Linguistic Standards

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer answers Dick Payne: "Well, I am not really a strict conservative where "prescriptive rules of grammar" are concerned. I reject as fascist the idea that a living language can be summed up in something like Strunk & White and I am glad that neither of the two languages that I really love -- English and Russian -- is subject to the fatwahs of some Academy, as is French. There are honest differences in opinion between grammarians, and I reserve the right to myself to side with those who permit the splitting of infinitives in appropriate cases, for example, although Strunk & White may not approve. However, I much more vociferously reject the idea that there is no "right" or "wrong" in language. It is easy to demonstrate that this cannot be so: language is conventional.  That is the whole point of language as a means of communication. The more nearly users of a given language express the same concept with the same construction, and the more nearly users of a given language apply the same meaning to the same words, the more effectively they are able to communicate. If there is no "right" or "wrong" at all in language, then there is no communication. If there is no communication, then there is no language, only noise. If I write "sdfs ievllkej vnhhwlle osooisdfuuuwe" when I mean "the evening star is identical to the morning star", no one will understand me, although I might personally like the combination of letters and words in the first version of the sentence. The second version of the sentence conveys meaning because -- and to the extent! -- that I follow the conventions of the English language.

I reject the approach of having an Academy because languages do live and breath and develop. It is natural that words grow and gain and lose meaning; that some grammatical constructions lose or gain currency. The rules of a language ought to evolve to some extent with the actual usage of speakers of the language. But that doesn't mean that any construction adopted by two or more speakers is automatically "right", nor does it mean that the rules change by majority vote. We have grammarians and grammar books not only to inform us about the traditional conventions of our language, and about the better conventions of our language as used by the best writers, but also to argue and persaude against nascent or growing conventions which are inelegant and which therefore degrade the language. Highly skilled native speakers should have the right to some extent to apply their own discrimination and taste in choosing rules to follow in given situations and contexts. Less skilled speakers ought better to follow some simplified guide like Strunk & White, and the more strictly they follow this the better they will be able to communicate effectively.

As to the idea of "beauty" in language -- I beg to differ with Mr. Payne. The beauty -- better, "elegance" -- of a given linguistic construction is not really so very subjective. This is not beauty in the sense of a schoolgirl, say, finding green to be a "pretty color"; this is the elegance of science or engineering -- the opposite of "kludginess" (I usually shun neologisms like the word "kludgy", which comes from the software engineering field, but this is an excellent word which conveys an important meaning). An elegant structural design for a bridge, for example, produces the greatest strength and resilience with the least complexity, weight, and cost. An elegant scientific hypothesis explains phenomena as simply as possibly using as many existing theoretical tools as possible. An elegant grammatical construction conveys the most meaning possible, in the clearest possible way, with the most logic and the least possible complexity and opaqueness. "Elegance" in this sense is a concept which applies to all systems where there are values in inherent tension. Nearly all educated Russian speakers would agree that Gorbachev's Russian was inelegant or "sloppy", which belies the proposition that this word has "little meaning". Likewise, I think I could find a lot of supporters for the proposition that using the plural "they" with a singular antecedent like "someone", however expedient it might be in our nonsexist world, and however much historical support we might find for such a construction in the OED, is exactly ugly -- inelegant -- because it involves a gross violation of the elementary logic of agreement in number, an important element of any logically coherent grammar.

As to Russian being more grammatically complex than English ˆ by an order of magnitude, if not more -- this is another proposition which is easy to show. If anything, I have understated the difference in grammatical complexity between Russian and English. Let's take the difference between the words "lie" and "lay", recently discussed in this forum as one of the particular difficulties of English grammar. Both words refer to repose in a horizontal position; the only difference is that "lie" is intransitive and "lay" is transitive. In order not to stumble on this verb, an English speaker need only know these two variants, and to know how to conjugate them:

Infinitive:  to lay

Present: I, you, we, they lay
                       He, she it lays

Future: I, you, he, she, it, they will lay

Perfect: I, you, we, they have laid
                      He, she, it has laid

Imperfect: I, you, we, they, he, she, it laid

Infinitive:  to lie

Present: I, you, we, they, you lie
                       He, she, it lies

Future: I, you, he, she, it, we, they will lie

Perfect: I, you, we, they have lain
                      He, she, it has lain

Imperfect: I, you, we, they, he, she, it lay

Other than minor variations like compound tenses, that's all there is to it: transitive and intransitive forms "lay" and "lie"; three forms of "lay" -- "lay", "lays" and "laid" with various auxiliaries; three forms of "lie" -- "lie", "lies", "lain", and "lay" with various auxiliaries. The transitive form is used when the subject is doing something to something else The intransitive is used when the subject is doing something without any object. ("The subject lays the object on the shelf"; "The subject lies on the bed"). A piece of cake.

In Russian, on the other hand, there are not only transitive and intransitive words for „lay‰ and „lie‰ ˆ "klast‚" and „lezhat‚‰, but there is also the question of aspect, something which English doesn‚t have at all: „lezhat‚‰ (lie) is imperfective, meaning it expresses the process without indicating any final result. There are several perfective forms of lezhat‚: „lozhit‚sya‰ is the main one; still intransitive, this word expresses the idea of the result of the process of lying down, meaning the end result of the action of lying down has been achieved or will be achieved.

„Klast‚‰ ˆ „lay‰, the transitive form -- is more complicated yet. Besides the imperfective „klast‚‰, which expresses the process of putting something somewhere into a horizontal position, there is the perfective „polozhit‚‰, and there is „zakladyvat‚‰ and „zalozhit‚‰, „dokladyvat‚‰ and a host of other variants expressing often subtle differences between the kind of action involved. Between transitive and intransitive, perfective and imperfective, and further variations, a whole matrix of forms arise.

So in Russian, right off the bat, you have not only to discriminate between transitive and intransitive, but you have aspect to consider as well. And then, you have to conjugate all of these verbs:

Infinitive: Klast‚

Klast‚ is imperfective, so it has present, future, and past forms:

Present: Ya kladu
                       Ty kladyesh
                       On, ona, ono kladyet
                       Oni kladut
                       My kladyem
                       Vy kladyetye

Future: Ya budu klast‚
                      Ty budesh klast‚
On, ona, ono budet klast‚
Oni budut klast‚
Vy budete klast‚
My budem klast‚

Past: All singular, masculine subjects: klal     
All singular, neuter subjects: klalo
All singular, feminine subjects: klala
All plural subjects: klali

Infinitive: Polozhit‚ Polozhit‚, like klast‚ is transitive ˆboth words mean „lay‰, not „lie‰. But polozhit‚ is perfective, expressing the result of the action rather than the process. Being perfective, polozhit‚ has no present form ˆ only future and perfect (the logic of this is that the result is achieved in an infinitesimally tiny point in time, which therefore has either passed, or is still in the future):

Future: Ya polozhu
Ty polozhish
On, ona, ono polozhit
Oni polozhut
My polozhim
Vy polozhitye

Perfect: All singular, masculine subjects: polozhil
All singular, neuter subjects: polozhilo
All singular feminine subjects: polozhila
All plural subjects: polozhili

Not counting auxiliaries there are 10 forms of „klast‚‰ and 9 forms of „polozhit‚‰, and we‚ve only just partially covered the English word „lay‰ without variations. For the Russian speaker, those variations, and the whole realm of the words for „lie‰, are still ahead. 

Have I made my point? And this is not even a good example, for „klast‚‰ is one of the simplest of Russian verbs, absolutely regular and with minimum of variations. In contrast, „idti‰ -- „to go‰ ˆ has a couple of dozen forms expressing the most subtle differences between various types of motion inherent in „going‰. And Russian has six cases which require declension of both nouns and adjectives according to dozens of declension patterns. 

In fact, Russian is so bloody complicated that even counting is complicated: when a quantity of things appears as the subject of sentence, which in all normal languages would require the nominative case, practically by definition, in perversely complex Russian, the case varies according to the number. Let‚s take „years‰ ˆ one „god‰; two, three, four „goda‰; but five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven through twenty „let‰! And at twenty-one we start again with twenty-one „god‰, twenty-two „goda‰, until twenty-five „let‰ again. It‚s enough to burn your brain out! Even highly educated native speakers screw this up sometimes (poor Gorbachev!). 

In short, if you can‚t tell the difference between „lay‰ and „lie‰, you had best just forget about Russian. It is a different ball game from English altogether. My point is that a Gorbachev, say, would have linguistic ability enough to avoid mistakes on the level of „lay‰ and „lie‰, but that this is not nearly enough in Russian.

Finally, does Mr. Payne deny that there is any such thing as mastership of language? Has he read Shakespeare? Or Nabokov? Is there no difference between the power and effectiveness of the language of these -- masters, there is no other word -- , and of a preschooler? Of course there is, and there is an immense range in between. Nabokov's English is to my English as mine is to that of a preschooler. The differences are immense, and obvious, and not a mere reflection of the "background of the person making the judgement"."

RH:In vie of the space we have devoted to these language questions, we must drop the subject now, perhaps taking it up again at a later date.

September 10, 2004

Ronald Hilton -