Topic 12 – Grammar concept: Reflection on the language and its learning. From normative grammar to grammar based on the use of language and communication.


1.1. Basic concepts. 2

1.2. Definition of grammar. 2


3. Different approaches to the study of language and grammar. 3

4. Chomsky.. 4

4.1. Innateness. 4

4.2. Language acquisition. 5

4.2.1. Phonological development 6

4.2.2. Grammatical development 6

5. Evolution of the concept of “grammar”. 7

5.1. History. 8

5.1.1. Normative grammars. 8

5.1.2. Functional grammars. 8

5.1.3. Communicative grammars. 9



1.1. Basic concepts

When a linguist decides to describe a language, he/she will have to make reference to the three major components of a linguistic system: phonology, grammar, and lexicon.

The phonology describes the sound system: consonants, vowels, stress, intonation, and so on.

With regard to grammar, the two basic units of this discipline are the word and the sentence. One subcomponent of grammar, called morphology, deals with the form of words, while the other, called syntax, deals with the way words combine to form sentences.

The lexicon, or dictionary, lists the vocabulary items, mainly words and idioms, specifying how they are pronounced, how they behave grammatically, and what they mean.

On another dimension we can distinguish between the study of linguistic form and the study of meaning: all three of the major components are concerned with aspects of both. The special term ‘semantics’ is applied to the study of meaning, and we can accordingly distinguish phonological semantics (the meanings expressed by stress and intonation), grammatical semantics (the meanings associated with grammatical categories such as past tense, interrogative clause, and so on), and lexical semantics (the meanings of vocabulary items).

1.2. Definition of grammar

Before starting with the topic in detail we should have a look at the different definitions of grammar:

1. Arte de hablar y escribir correctamente una lengua. Estudio de la lengua latina. (RAE; 1950)

2. Ciencia de la estructura del lenguaje…que es la fijación, sistematización y depuración de las normas consagradas por el uso. (María Moliner, 1960).

3. Science des regles du langage parlé ou éscrit. (Larousse, 1965)

4. Study of rules of a language’s inflection or other means of showing relation between words and its phonetic system. (Oxford, 1981)

5. The rules of a language concerning the way in which you can put words together in order to make sentences (Collins Cobuild, 1987)


In particular periods, especially 13th and 18th century, systems of what was called ‘universal grammar’ were developed. Advocates of universal grammar support that grammar reflects thought and logic. Therefore, it can be described in terms of mathematical logic.

But according to Whorf’s hypothesis (an advocate of universal grammar), language determines one’s conceptual system and categorisation of thought and experience. However, this has been proved wrong by the prototype theory.

The hypothesis of the universal grammar was revived in the last years by generativism with Chomsky and his followers. Chomsky’s version of universal grammar makes the same assumption as earlier versions do about the universality of logic and about the interdependence of language and thought. It is Chomsky’s view, however, that the empirical study of language has more to contribute to the philosophy of mind than traditional logic and the philosophy of language have to contribute to linguistics.

For Chomsky language is a formal system, and it’s formed by a collection of rules that mimic algorithmic computation. Algorithmic systems manipulate symbols without regard to their meaning.

This system is based on Formalism (in mathematics), that is, rules are just stings of uninterpreted symbols. Questions of meaning are put aside to be explained by metamathematics. In Linguistics, this function is fulfilled by Semantics, which is interpretative, that is, it gives meaning to the uninterpreted symbols of grammar.

The underlying and irreducible principles into which a sentence can be analysed, and which constitutes its deep structure, are universals in character. Linguistic theory is a hypothesis about universals (vid. Innateness).

This system is also based on Mentalism: linguistic theory is mentalistic since it’s concerned with discovering a mental reality underlying actual behaviour (Chomsky’s Aspects).

Rules of competence are not directly observable and the main way to find about them is through introspection, hypothesing.

3. Different approaches to the study of language and grammar




Philosophy of the language


(introspective aspect)


Philosophy of the language

Much of what was traditionally held to fall within the scope of the philosophy of mind, including epistemology, is now studied jointly, though often from different points of view, by both philosophers and psychologists. A whole new subdiscipline has developed called ‘psycholinguistics’

PSYCHOLINGUISTICS: it’s the intersection of psychology and linguistics. It links up, at the one end, with neurolinguistics (the study of the neurological part of language), and at the other end, with sociolinguistics. The main scope of research of this discipline is the study of language acquisition.

Chomsky and his followers claim that language provides evidence for mentalism, for a belief in the existence of mind; and linguistics is concerned with discovering a mental reality underlying our behaviour.

One of the central problems in the philosophy of mind has to do with the acquisition of knowledge. They take the view that this acquisition is innate.

Rules of competence are not directly observable. Mentalist theory is all about hypothesis. The main way to find about them is through introspection.

4. Chomsky..

4.1. Innateness

The acquisition of language has played a prominent role, throughout the centuries, in the debates between rationalists and empiricists.

Chomsky’s positive contribution rests upon his recognition of the importance of structure-dependency as an apparently universal property of human languages and of the necessity of showing how children can come to acquire the mastery of this property in the acquisition and use of language.

Innateness in Chomsky’s view as language acquisition. Chomsky’s concern with language differs from that of the empiricists. The rationalist view is that mind is not a tabula rasa. We impose our own mental structures upon what we perceive.

Earlier behaviourist assumptions held that language acquisition can be explained in terms of imitation and positive or negative reinforcement.

However, the rapidity with which we and complexity of language development cannot be explained in this way. Furthermore, there’s much of central importance in language which is not amenable to direct observation, and therefore, cannot be imitated (i.e. deep structure rules).

So the generative approach argues that language acquisition is only explicable if one postulates that certain features of competence are present on the brain of the child right from the beginning.

The child’s brain contains certain innate characteristics which pre-structure in it the direction of language learning. These innate features are needed to develop stimulation. And for Chomsky, these innate structures can be identified with universals.

The mind can be best described in terms of a set of abstract structures whose physical basis is as yet relatively unknown, but they mature according to a genetically determined programme of development in interaction with the environment. What we have been calling the language-faculty is one of many such mental structures.

This can be checked in experimental studies: the available evidence from the investigation of language-acquisition; from case-studies of language-disorders of various kinds; from experiments with other primates, from advances that are being made in our understanding of the neurophysiology of the brain; and from several other fields.

4.2. Language acquisition

According to the mentalistic views, there’s a significant part of language which is not acquired, it is innate and it will mature under adequate exposition.

All normal children acquire the language that they hear spoken around them without special instruction. They start talking at roughly the same age and they go through the same stages of language-development. The progress that they make is, at times, so rapid that it is difficult to keep a systematic record of it.

Chomsky doesn’t talk about second language acquisition, but it may be completely different from mother tongue, so we can not draw conclusions too fast.

4.2.1. Phonological development

Babies in the first days of postnatal life are responsive, not only to the human voice as such, but also to the differences between voiced and voiceless consonants. However, it is not a species-specific innate phonological distinction. Rather, it is an ability common to both human beings and the higher primates, but one which only human beings learn to invest with distinctive function by virtue their exposure to languages in which it is functional.

In the first six months of postnatal life the child normally passes successively from crying to ‘cooing’ and from cooing to ‘babbling’. This developmental sequence is innately determined, since the sounds that are produced in crying and cooing, and in the earlier part of the babbling period, are unaffected by the linguistic environments in which the children is being brought up; and deaf children cry, coo and initially at least, babble in the same way that hearing children do.

During the babbling period most children will have acquired some of the intonation-patterns of their native language. There is no evidence, however, that the intonation-pattern superimposed upon a babbled utterance have a distinctive communicative function.

When the child is about 9 months old he begins to show evidence of the construction of the phonological system of his native language. characteristics of the mother-tongue sounds can be recognised in babble around the age of 9 months. The complete acquisition of the phonological system will not be over till the age of 5 years old. But some of the phonetically more difficult or, in the case of prosodic structure, functionally more complex distinctions may not be acquired until the child is much older.

There is a fairly well established sequence of acquisition:

· Labial ® dental ® alveolar

· Plosives ® fricatives

4.2.2. Grammatical development

There is a developmental sequence of the acquisition of grammatical structures, independent of the structure of the language of the child’s environment.

1. Holophrastic period: the child produces one-word sentences, usually a subject and a verb. It may cover up to 10 different meanings. This period may last from the age of about 5 to 18 months.

2. Telegraphic period: production of two-word utterances. The child’s speech throughout the period lacks inflections and ‘function words’(prepositions, determiners and conjunctions). At this time, hierarchic categories are not well defined. The child makes important discoveries, such as I and no.

By the time the children is about four years old his speech is no longer describable as telegraphic.

Until the early 1960s there had been little systematic investigation of the acquisition of grammatical structure. Chomsky demonstrated that languages are ‘rule-governed’ and that theories of learning could not account for the acquisition (and creative use) of rule-governed systems with the property of productivity.

Throughout the 1960s psycholinguistics were concerned almost exclusively with grammar in their study of child-language, but now it’s considered that it is impossible to study the child’s developing grammatical competence in isolation from his general cognitive, emotional and social development.

The scope of child-language studies has now been broadened to cover, not only phonology, grammar and vocabulary, but also the semantic structure of utterances, their role in social interaction and their reflection of the child’s beliefs about the world. There is currently a good deal of research being carried out into the prelinguistic determinants of the acquisition of grammar in the crying, cooing and babbling stages of the developmental sequence.

5. Evolution of the concept of “grammar”

Normative ® Functional ® Communicative

Normative grammars are prescriptive or descriptive?. They attempted to show how a language had to be used. The general principle behind the grammar was the choice of highly reputed representative authors in order to explain the optimal use of a given language. Most of the rules of the old prescriptive grammars have no other justification than trying to impose Latin grammar on English. These authors were mainly writers who, more frequently than not, belonged to previous centuries. A very clear example of this kind of grammars is the ‘Esbozo de una gramática del español’, by the RAE. It did not admit cases such as:

It’s me

Who’s there? -Me

He’s bigger than me.

Deferred prepositions

Double negatives

5.1. History

5.1.1. Normative grammars

In the 15th century Elio Antonio de Nebrija did the first grammar describing a non-sacred language (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Arab, Sanskrit, Chinese…).

The first important rationalist grammar to have great influence on linguistics was the ‘Grammaire Générale et Raisonée’ (1650) by Lancelot and Arnaud, also called ‘Port Royal grammar’.

The philosophical basis of the grammar is on the work by Descartes, who tried to distinguish between truth and falsity. This thought implies a permanent and absolute doubt which demands a new study of almost everything.

Another basic idea is that of introspection, i.e., the grammarian studies his own production and thought, because the language faculty is innate and is not dependent on outside factors. One of the major discoveries of this grammar is the difference between definite and indefinite articles.

In general, most normative grammars are similar to dictionaries containing attributed quotations.

5.1.2. Functional grammars

In the transition between traditional grammars (normative-rational) to functional grammars, there were other approaches:

1. Saussure’s structuralism: language is oral, and it’s a system of signs.

2. Bloomfield’s descriptivism: he attempted to describe from a theoretical point of view the structure of newly discovered languages, especially Amerindians..

3. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language and social culture are linked so that one is not able to think of words which denote objects or feelings which do not exist in his/her experience as a human being.

· The Prague School:

It appeared in the late 20s and early 30s. A group of linguistics gathered together and formed the Circle of Prague in 1926: Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague.

They were inspired on the work by Saussure and the structuralists.

They practised a special kind of synchronic linguistics which saw language in terms of function. They analysed a given language with a view to showing the respective functions played by the various structural components in the use of the entire language.

They wanted to understand what jobs the various components were doing and how the nature of one component determined the nature of others. They tried to go beyond description to explanation, saying not just what languages were like but why they were the way they were.

An important figure was that of Jakobson, who designed a generative phonology based on Saussure’s notion of a system. Functional linguistics.

Vilém Mathesius developed an approach to syntactic analysis using the Saussurean notion of functionally contrastive constituents (Theory of functional sentence perspective)

· The London School:

J.R. Firth: he was concerned with the study of language as a means of communication. His ideas in this respect were supported by Malinowski (ethnolinguistics), an ethnographer who thought of language as a ‘means of transfusing ideas from the head of the speaker to that of the listener’.

Firth’s notion of language as a set of interrelated systems, together with the idea of language as a vehicle for communication have influenced scholars such as Lyons and Halliday.

Halliday’s theory is of ‘systemic grammar’, in which system is a set of mutually exclusive options that come into play at some point in the linguistic structure.

The central component is a chart of the full set of choices available in constructing a sentence, with a specification of the relationship between the choices.

5.1.3. Communicative grammars

The term ‘communicative grammar’ is in itself empty of any theoretical background, however, it has become the most descriptive one in the domain of English Language Teaching.

Communicative grammars follow the path opened by functionalists in the understanding of language as a set of resources to transmit meaning. In this sense Halliday’s work has been of tremendous importance in the development of ‘notions’ which are created by means of some grammatical or semantic constructions.

One of the most famous grammars with the ‘communicative’ label attached to it is that by Leech and Svartvik (1986) A communicative grammar of English, in which the notional-functional approach is presented in a formal way, i.e., the structure of language is presented in terms of the functions or notions, (criticising, suggesting, complaining…), and then the grammarian describes all the linguistic resources that are able to create that meaning.


1. Lyons, J. (1981) Language and Linguistics. CUP

2. Marcos Marín, F. (1990) Introducción a la Lingüística: Historia y Modelos. Síntesis.

3. Sampson, G. (1980) Schools of Linguistics. Hutchinson University Library.

Publicado: marzo 13, 2019 por Laura Gonzalez

Etiquetas: tema 12 inglés secundaria