1.11.2007

Grammar

I've always had a love/hate relationship with grammar. It all came very naturally to me, made perfect sense. What didn't make any sense to me was why it mattered.

Or maybe it just seemed like a fairly safe place to get a little rebellion out of my system.

Whatever the case, for a long time, it was a great goal of mine to break as many rules as possible, and still sound good. Or, even better, to keep every rule to a T, and sound really, really, awkward. Just for demonstration purposes, of course.

Music theory transformed my view of rules.

There it was, right in front of me. Beauty, defined and explained, tucked inside--of all things!--a pile of seemingly arbitrary rules and conventions. They weren't comprehensive, of course. You can do lots of perfect exercises and pretty much avoid any semblance of beauty altogether. And lots and lots of truly beautiful music either breaks lots of the "rules," or is beyond the scope of them altogether. Nevertheless, each of these rules is something we know about beauty. Something solid to hang onto, evidence that beauty is real and it is knowable. Never exhaustible, but knowable.

A single note carrying over into the next chord, serving an entirely different function? That's beautiful. Really beautiful. It's complex in a way that ties everything together, simple in a way that creates interest and highlights complexity. It's beautiful, and knowing that it is beautiful provides a real and powerful insight into what beauty is.

Parallel fifths? Well, that is simplicity itself, and can actually be really beautiful if it sets the tone for the piece. But in the middle of something more complex, it can just sort of disolve the train of thought, leaving all sorts of threads hanging.

As for augmented seconds, it sounds just like a minor third, but it's actually a second, and by adding an accidental, it's actually a more harmonious interval, except that it's not... well, that's just complicated, plain and simple. And communication disasters aren't beautiful.

Now where was I? Oh, yes, grammar.

I probably should have known that grammar, too, is not a set of arbitrary restrictions, but rather the codification of something real and organic and lovely and meaningful. I'm just not sure that I gave it a whole lot of thought until now.

It's fun to watch their vocabulary grow. ("Honey, did you hear that? She said fish!") And it's so much fun to sort through the primordial ooze of homonyms from which it all develops. ("So when she calls the lion 'da-da,' does that mean she thinks it looks like you, or that she things it looks like a doggy?")

But as fun as all that is, it's nothing compared to the thrill of watching them develop grammar. Every day the boys come up with more complex sentence structures, and every day those sentences become a little more natural, a little more fluid, as they master fine distinctions.

And there it is, tangible evidence that they're learning how to think. That their thoughts are becoming more precise, and that they're developing the tools with which to communicate them clearly. What a magnificent edifice is language! I take it for granted, it is so utterly essential to all my experience, communal or solitary. It doesn't merely allow me to share my thoughts, and understand the thoughts of others, it is what allows me to organize my own thoughts within my head.

And there it is, all fresh and new. So exciting.

The other day Nathan needed a diaper change. Badly.

"Meeps, are you stinky?"

And I was so very, very proud of his answer.

"I'm not stinky!"

A week ago, he might have said "No stink! No stink!" Or maybe even "Meepo no stinky." But now? "I'm not stinky!"

Correct use of the first person singular! With a contraction, no less! And a negative modifier!

It was a baldfaced lie, of course... but we can overlook that for grammatical excellence, can't we?

1 comment:

lasselanta said...

"Active construction of a grammar" is what they call it in linguistics jargon... meaning that our brains are specifically designed for learning language and understanding the speech we hear as beautiful, complex patterns. I've long thought that is one of the very coolest linguistic theories ever... especially because every parent gets to watch it happen!!