Language nerds only need read: syntax as phrasing

more updates from the world of The Art of Syntax, chapter 1.

Grammar controls the function of each word in the sentence and lines it up on one side of a clause or the other: “mask” can a thing (noun) or an action (verb) depending on its usage. Grammar also regulates that usage, and the lexicon, to efficiently signal function (he or him; laugh or laughs). These are tactics for clarity of discursive information. Syntax, however, is a larger, more flexible calculus: the order of the words in each unique human utterance.

Neurolinguists […] have discovered that the two quite distinct kinds of language development—acquiring a lexicon and mastering syntax—occur in different areas of the brain. […] And these syntax centers are not only independent from word deposits but adjacent to where we process music.

Summary of Ellen Voigt’s ideas here: Syntax is to language what phrasing is to music; phrasing is not musical meter, but operate on top of or in resistance to that meter using dynamics, harmony, melodic line, rhythmic variations, to create music. Syntax does this for language. Our brains are hungry for patterns and are inherently able to process information in chunks, not only in linear sequence. Our language allow us thousands of choices that make sense grammatically but give different weight, emphasis, sound, rhythm, and emotional meaning as we choose how to order the information we give.


One of the things I wondered about: considering the idea that syntax and lexicon are in different areas of the brain, I’m thinking about what I know about how language was used by the dozens and hundreds of different African peoples who were drug across the ocean and forced to learn to communicate, quickly, because their lives did depend upon it, in a language none of them knew but that was enforced through horrible violence. So of course the language they spoke used English words in syntax patterns from African languages. Duh—how else? There was no time for learning “standard” English—and such formal education was punishable by death anyway—so as a coping mechanism a language arose that gave birth to “Black English.” And in a racist setting, this has been treated as a deficit and not a brilliant, highly literate adaptation.


So how does one learn a second or third language so deeply that the vocabulary and the grammar and the syntax are available fluently? And how do we translate syntax when it varies so widely, especially between inflected and non-inflected languages??


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s