It's not only in the United States that linguists have failed in their responsibility to educate the public. As Geoff Pullum explained yesterday, the English Teachers Association of Queensland (Australia) recently published a teachers' guide to grammar that was "full of utter howlers". And some of the discussion of the controversy is not much better. For example, Graham Young wrote today in a blog post at the National Forum ("Grammar's taught to grammarians", 6/14/2008):
The Romans, driven I suspect by their infatuation with standardisation (which palls in comparison to ours, but they caught the disease first), invented grammar. It didn't exist before them, people just spoke languages.
This short passage contains several implicit indictments of my profession's educational failures.
The first is that among the several meanings of the word grammar, Mr. Young fixes on one — the least important one — while ignoring the others. Here's the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for grammar:
1a. The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences. b. The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history. 2a. The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language. b. The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language. 3a. A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes. b. Writing or speech judged with regard to such a set of rules. 4. A book containing the morphologic, syntactic, and semantic rules for a specific language. 5a. The basic principles of an area of knowledge: the grammar of music. b. A book dealing with such principles.
Mr. Young thinks that the Romans invented grammar 3, "A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes". It's obvious that the Romans didn't invent grammar 2, "The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language", since every variety of every language ever spoken has such a system. So the first symptom of my profession's failure is that Mr. Young thinks that the Queensland controversy is (only) about teaching usage standards, and not about teaching the concepts and skills needed to analyze English of all kinds — standard, archaic, vernacular, whatever.
But in fact, the Romans didn't invent grammar 3, and neither did they invent grammar 1, "The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences". The earliest systematic study of a linguistic system that has come down to us is that of Pāṇini (4th or 5th century BC), whose commentators reference several earlier accounts of Sanskrit grammar, such as Śākaṭāyana (8th century BC). The goal of this tradition was to preserve knowledge of the language of the Hindu religious canon, bccause in Panini's time, the language in everyday usage had changed so much (since the composition of works like the Vedas) that correct recitation and understanding of the sacred works could not be assured without explicit study.
There are some even earlier examples of grammar 3 and grammar 1: you can read Stephen Langdon's "Sumerian Gramatical Texts" online. These "grammatical texts belong chiefly to a large group of tablets known as school texts. They represent the pedagogical books and pupils’ exercises of a Sumerian college", from the Nippur Collection, dated to the period between 3200 BC and 1800 BC. These tablets were used to teach Sumerian vocabulary and morphological inflections to students whose native language was Akkadian.
When the Romans finally got around to grammar 1, in the first century B.C., what they did was almost entirely copied from earlier Greek models. Mr. Young attributes his historical information to Nick Ostler's excellent "Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin", so I'll quote some bits of Ostler's account, which may also help to explain how Mr. Young went astray:
The Greek language had progressively been analyzed since the fifth century BC, first by the sophistic rhetoricians and philosophers of Athens, who tended to look for general principles […], later by Stoic philosophers and Alexandrian textual critics, who emphasized more the arbitrary and irregular […]. The two aspects were characterized by the Greeks as "analogy" and "anomaly" and theorists disputed in vain which of the two was truly fundamental to language. […] [T]he traditions culminated in the first comprehensive textbook of Greek grammar, Dionysius the Thracian's Tekhne Grammatike 'The Scholarly Art', written around 100 BC. […] At the time, the aim of these studies was said to be the criticism of literature.
[…] The analysis of Latin on Greek principles took off with … M. Terentius Varro (116-27 BC), whose DE LINGVA LATINA 'On the Latin Language' included a treatment of Latin inflexion, and who can often be seen thinking like a modern formal linguist.
The analysis continued to be elaborated, and simplified versions came to be included in the grammatical syllabus. Q. Remnius Palaemon, a famous practitioner of the first century AD, incorporated most of Greek terminology into Latin in translated form, including the famous mistranslation of aitiatike, the 'caused' case, as ACCVSATIVVS 'accusative'.
[…] Scholars' adaptations of grammatical theory to Latin gave the language a new source of status, putting it effectively on a par with Greek even at this, most abstract level. But there was another motivation for developing grammar, one that brings us back to the schoolroom. Foreigners aspiring to learn the language well, especially as it began to change, needed instruction on what was good style; seeing examples of it held up for imitation was no longer enough for learners. Grammatical theory began to be presented, often in simplified form, in the classroom. The word barbaros / BARBARVS came to at least as commonly used to denigrate failures in grammar and style (in Greek or Latin) as to point something out as truly foreign. A. Gellius, a scholar of the second century AD, naturally described a correct usage as NON BARBARE DICERE, SED LATINE 'saying it not barbarously but in Latin'.
And while such implicit snobbery against the outsiders continued to prevail, a curious fact was missed. Already by the first century AD, Latin scholars had demonstrated that Greek was not the only language reducible to rule, even if those very rules were inspired by looking at Greek. Other languages too could have a grammar.
Yet it would be another millennium and a half before Europeans would realize the implications of this for languages at large.
Call it two millennia, and counting.