Morphological classifications from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century

March 2nd, 201210:13 am


Morphological classifications from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century

During the Middle Ages scholastic philosophers working on linguistic topics (known as “speculative” grammarians or the Modistae) took over Priscianic categories which they assumed to be valid for all languages al­though, in accordance with their ideals of science as a search for universal causes, they devoted a great deal of attention to the logical motivation of Priscian’s word class divisions. According to the Modistae, a word repre­sented the thing it signified as existing in a particular mode: there were several modes (e.g. the mode of stability and permanence, the mode of tem­poral process, etc.). These modes were connected with particular parts of speech: thus, a noun was a part of speech signifying by means of the mode of stability and permanence, whereas a verb was a part of speech signifying the mode of temporal process, detached from the substance (of which it is predicated). The Modistae understood meaning broadly enough to include formal syntactic relations: this was necessary, since it was the only way to ascribe a class meaning to indeclinable parts of speech. Hence, a conjunc­tion was a part of speech signifying through the mode of joining two other terms and a preposition signified through the mode of syntactic construction with a case inflected word, linking and relating it to an action.

The ideals of “speculative” grammar, somewhat neglected during the early stages of the Renaissance, were later brought back to life by the Port Royal grammarians who believed that the same general logical and ra­tional system underlay different languages. Nine classical word classes were distinguished: noun, article, pronoun, particle, preposition, adverb, verb, conjunction and interjection. The first six relate to “the objects” of our thought and the last three to the “form or manner” of our thought. The explanation of the noun/verb difference was modistic in spirit, based on the categories of permanence/transience.

All in all, scientists tried to adjust the patterns’, adopted for Latin and Greek vocabulary, to all European languages, even if these languages dis­played different structural peculiarities. This gave rise to so-called universalist grammars (also known as prescriptive grammars). These gram­mars pursued the goal to follow Latin grammar rules in other languages and literally to establish norms for languages. Prescriptive grammars, on the one hand, served right to define what a literary norm was but, on the other hand, their authors denied any language change. A language for universalists rep­resented an entity liable for conservation.

Consequently, a universalist scholar knew beforehand to what part of speech a word would belong, so the scholar’s task was only to make up plausible definitions for these “known-in-advance” word classes. In general, scientists adhered to the following procedure: they singled out morphologi­cal (sometimes syntactic) word classes, then they gave these classes names on the basis of their typical translation into the model language (namely Latin). If, as a result of this procedure, several classes turned out to cor­respond to only one in the model language, these classes were united under one heading. Inadequacy of this approach was particularly obvious when it was applied to analytical languages, e.g. English, as Latin had no counter­parts for such English words as the, shall, or the to in to go.

However, there were attempts to modify the Latin grammar patterns. For example, an important turning point is presented in Beauzee’s Grammaire generate (1767) where the adjective is taken as, a separate part of speech. An interesting proposal was made by Petrus Ramus: since the case inflection had largely disappeared from modem languages of his time, he proposed instead to rely on the number inflection. This was an influential proposal and it was followed by some writers of English grammars.

One of the first scientific (in opposition to school) English grammars was composed by Henry Sweet and published in 1898. Sweet suggested the division based on the three criteria: morphological, syntactic and semantic. However, this author placed too much emphasis on morphology. Therefore, the first division of English vocabulary was drawn along the line of declina­ble and indeclinable words. The further division was carried out according to syntactic functions performed by words. Declinables were further divided into so-called noun-words that include nouns proper, noun (cardinal) nu­merals, noun-pronouns (e.g. personal, indefinite ones), infinitives and ger­unds. The second group is composed of adjective-words: adjectives proper, adjective-pronouns (e.g. possessive ones), adjective-numerals (e.i. ordinal) and participles. Verbs – finite as well as infinite forms – made up the third group. Here the morphological criterion dominated: all non-finite forms, as well as finite ones, had such verbal categories as tense and aspect. As a result, some verbals, namely the infinitive and the gerund, were referred to noun-words due to their syntactic functions, but these very forms appeared to belong to verb-words due to their morphological peculiarities.

As to indeclinables, they presented a so-called “dustbin class”, where diverse elements were chucked away. Here one may find conjunctions, prepositions, modal words and so on.

As we can see, Sweet’s classification is rather inconsistent. Its major division was carried out on the ground of only one, morphological, criteri­on, whereas the further subcategorization was based on syntactic functions. Sweet’s opponents also pointed out that if the morphological criterion, i.e. declinability and indeclinability, was taken as a basis of the classification, then such different words as must, the, for, enough should be grouped to­gether. Meanwhile, the speaker’s intuition says that in these words semantic differences outweigh morphological commonalities (cf. Jespersen).

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