Before we tackle what we mean by grammar in more detail, we need to explore what we mean by English. It’s actually quite difficult to explain what English is once you think about it; English (like other languages) is a continuum of (many) different language varieties or dialects. According to recent surveys, English is the native language of 322 million people, and the second language of 120 million more (Weber, 1997; Comrie, 1998; Ethnologue, 2005). With upwards of 440 million speakers of English around the world, it’s no surprise that there may be varieties of English that sound familiar to you, and others that you have never heard before.
Here are a few examples of sentences from different varieties of English from both inside and outside the United States.
1. That’s me away. (“I’m going now.”) (Scots English)
2. That house looks a nice one. (Varieties of British English)
3. They went a-hunting yesterday. (Appalachian English)
4. We might should do that. (Varieties of Southern US English)
5. I asked him where does he work. (Indian English)
6. She’ll be right. (“Everything will be all right.”) (Australian English)
Complicating the notion of what we think of as “English” is that languages change, sometimes quite dramatically, over time. Any of you who have studied Old English (spoken around 445–1000 ce) for example, know that Old English looks very little like modern, or Present Day English. Yet, we still call Old English “English.” Consider this passage from the Old English poem Beowulf, written in about 700.
Hwat! We Gardena in geardagum,
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,
peodcyninga, .rym gefrunon,
Of those folk-kings, the glory have heard,
hu .a a.elingas ellen fremedon.
How those noblemen brave-things did.
Oft Scyld Scefing scea.ena .reatum,
Often Scyld, son of Scef, from enemy hosts,
monegum mag.um, meodosetla ofteah,
from many people, mead-benches took,
Middle English (spoken around 1100–1400) looks more like Present Day English, but is still clearly not what we would consider contemporary. Here is an excerpt from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, from his famous Canterbury Tales written at the end of the fourteenth century.
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Experience, though no authority
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
Were in this world, were good enough for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
To speak of woe that is in marriage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
For, masters, since I was twelve years of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Thanks be to God Who is for ever alive,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve –
Of husbands at church door have I had five –
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee –
If I could have been married so many times –
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.
And all were worthy men in their degree.
And Early Modern English (1500–1700), though much more familiar, is still a little different. Here is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We may not need a translation anymore, but this 400-year-old version of English is still quite different from English spoken today.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to? ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
We learn from studying language change and variation that not all of us speak the same variety or dialect of English, and whatever variety we do speak continues to change. As we will see as we progress through this book, all varieties, or dialects of English are worthy of investigation and can be explored using the tools of analysis we will introduce to you here. This is something of a departure from what you may have learned in school, namely that studying English grammar means learning a single set of rules in order to avoid errors. In fact, there is no such single set of hard and fast rules of English grammar, and languages are actually dynamic systems, constantly in flux. So an approach to English as a set of rules to memorize doesn’t tell you anything about how English actually works, nor do such rules accurately describe the grammar of the language.