Although I don’t usually talk about medieval times, Monday’s posts are called Medieval Mondays, because I like alliteration. In these posts, I look at the history of the English language.
This post was prompted when I had a wee peek at my search terms, one of which was ‘how do they come up with grammar names’.
The word grammar itself has a rather wonderful etymology. It comes from the Greek grammatikē technē, which means “art of letters”.
I like this, because people too often dismiss grammar as being arbitrary, when actually it’s not only important for conveying meaning, but also an art in itself.
The word came from Greek via Latin and French in the fourteenth century. That’s not to say that the English language didn’t have grammar before then (indeed, Old English has a much more complicated grammar system than Present Day English does). The Old English stæfcræft, meaning ‘the art of grammar’, ‘grammar’, ‘skill in letters’, or ‘learning’ was supplanted by the French.
Indeed, most words we use today involving grammar seem to come from the Classics: verb comes from Latin verbum, meaning word, noun from Latin nōmen, which means name, adverb comes from adverbium, which ultimately comes from Greek. I could go on, but I couldn’t actually find a single grammar-related word whose roots don’t lie in either Greek or Latin.
There’s a very simple explanation for this.
In 1066 the Norman conquest happened, and suddenly Old English was replaced with Latin and French; at least in the upper classes. The fact that it affected the language of the aristocracy and ‘gentile’ classes meant it affected those who had two important things: education and power.
The majority of people didn’t have a huge amount of knowledge about their own language. They spoke it, but they didn’t know words for nouns or adjectives. Educated people, however, would be taught grammar using Greek mythology. They grew up parsing Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Alongside this education, they had the power to make these words stick. A lot of administrative words come from the Classics (court, judge, jury, appeal, parliament), because the people in power were Norman. The same thing happened to grammar. The people who were educated knew the words, and they also had the power to make them last.
The invention of the printing press and a movement to stabilise the English language meant that words which were being used in Late Middle English and Early Modern English were much more likely to last than words from before that.
So there you have it; if not an etymology of grammatical terms, an explanation for it.
Interesting, an archaic meaning of adjective is ‘unable to stand alone; dependent’. In Medieval England, women were seen as ‘adjective’ creatures, ‘needing to be cared for and protected from the vicissitudes of life.’
While this is, thankfully, no longer a definition of the word, it might help you remember what an adjective is. Adjectives, unlike women, cannot stand alone, and are dependant on a noun. You can’t say, ‘that’s an amazing!’: it needs the noun to go with it.