Grammar writing & typology

Grammatical description necessarily involves a minimum of two languages. There is, first, the object language, the language being described. And there is second, the subject language, the language the writer or the reader uses to study the object language. It is the one used for the description. In order to treat a language on its own, we need to account for both. We cannot simply pretend that we can only look at the first of them scientifically and assume that the second one won’t affect the analysis if we just try hard enough. Such a move would bring us into the failed realm of logical positivism. We cannot escape our native languages.

Even if we make a conscious, concerted effort to avoid letting our native language affect our analysis, we cannot control our subconscious. Language is simply too deeply ingrained in minds and embodied experience. Even when we work to be objective about the language under description and treat it “on its own” as it were, we are still acting subjectively with the language of description. The conscious effort to not let English affect our analysis is going to result in the tendency for us to end up emphasizing and perhaps exaggerating the differences between the two languages.

That is one end of the pendulum—exaggeration. The other end is to understate the differences, glossing over substantive divergence.

These two polls operate and are driven by different forces. Exaggerating differences is appealing because it creates a sense of objectivity. It’s also pedagogically more challenging.

But that’s understatement’s appeal, drawing analogies to the language of description (English) provides an account of Greek or Hebrew grammar that is much easier to teach.

Neither of these tendencies operate at an overtly conscious level. We also cannot escape them. They will come up whether we like it or not. Language is perspectival; you bring your own language with you wherever you go. You are not an objective analyzer of another language wholly separate from the language you speak at home.

In this context, typology functions as a controlling mechanism. At the beginning of an analysis, having a broad map of what’s possible for a given grammatical phenomenon is less about trying to locate Hebrew or Greek within it and more about locating English. Once English is located within the context of what we know about the vast degree of variation across the world’s languages, we are in a better place to understand the larger context of our own language.

We are better able to recognize things like: This is the type of voice system in a language like English and I now understand that there many other types of voice systems around the world: inverse voice systems, antipassive voice systems, middle voice systems. Now our knowledge of English voice is no longer a limit to what is possible in other languages. This knowledge enables us to think about the Greek voice system in that larger context of diversity rather than just in terms of how it is similar to or different from English.

The value of typology is to add that extra space between the language of description and the language being described. Typology lets you critically hold up both languages on their own.

Beyond that, let me ask you this: What makes for a more enriched grammatical analysis?

(1) An analysis that limits its field of inquiry to only the language of description and only provides explanations in the context of that language of description?

(2) An analysis that attempts to contextualize Greek grammar within the broader domain of what we have learned about language variety over the past 200+ years?

I know which one I would choose.