When did formalization of language grammars start?

Natural languages evolved with no a priori definition of their grammar. So sometime later on, the first linguist studied some language and backconstructed the de facto grammar.

When did the first known works emerge to document the structure of a natural language?

An Indian writer named Panini described the grammar of Sanscrit in some year B.C.

I think they would have to evolve together to some extent. As the language becomes more complex there would have to be ways of controlling that complexity in interest of understandibility.

It says here (Bill Bryson,* The Mother Tongue*) that Sir Thomas Smith was so convinced that English should follow Latin grammar as its model, that he wrote an English grammar in Latin in 1568. Another was written by a John Wallis in 1653.
Hardly a B.C. Sanscrit cite, but for English, a pretty early one. For now, anyway, until the next post. xo, C.

Like Wendell said, priority in this case has to go to the Indian grammarian Panini in the Gandhara region of northwest India in about 400 BCE. His Astadhyayi or “Eight Chapters” is essentially a sophisticated descriptive grammar of Sanskrit.

Panini essentially invented linguistics; he developed sophisticated analyses of phonology and morphology and documented Sanskrit grammar extremely thoroughly.

I don’t know much about world history, sadly. But I know that the Ancient Greeks had at least some tradition of formal grammar, defining (for instance) eight “parts of speech” based upon morphological characteristics. Was this substantially later than Panini? Or was grammar independently studied in both Greece and India?

And of course Panini’s formalization soon came to be used as a prescriptive rather than purely descriptive work. I don’t know if Sanskrit was already dead or dying as a spoken language when he wrote his work, but anyway soon all children who were to learn Sanskrit would have to learn his grammar by heart. And thus it came to set in stone the basic rules for this Indian academic lingua franca which in contrast to Latin continued to evolve significantly even at later dates when it was only used for written works.

It is sometimes said that that while in India logic evolved out of grammar, in the West grammar evolved out of logic and philosophy. There’s one dialog in which Plato makes a distinction corresponding to what we today would understand as noun and verb. And Aristoteles would develop this much further in his logic. Specialized grammarians appeared somewhat later, I think during hellenistic times, and they would adopt the basic distinctions made by the classic philosophers. And the Greek grammarians’ work was of course later adopted and translated by the Romans.

One thing that I find interesting about this is how the thinking by the classic Greek philosophers took place (perhaps somewhat naively, but also interesting just for that reason) in the borderland between language and reality (linguistics and metaphysics), and how the distinctions that they made have lived on with us to this day, either because they were so great or just because it’s hard to think outside the box once a basic philosophical chopping-up of a domain has been established. And how it’s really hard to study language without making metaphysical assumptions. (Compare today’s discussions about Chomsky’s claim that all languages share the same “deep-structure”.)

I know this is a nitpick, but Chomsky has never said that. He does claim that a certain Universal Grammar underlies all human language, but deep structure is an entirely different thing. It comes from his earlier work with transformational grammar, in which he proposed that sentences had both a “surface structure” and a “deep structure”, and the deep structure was “transformed” into the surface structure, which was what is actually spoken or written or signed. He no longer incorporates deep structure into his theories, according to what I’ve read, and deep structure was not shared between different languages any more than surface structure. It managed to become a very widely abused term used in reference to all sorts of things unrelated to Chomsky’s theories.

The Chomsky revolution was based on his belief that all languages share an underlying structure. He called this structure “deep structure” and said that it could not be learned. The part that we learn was known as “surface structure.” Yes, he has changed his thinking, but it was his ideas about the commonality of “deep structure” that turned linguistic studies upside down.

I am certainly no expert on linguistics or Chomsky, but I was taking a couple of linguistics courses in the mid-sixties when the uproar caused by his book from the late fifties was still going on.

Again, you’re confusing the terms “deep structure” and “Universal Grammar”.

The Wikipedia page on deep structure doesn’t go into very much detail, but they make the distinction between it and Universal Grammar reasonably clear.

All natural languages are complex. There’s been no evidence (at least that I’ve heard of) to indicate that language has evolved from less complex to more complex.

Lissa writes:

> I think they would have to evolve together to some extent. As the language
> becomes more complex there would have to be ways of controlling that
> complexity in interest of understandibility.

I’m sorry about this, but basically everything about this is wrong. There’s no reason to think that the complexity of language has changed in the past 200,000 years. There are no “primitive” languages. All languages have approximately the same complexity, although that complexity is expressed differently in different languages. It’s possible that earlier in the evolution of the hominids (several million years ago) there was something different than language (using sounds, gestures, facial expressions, etc.) which was simpler than present-day language because the users of it were less intelligent, but there’s no way to know for sure.

There’s no sense in which a written-down grammar controls the complexity of language. Written-down grammars didn’t exist before Panini, so there were tens or hundreds of thousands of years of human language before anyone attempted to write down grammar. Indeed, there’s no need to control the complexity of language. Language is not unstable and thus not in danger of becoming too complex. There are natural parts of the evolution of spoken language which can both make the grammar more and less complex, and this evolution doesn’t go too far in one direction or the other.