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Grammar in Greece

Updated on April 16, 2012

It should be noted that Plato and Aristotle, like the Greeks in general, were not much interested in grammar as such; their contributions were incidental to their concern with broader issues, which can be called the nature-or-convention debate and the analogy-or-anomaly debate. The first had to do with whether words have a natural and ordained bonding, or identity, with -the things they stand for or whether they have only an arbitrary and agreed- upon connection.

The second had to do with whether language and the universe at large operate predictably and according to rule (analogy) or only by chance and rote (anomaly).

These were primarily what we would call philosophical questions, but they are important to the history of grammar in two ways. First, the effort to resolve them by speculation led, as we have seen, to the beginning of grammar. Second, much of the progress in grammatical analysis up to the present day has been stimulated by discontent with a previous method because it either overstressed or understressed the role of regularity and logic in language or because it stopped short of explaining apparent cases of anomaly.

The whole study has been marked by a nagging desire to reduce the infinitely complex web of language to rules and a countervailing desire to acknowledge what seems to be capricious and creative in language behavior. As the American scholar Edward Sapir observed in his book Language (1921), "Were a language ever completely 'grammatical,' it would be a perfect engine of conceptual expression. Unfortunately, or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak."

The word-and-paradigm grammar sketched by Plato and Aristotle was enlarged by grammarians of the Stoic school of philosophy, whose works and even names have not survived. The earliest formal grammar that we have is the Grammatike tekhne of Dionysius Thrax, an Alexandrian Greek of the 1st century B.C., who built upon the Stoic work. The Alexandrian school was more interested in literature than in philosophy, and Thrax's brief summary of Greek grammar was meant to teach "the appreciation of literary compositions, which is the noblest part of grammar." Thus Thrax gave us the first of thousands of "school grammars" that have made up the bulk of publication. Syntax, which Thrax had ignored, was the prime topic of another Alexandrian grammarian, Apollonius Dyscolus, who wrote in the 2nd century A.D.

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