common language, I would beg to differ that they have some holy right or claim to the further development of that language.

In short, an abbreviated version of the long winded explanation I am so often accused of, this is my justification for my shite version of the shite language of English. :0)


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