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Meta-Grammar

April 11, 2011

When I was studying German in high school I had an easy time of it. The pronunciation is more forgiving than in other languages and is not far from that of Swedish, and there are no exotic diacritics to keep track of. The gender and subsequent numerical inflection (I do hope that’s the right term; the English terminology for grammar is uncharted water for me) were somewhat hard to remember, but I had little problems with what most people find the most difficult, so difficult that it has become a cliché about German.

I am of course talking about the grammar.

My memory seems to prefer structures over elements, generalisations over specifics. I suspect this aspect was what helped me with mathematics and to a lesser degree physics as well. Further suspecting has me thinking that the reason for this order of affairs is that my memory is so bad that it will rather remember how to get to the specifics than the specifics themselves. It has shaped my world-view to one that assumes everything to be a special case of something more general.

An early example of this was German grammar.

Swedish has fewer grammatical genders (two vs. three) and fewer cases (three vs. four (actually it’s three for pronouns; for nouns there’s just two, making it even easier)), which means that the memorization on which prepositions governs which cases become moot. At least if you discount the genetive case, which still has a preposition which governs it, and a few fixed-expression relics lying around. But the point is that the case-gender table is smaller in Swedish than in German.

But it got me thinking. Perhaps the table is the same size with some things just happening to be the same? So Swedish would fit into the German case-gender table if we change how we express the difference. Instead of saying “Swedish has a single case to represent dative and accusative” we could say “in Swedish, the accusative and the dative are identical”. If we keep the distinction, we make for a more general table, one where both Swedish and German fits.

It’s easy to see that English would fit there as well, having fewer cases. Or to but it in my preferred way; it has fewer distinct cases. Other languages then? Well, Finnish is out; it has fifteen cases. Can we fit what we have into the Finnish table then? Not exactly. From what I understand they don’t have dative.

No worries though. We’ll put all the cases unique for German, Swedish, English and Finnish and use them all for a general list not connected specifically to Finnish. Going the full length, we could perhaps make a gargantuan table incorporating every grammatical case and every grammatical gender encountered in every known language and fit every language into it.

This is just a very specific case (ahaha) though. There is more to grammar than inflection. But perhaps we could fit every language into a single grammar if we were generic enough?

If we could, then every language would just be a specific instance of a meta-grammar.

Which would be neat.

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From → General

One Comment
  1. Makes sense if you remember that all European languages have similar roots.

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