Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 1, 2008

Words To The Wise: The Glamour Of Grammar, by Dr. Jon Aske

glamourWhat do I mean by “the glamour of grammar”? Is grammar really glamorous? Some people certainly think so. Of course, it depends on what you mean by grammar. For some people grammar is about rules for speaking “correctly”, so that there is “good grammar” (he isn’t) and there is “bad grammar” (he ain’t). For linguists, grammar refers to all the patterns that we use when we speak to put words and sentences together. So for a linguist, a sentence such as I ain’t got any it is just as grammatical as I don’t have any, since both follow regular structural patterns, even though the former sentence is viewed by society as correct and “glamorous” and the latter as incorrect and stigmatized by society. From a linguist’s point of view, though, value judgments associated with different grammatical patterns are a societal issue, similar to other prejudices people have, not a matter of correctness or logic.

But I am not here today to extol the virtues of linguistic relativism but rather to talk about the relationship between the word glamour (sometimes also spelled glamor in the US) and the word grammar. And the words ‘glamour’ and ‘grammar’ are indeed related, which, as you know, means that they both either come from the same original word or, alternatively, that one comes from the other. In this case we have an example of the latter.

The English word grammar comes from French word grammaire, which ultimately comes from the Ancient Greek adjective grammatikē (in Spanish, gramática), meaning “having to do with letters” (that is, it is the adjective form of the Greek noun grammatos, meaning ‘letter’).

Studying grammar is not a big thing nowadays (though some say it should be), but in the Middle Ages in Europe, (Latin) grammar was the main discipline studied by those few who received an education (grammar, along with rhetoric and logic, formed the trivium, the cornerstone of liberal arts studies in medieval universities). So grammar was associated with learned people and with thick books for rules and fancy and, to most people, unintelligible gibberish (that is, Latin).

It is thus not surprising that the word grammar came in at least one dialect of English to be associated with “erudition with occult practices”, incantations and the like, in the words of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. It seems that books of rules and incantations used by witches came to be called grammars by association. This special use of the word grammar seems to have started in the dialect of English spoken in Scotland, where the word grammar also suffered a sound alteration, namely the change of the first R to an L, which is a rather common historical change in many languages. For, if you discount the spelling, you can see that the only difference in pronunciation between grammar and glamo(u)r is the R/L alternation. Neat, uh?

So that is the story of the word ‘glamour’. Another interesting example of the history of words.

By the way, glamour is an exception to the rule that words borrowed from French with the OU letter in them lose the U in the American spelling (as in behaviour-behavior).¦

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