Don’t Hate on Grammar

Image taken at Pongola Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Languages are English, Afrikaans, and Zulu.

Let’s try a little experiment. Check out these Zulu expressions:

Ngikhathele namuhla.
I’m tired today.

Ngiyagodola namuhla.
I’m cold today.

Sikhathele namuhla.
We’re tired today.

Now, how do you say we’re cold today in Zulu? (Scroll down…)

 

 

 

 

Did you guess siyagodola namuhla?  Kuhle kakhulu! (Excellent!) You created a completely new sentence (that you had never been taught and had never seen or memorized) based on bits and pieces of other things that you were taught, and a sense of a system of how to extend those other things and then apply them to create something new.

That’s grammar. And it’s a beautiful thing.

If you’ve taken language classes before you may think of grammar as something awful. Conjugation tables and weird terms like participle and indirect object and memorizing crap instead of just speaking. I get it. Grammar is often taught this way, and it winds up turning people off of languages.

But imagine this. Imagine every single sentence you might possibly want to say, whether it’s in your native language or in a new language you want to learn. Without grammar, you have to memorize everything. You literally need a list of everything from “where’s the bathroom?” to “my Aunt Fanny just got a pet armadillo” and you have to painstakingly commit every single one to memory. You even need to keep separate entries for “my Aunt Fanny just got a pet armadillo” and “my aunt Fanny just got two pet armadillos.” Or three, four, five… you can see where this is going, and why it’s problematic.

Grammar is what allows you to take short cuts. Grammar is what makes it possible for you to memorize a very finite bucket of vocabulary, and then a very finite bucket of “rules” and then combine the two to form an infinite number of new sentences. Sentences that you’ve never seen, that you’ve never been taught, and maybe even that have never been said by anyone else ever.

That’s not a horrible thing, that’s amazing.

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