Morphological classifications in Ancient Indian and Latin grammars

March 2nd, 201210:11 am


Morphological classifications in Ancient Indian and Latin grammars

The first two extant attempts to categorize words were undertaken in two different parts of the world, in Ancient Greece by Plato and in Ancient India by Panini, author of the oldest Sanskrit grammar. In Indian grammatical tradition, the ability to inflect, that is morphological characteristic, was taken as the basic criterion dividing words into two large classes – inflected ones (nouns and verbs) and uninflected ones (prepositions and particles). Nouns were inflected for case, verbs – for person, number, and tense.

The insights of Indian grammarians did not contribute to the progress of linguistic categorization in the Western world because their work was in­corporated into European linguistics much later when the traditional Grеek-and Latin-based word class system had long been established and adopted by linguists working on other European languages.

The history of linguistic categorization in Europe begins with Plato who considered some language-related philosophical questions in several of his dialogues, most notably Cratyhts. Although the principal issue taken up in Cratylus concerns the correctness of names (to put it simply, why a dog is called a dog and not a cat), some attention is devoted to analyzing a sentence into two major components – the nominal: one (onoma) and the verbal one (rheme). Thus, Plato approached the problem of “noun-verb”

distinction in terms of “subject” versus “predicate”. Since Plato’s focus was purely syntactic (i.e. based on sentential analysis), Platonic “nouns” and “verbs” do not exactly correspond to nouns and verbs as these are con­ceived nowadays.

Aristotle continued in the Platonic tradition but added a further dis­tinct class of “conjunctions” (covering conjunctions, pronouns and the ar­ticle) to the Platonic system. This class included all those words which were neither nouns nor verbs but which served to combine nouns and verbs into propositions. Aristotle defined the “rheme” as indicating a time refer­ence and as representing the predicate, which allowed him, like Plato, to include adjectives among the “verbs”. That the inflectional criterion was not yet at play can be seen from the fact that inflected pronouns and ar­ticles were categorized together with uninflected conjunctions under the general heading “conjunctions”. Thus, both for Plato and Aristotle, parts of speech were unambiguously parts of sentences words became nouns or verbs only when they were put into sentences, outside of a sentence they had no categorical affiliations.

The inflectional criterion to establish word classes was brought into play by the Stoic grammarians. Their major theoretical achievement was distinguishing case and restricting it to nouns. In such a way, the Stoics made case the fundamental distinction between nouns and verbs and, si­multaneously, the case category helped the Stoics to draw the borderline between the group of case inflected pronouns and articles, on the one hand, and the group of invariant prepositions and conjunctions, on the other. Ver­bal categories also required separate terminology, and here the Stoics made another very important contribution, namely, abstraction of the temporal and aspectual meanings inherent in the tense forms.

A turning point in the history of linguistic classification was the ap­pearance in the late 2nd century BC (around 100 BC) of the Greek grammar by Dionysius Thrax. He was a representative of the Alexandrian school. The Alexandrian school built further on what was achieved by the Stoics, although the two schools were each other’s rivals. As far as linguistics is concerned, it was the Alexandrians who were lucky to leave their seal on subsequent linguistic research and not the Stoics. Dionysius Thrax suggest­ed organizing words into eight classes.

1. NOUN: a pari of speech inflected for case, signifying a concrete or abstract entity;

2. VERB: a part of speech without case inflection, but inflected for tense, per­son and number, signifying an activity or process performed or undergone;

3. PARTICIPLE: a part of speech sharing the features of the verb and the noun;

4. ARTICLE: a part of speech inflected for case and preposed or postposed to nouns (the relative pronoun is meant by the postposed article);

5. PRONOUN: a part of speech substituted for a noun and marked for person;

6. PREPOSITION: a part of speech placed before other words in composition and in syntax;

7. ADVERB: a part of speech without inflection, in modification of or in ad­dition to a verb;

8. CONJUNCTION: a part of speech binding together the discourse and fill­ing gaps in its interpretation.

Each word class was associated with a number of inflectional and deri­vational categories applicable to it. For example, the Alexandrians recog­nized such noun categories as gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), form (simple, compound), number (singular, dual, plural), case (nominative, voc­ative, accusative, genitive, dative).

Morphological classifications in Ancient Indian and Latin grammars – Part 2

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