Grammar-writing group (2) – general properties

It’s yellow everywhere in Canberra – it’s Wattle Day. Meanwhile, inside the honeycomb Coombs building at ANU, the grammar-writing group wrestled with Ulrike Mosel’s article, ‘Grammaticography: The art and craft of writing grammars’, in Catching language: The standing challenge of grammar writing (Eds. Felix K. Ameka, Alan Dench, Nicholas Evans, Mouton de Gruyter, 2006, pp.41-68).
The name ‘Grammaticography’, while way way behind in the ‘most elegant word of the day’ competition, leads into the nice comparison made by Mosel between preparing dictionaries and preparing grammars. Front matter, macro structure, microstructure and all. It also led to us thinking about the growing fuzziness of the boundary between lexicon and grammar- all those Advanced Learners Grammars with heaps of information about subcategorisation, or the OED with its definitions of suffixes, all those grammars with information about the meanings of words.
One thing that grammars have over most dictionaries however, is the notion of publishing an accompanying set of texts. Falsifiability has traditionally been more of a concern for grammarians than for lexicographers. We all agree it’s a good thing to publish glossed texts so that readers can check out the hypotheses proposed in the grammar, and expressed by the glossing. The classic example is Jeffrey Heath’s careful analysis of R. M.W. Dixon’s Dyirbal texts (HEATH, J. 1979. Is Dyirbal ergative?. Linguistics 17, 401-463) to argue against DIxon’s claim about Dyirbal being syntactically Ergative. Can anyone think of further examples?


We were all taken with the importance of considering who is going to read the grammar. This inevitably leads to the question of whether to write a comprehension/decoding/semasiological grammar, like most reference grammars, or a production/encoding/onamasiological grammar, like many learners’ grammars.
It also leads to the question of how much effort one should put into justifying categories, hypotheses and assumptions. One of the group had endured a referee’s report saying his grammar was too argumentative. Just give us the conclusions and get on with it! Assuming that we DO need some justification – what should we justify – all categories? All points which previous authors have offered alternative accounts of? And where? Footnotes, marginalia, separate chapters, boxes in 10 point type.
And it leads to the question of how to represent variation in grammars – differences relating to time (earlier stages of the language), to geography (dialect), and to register (where does recipe syntax go?).

3 Comments

  1. Peter K. Austin says:

    Assuming that we DO need some justification – what should we justify – all categories? All points which previous authors have offered alternative accounts of? And where? Footnotes, marginalia, separate chapters, boxes in 10 point type.
    The medium is the message, Jane. You are letting constraints of print (layout, font size) constrain your thinking here — what about a hypertext grammar with pathways off to annotations (and annotations on annotations) that the reader can choose to follow if they wish to. Couple this with a semantic map and you have a grammar exploration space that breaks open the limitations of the linear print medium that lurks behind your questions.

  2. Jane says:

    Thanks Peter – you’re quite right! Linking via Hypertext (on whatever principles, semantic net etc) does solve some of these problems. And I’ve been unfair to the grammar-writing group in not mentioning the hypertext visionaries who had diachronic grammars linking to synchronic grammars linking to theoretical discussions etc and etc.
    BUT we couldn’t think of a substantial reference grammar that uses hypertext – other than pilots, fragments, proof-of-concept stuff..
    Thoughts anyone?

  3. wamut says:

    I have another example of the usefulness of texts in grammars, but it’s more to do with working with community members belonging to that language group.
    At Ngukurr, I used Heath’s grammars a lot. Ngandi is now barely spoken, so the texts in his Ngandi grammar are fantastic and can be adapted into nice resources for community members. What is especially great, is that when you go back to Heath’s archived field recordings, the spoken texts are there in pristine form, that is, the spoken text and written text correlate perfectly. (I’ve heard other spoken texts vary from the published text because the field worker has interrupted the speaker for clarification etc. this makes it harder to create a nice resource for community use.)
    So at Ngukurr, we digitised a whole bunch of Heath’s recordings of the texts he put in his grammar and they are good learning tools and fantastic cultural resources for communities. And I use grammar texts heaps to find example sentences while teaching Own Language literacy – which is great because these language have no flash dictionaries full of example sentences.
    I heart grammar texts.
    Oh! Another good thing about grammar texts is they have a context and identified speaker, which doesn’t always happen with dictionary example sentences, and so they have more significance to community members… who can then debate the speaker’s reputation/competence/dialect etc…. hehe…

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