Springtime and the grammar-writing workshop

In late August, the sun, blue skies and daffodils turn a person to cleaning up the old (spring-cleaning, grave-tending, proof-reading), and starting up the new. The new this time is a grammar-writing workshop that Nick Evans has started at the Australian National University.
Thirteen of us (ANU students, staff, visitors and hangers-on) met today for the first meeting. Each of us confessed/asserted/laid out something about the grammars we hope to work on (ranging from biblical Hebrew, to languages of Timor and PNG, to some (like mine on Warumungu and Kaurna) that have been waiting for a lo-o-o-o-ng time.
Nick’s idea is that the group will work on a 4 week cycle

  • Week 1. Orientation to the topic (presented by one or more of the convenors)
  • Week 2. Reading of two or three key papers.
  • Week 3. Critical presentation by selected participants of how this issue is treated in one or more of their ‘adopted’ grammars [Adopting grammars means looking at a grammar of a language related to the one you’re working on, and one which is quite unrelated.[2]]
  • Week 4. Presentation by two or three selected participants of special problems they are facing in working up this part of the grammar of the language they are researching.


Nick produced a nice handout [.pdf] covering things to think about in the design of a grammar, and useful references. We didn’t get beyond considering some of the forces at work in reference grammar design – and how ranking one above the other will produce different results. They included

  • Are you searching for elegant generalisations? How does brevity fare against readability and accessibility which require repetition?
  • Are you looking for the ‘distinctive genius’ of the language, describing the language on its own terms? What happens to readability when you eschew old terminology and invent new terms (say, numbered word classes and labels)?
  • Who’s the audience? Linguists, speakers, learners? Can a grammar cater for them all at once?
  • How do you find what you want from a grammar? (e.g. a focus on form means that the ways of expressing time (tense, adverbs, etc) will be split across different sections of the grammar) Where are the hypertext grammars?
  • How do you know whether absence from a grammar equates to absence from the language, or just absence from the grammarian’s mind? And if a language doesn’t have x construction or property, how do you present this so that it doesn’t seem like a deficit?

And, thinking of invented terms, for next week, we’re set to read Ulrike Mosel’s article “Grammaticography: The art and craft of writing grammars” from Catching language. [2]


[1] I ‘m mulling about the related language, but will probably take Sneddon’s Colloquial Jakartan Indonesian. Others are taking Catharina Williams-van Klinken’s Tetun Dili grammar, Stanley Newman’s Zuni grammar, Martin Haspelmath’s Lezgian grammar and many more (competition for Icelandic!).
[2] Catching Language: The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing, Edited by Felix K. Ameka, Alan Charles Dench, Alan Dench, Nicholas Evans. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006

One Comment

  1. Peter Austin says:

    Back in 2004 Birgit Hellwig taught a 10 week course for MAs and advanced undergraduates at SOAS on “Grammar Writing”. The topics she covered were the following:

    1. Introduction: Grammars and their audiences
    2. The boundaries of a grammar (vis-à-vis phonology, dictionary, text collection)
    3. Structuring grammars
    4. Theory and grammar-writing
    5. Language family traditions and grammar-writing
    6. Data collection, analysis, and presentation
    7. Presentation of data & evidence: structuring an argument
    8. Grammar and semantics
    9. Electronic grammars
    10. Summing-up

    I seem to remember she used the same strategy of having students in the class “adopt” a grammar and present about it on the individual topics.

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