" The Architecture of English Grammar : from the Theory of Phases to the Principle of Cyclicity"
Conférence plénière (en anglais) au colloque de linguistique anglaise à Toulouse, Juillet 2000. Ce texte fait le point sur la genèse et de le développement de l'approche métaopérationnelle.
ARCHITECTURE OF ENGLISH GRAMMAR :
THEORY OF PHASES TO THE PRINCIPLE OF CYCLICITY
The idea that language is a system
is not a new idea. Systematicity characterised the studies of the Indo-European
family and Grimm’s Law is generally the students’ first encounter of the fact
that languages are organised wholes. The principle of exceptionlessness
(Ausnahmslosigkeit) put forward by the Neugrammatiker is another example of the
systematic behaviour of our tongues. Humboldt’s " innere
Sprachform " transfers the systematicity to the very essence of
languages, their internal structure. For the author of " Uber die
Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues " a language cannot be t
a u g h t : what one can do is " den Faden hingeben "
that is " give out the thread " and the system will unroll
the most often quoted definition of language was coined by Antoine
Meillet : " La langue est un système où tout se tient et a un
plan d’une merveilleuse rigueur " (A language is a system of
interdependent parts which displays a plan of a marvellous rigor). The
word " system " is certainly the most important word in
Saussure’s " Cours de Linguistique Générale " :
"la langue est un système de signes… ",
" un système basé sur l’opposition des impressions
acoustiques " etc. The
structuralist school inherited what had so far remained an interesting
intuition and tried to achieve in grammar what Roman Jakobson had brilliantly
done in phonology. Structuralist grammarians began a furious quest of the basic
syntactic structures , the finite set of patterns out of which our utterances
were built up (cf. Paul Roberts’s series of grammars or" Les
Structures Fondamentales du Français", Bernard Pottier , Nancy
1962). But the best achievement of that period was undoubtedly Martin Joos's
"Cube of the English Modals", an original systematic construction.
From 1957 onwards generative grammar has been but another attempt at capturing
the web and woof of languages. Let me recall the short-lived notion of
"kernel-sentences" , which, in the first chomskian model, were
considered to be the simplest possible declarative active sentences. Generative
grammarians transformed the linguistic landscape by introducing abstract tools
and by breaking up the linear conception of utterances of their structuralist
But as far
as I know the only linguist that tackled the concept of system seriously was
Gustave Guillaume. His immense work - fifteen volumes of his "Leçons de
Linguistique" have been published so far - was a powerful attempt at
demonstrating the systematic organisation of languages . He was certainly the
first linguist to oppose the facts of discourse, the visible facts, to " a
network of secret invisible facts, much more important than the surface
observable facts for the comprehension of the essence of a language". His
1952 paper "La Langue est-elle un Système?" is certainly one of the
highlights of linguistic literature.
Meanwhile descriptive grammar ruled unperturbed over the grammatical field , although it was nothing but a mere juxtaposition of independent unrelated problems . Zandvoort's "Grammar of Contemporary English" opened with the traditional chapter on the different sorts of infinitives (plain or full) and linearity triumphed throughout the book : the chapter on the "defectives" is an excellent illustration of the Dutch grammarian’s linear approach. But the most important achievements of descriptive grammar were the two monumental grammars written under the direction of Randolph Quirk and published respectively in 1972 and 1986 : “A Grammar of Contemporary English” and “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language” . These two treatises were certainly the best and most complete descriptive grammars of English but at the same time they clearly showed the limits of the descriptive approach. French grammars also remained well behind the linguistic ideas of the time: Marc Wilmet's "Grammaire Critique du Français" (1998) - to say nothing of Chervel's "Histoire de la Grammaire Scolaire du Français"(1977) -gives a provocative account of the type of grammar that was being taught in secondary schools and at the universities.
1- THE GENESIS OF THE DOUBLE KEYBOARD THEORY :
personal linguistic adventure started at
the beginning of the seventies when I decided to choose the BE+-ING
construction as the subject matter of my thesis (thèse d’état). The reason of
my choice was my dissatisfaction with the current treatment of the so-called
« progressive form ». I simply could not teach the traditional
viewpoint to my students ! I felt there was more to it than met the eye
and that the problem was far from being solved (in fact it looked as though it
had been definitely shelved ! ). My conviction was strengthened , quite
unexpectedly, by the writings of Martin Joos, first « The English
Verb » and then his review of A. Ota in LANGUAGE (vol.10, 1964) where he
called the traditional explanation (« action making headway »)
« preposterous » !
My aim at the time was far from revolutionary . What I wanted to
find was a better treatment than the one proposed in grammar-books, that
is a fundamental m e a n i n g that was compatible with the varied
occurrences of the form (although I appreciated Joos’s criticism of the
weaknesses of the « progressive » or « continuous »
form, I found that his solution did not differ substantially from the current
one : his « limited duration of the predication » was not in my
opinion the key to the problem).
In 1973 I presented the results
of my three-year research at a pedagogical conference to an audience of two
hundred inspectors and experienced teachers of English. Confronted with the
diabolical minimal pair :
(1) I leave tomorrow
(2) I am leaving tomorrow
I dared speak of the formal
role of –ING, a metaoperator signalling
a sui generis type of syntactic linkage, instead of the anecdotal
pseudo-analysis usually put forward, i. e “.You say (1) when you talk to
your secretary and you use (2) when you
want to apologize ».
My analysis started with a
redefinition of the SCOPE of –ING : -ING
did not bear on the VERB ALONE but on the WHOLE VERBAL GROUP, so that in
(2) we had to deal with the complex verb LEAVE TOMORROW (-ING (leave-tomorrow
)). So, (1) was to be analysed into three components ( I - LEAVE – TOMORROW)
whereas (2) resulted from A BINARY
RELATION : I / LEAVING TOMORROW, linked up by the operator BE.
The traditional parallel analysis of (1) and (2) is unfortunately a
« trompe l’œil », the result of what can be called the linear fallacy :
(1) I leave tomorrow
(2) I am leaving tomorrow
What I found out was that in (2) the status of TOMORROW was quite
different from what it was in (1). : in (1) TOMORROW belonged to an OPEN
paradigm , that is it could have been
TONIGHT or ON TUESDAY or IN TEN DAYS’TIME whereas in (2) TOMORROW represented a
CLOSED paradigm and was part and parcel of the complex form LEAVE TOMORROW. So,
the analysis of the pair (1-2) should be read like this :
(1) I leave tomorrow
(2) I am leaving tomorrow
My analysis corresponds in fact to the intuitive meaning of our minimal pair : a simple announcement of departure in (1) and the expression of a an antecedent decision which may serve as an excuse for not accepting, say, an invitation to dinner . In (1) what matters is the date of the departure but in (2) the utterer - speaker is speaking of himself, since the –ING verbal group is orientated towards the grammatical subject « I ». The role of –ING is to show the THEMATIC status of the verbal group, a condition of the application of that group to the subject on the left.
The linguistic consequence of these preliminary remarks is that the
grammar of English opposes two different sorts of predicational linking : either
a primary rhematic type of utterance or a secondary thematic one where
the metaoperator –ING blocks any paradigmatic choice in the verbal group. This
is how the theory of the two phases was born.The thematic kind of predication
is triggered by such factors as situation, anaphora or simply syntactic
cohesion. These presupposing
conditions are responsible for
the emergence of the –ING verbal group. We shall see later on when speaking of
the V1V2 problem that there exist presupposing verbs, such as KEEP, AVOID or
RISK for example which demand a PHASE 2 verbal group (V2-ING) : He kept looking at the clock ; you must
avoid drinking alcohol when taking antibiotics ; he risks losing his job.
It should be borne in mind that this theory wants to reflect the
processing of the utterances, for it is at that level that the opposition OPEN
paradigm / CLOSED paradigm applies.
Let us examine some utterances to let this viewpoint sink in :
* I left tomorrow.
(4) I was leaving tomorrow, but now I won’t.
agrammaticality of (3) and the bona fide (4)
are clearly the result of the different status of TOMORROW in those
(5) If that man comes into my home, I leave it !
Here is a good example of the use of Phase 1 : LEAVE has not been
announced in any way and is the choice
of the moment. *I am leaving it
would be agrammatical here.
The same is true of (6) below :
(6) I suggest that we leave
On the other hand BE+ING is obligatory in (7) and (8) :
(7) He returned carrying a
suitcase. « You are leaving ? »,
I asked in some surprise.
(8) I’ve got a bad news for you : the charwoman is leaving.
A brief incursion into
French will show us the ambiguity
of an utterance like (9) :
(9) Je pars demain.
This sentence yields two possible analyses :
(9’) je pars demain (I leave tomorrow)
(9’’) je pars demain
(I am leaving tomorrow)
As is well-known this type of ambiguity concerns the present tense only,
for the distinction passé simple/imparfait will make up for the absence of a BE+ING construction in French
The Theory of the Two Phases will be developed in my thesis (
« BE+ING dans la Grammaire de l’Anglais Contemporain »1976) and in
the grammars of English that I published between 1982 and 1996. Here is the
schema of what was to become the starting-point of the Double Keyboard :
PHASE 1 : rhematic (open
PHASE 2 : thematic
Note : My use of RHEMATIC and THEMATIC has nothing in common with
the traditional theme-rheme opposition proposed in 1929 by Mathesius and which
has been made great use of since then
(in particular by Halliday in the sense given/new). My phases do not refer to
the extralinguistic world but to the internal
organization of grammar .
Here are some important points to be noted to make things clear :
1- My analysis of the BE+ING
constructions (with –ING as an INVARIANT formal operator) shows the pernicious
character of the commonly used label S V O (Subject- Verb-Object) :
SVO is a product of what I called the linear fallacy, since it cannot capture
the difference between the minimal pair (1-2) and the difference between
ternary and binary predication . The same criticism applies to Chomsky’s type
of derivation at the beginning of the
sixties : how could one signal the different status of TOMORROW in (1) and
(2) on a syntactic tree ?
purely formal character of the invariant tracer –ING must be strongly
stressed : -ING belongs to
what I consider to be the inner
metalanguage of languages. Its contribution to meaning is
indirect (but remember I started my research with the aim of finding a
basic MEANING of the BE+ING form : I was a fortunate victim of
serendipity!). The theory of the two phases enabled me to have a fresh look at
the so-called simple forms of the verb and in particular the « simple
present » (the PHASE 1 PRESENT). Here are some examples contrasting minus
and plus BE+ING utterances :
(10) - Is anything the matter ?
I am asking you if there is anything the matter.
Anaphora is a frequent trigger (far from
automatic !) of the BE+ING construction. Sometimes the grammatical mine
needs no digging whatever : this is the case in utterances of the
following type :
you fly the Concord you are flying in the fastest plane in the world.
(12)a) I protest ,
Mr.Chairman, this is unfair.
(b) Railwaymen are on strike. They are protesting against the new regulations.
(13)a) (A religious procession with the statue of a saint). Suddenly,
somebody shouted : « She weeps !
She weeps ! »
b) He raised his eyes and looked at me. He was weeping.
backgrounded character of BE+ING utterances highlights the fact that simple present forms lack the
particular filtering of the utterer, which
explains the agentive role of the grammatical subject in the rhematic
phase. I remember the embarrassment of many teachers of English when confronted
with a simple present which had nothing to do with the habitual meaning proposed by their grammars :
And now the Queen walks to the
throne ( an utterance heard during the
Coronation of Elizabeth II, 1953 , which provoked a row among teachers of English in France , for it
did not match with their conception of
the “simple present”!)
Even the simplest utterances of English cannot be accounted for by the
current grammars of English , sentences such as the following , for
(14’) Here comes the bus
(14’’) Belmondo cuts his birthday
cake (legend of a photo representing the scene).
Let me add that this particular weakness of practically all the grammars
of English available in 2000, has dramatic consequences on the didactics of
English. Even the latest manuals for first-year learners of English still stick
to the traditional but false opposition “habitual versus real present”(simple
present vs. continuous present).
3- I cannot enlarge on the total inadequacy of the traditional pseudo-explanations
of the progressive (continuous) form, but let me give one example of the
counterfactual character of the « imperfective » theory (imported
into English from Russian grammar) :
(13) We saw Mrs. Lucas on the way. She was carrying big bags of shopping. My mother waved but Mrs.Lucas couldn’t wave back . (Adrian Mole’s Diary)
« preposterous » character of the
« unfinished activity » explanation needn’t be underlined.What
the author (Townsend SUE) meant was the predicament which prevented Mrs.Lucas
from waving back !
-4 – Utterances of the IS BEING type present no difficulty in the
analysis I am proposing. The open/ closed paradigm theory accounts nicely for
pairs like the following :
(15) a) Where does he come from ? – He is French.
b) He isn’t being nasty. He is just being
French. (The Time Magazine about
the former French Foreign Minister, M. Jobert).
The status of the adjective FRENCH is quite different in a) and b): in
a) it is being used rhematically (open paradigm of possibilities) whereas in
b) FRENCH is being used thematically (no
5- The verb WEAR offers an excellent exemple of the importance of
the utterance orientation : towards the object (PHASE 1) or towards the
subject (PHASE 2) :
(16) He wore a carnation at
night. He always did.
(16’) She had been at church and was wearing a hat .
(16’’)- How are you to recognize Mr. Montgomery ?
- He will be wearing
a white makintosh and a black hat (J.H.Chase).
6- BE+ING utterances containing such adverbs as : always, perpetually, ceaselessly etc. have always
baffled traditional grammarians .
Even Martin Joos had to admit that « She is always grumbling »
was « a teaser » if you considered « limited duration » to
be the key to BE+ING constructions.That kind of utterances present no problem whatever in my type of treatment.
In the following examples we find the typical binary relation underlying all
BE+ING utterances . As to the modal adverb its scope is the linking verb
(17) – Mrs.Smith has seen a ghost again.
Oh, she is always seeing ghosts !
is perpetually quarrelling with his wife !
girl is always knowing something she isn’t
supposed to ! (an utterance which embarrassed the Belgian
researcher E. Buyssens in his thesis : “Les deux aspectifs de la conjugaison
grammarians attributed the BE+ING form
to « irritation »- another example of what I an calling “direct
assignment of meaning”. Well the irritation is certainly there but it is the
result of the modal adverb multiplying ad nauseam the grammatical link BE
(ALWAYS can be a frequency adverb (I always smoke a cigar after a good dinner)
or a modal adverb as in the utterances above ! This is a good
example of the power of an authentic grammatical
explanation : a successful grammar
is a grammar that not only proposes
coherent explanations of the raw data but one which succeeds in explaining
satisfactorily the occurrences left
unexplained by anterior grammars.
Another interesting case in point is the behaviour of the verb
Mary resembles her mother.
is resembling her mother more and
is resembling her mother.
Both Martin Joos (1964) and Ronald Langacker (1987) have tried to account for examples (20) : the first estimated that BE+ING made the resemblance « more emphatic » ; as for Langacker , he takes up the same tautological explanation in his « Cognitive Grammar » (Vol.1, p.256) :
J.P.is resembling his father more and more every day.
in (9a) is inchoative and describes an increase of similarity, in contrast to
the constant degree of similarity imputed by (6a) : JP. resembles his
analysis, (20a) is a three - part utterance with a rhematic complementation
(MOTHER is an open choice) whereas in 20 b) MOTHER is a closed choice (just as
in I am leaving tomorrow, TOMORROW
was a closed choice). The scope of the quantifier MORE AND MORE demands a
binary relation where MOTHER is thematic.
Now I intend to examine the problem of the English DO, which played an important part in the genesis
of the Double Keyboard Theory and in the construction of my metaoperational
always considered to be « a complication of the grammar of English »
. This intruder, which baffled native speakers and foreign learners alike, was exorcised by words which betrayed the
embarrassment of descriptive grammarians (of course you could always cover up
the problem with a historical veil !) : expletive or dummy.
« Esquisse d’une Théorie de DO » (Neuchatel 1974) I claimed that DO, like –ING, was the trace of a processing operation, a
metaoperator whose role was purely formal and whose presence in the emphatic, negative and interrogative
forms revealed its raison d’être. DO was
the trace on the surface of the predication operation , an operation which in
most languages was a covert one. Hence the importance of that abstract witness
of the processing activity of the
utterer , probably the only witness of its kind in the languages of the world
(the German TUN is used metalinguistically …but only in dialect: “Ich tue deine
Hilfe brauchen”). With DO we are dealing
with another example of the natural
metalanguage which is at work in
language. If –ING is a formal invariant signalling thematicity
in the verbal group, DO is doing the same job at the level of the predication
link. I am going to limit myself to an example of the so called emphatic
(21) He ‘did open the safe !
emphatic stress bears on the tracer of the predication, that is DID . Contrary
to traditional views , the emphatic element is not DID but the strong stress on
DID ! In the negative form:
(22) He did not open the safe.
negator quite logically bears on the link of the predication. Let us precise
that the distance between the positive utterance : He opened the safe and its negative counterpart is far more
important than is currently believed. In
the positive utterance the link of the predication is the verb OPEN whereas in
the negative one it is DO (notice that they both carry the –ED mark of the preterite).
1974 paper I reproached Chomsky with his ad hoc treatment of DO : in fact
I do not think that the generative model was in a position to account for the
emergence of DO (the only merit of Chomsky at the time was his global treatment of his DO-insertion
rule !). Emonds’s DO-deletion rule brought nothing new except that it
underlined the ad hoc procedures of generative grammar. The latest study of
DO is due to W.Hirtle . You will find it
in the Jubilee hundredth issue of LINGUA (1997). The 38 - page paper, entitled
« Do Auxiliary- A meaningful Support and Operator » is very
disappointing : his treatment of DO as « a stretch of duration »
does not hold water. I forgot to say that there is nothing new either in
Chomsky’s Minimalist Program.
DO has to
be studied contrastively . The careful
observation of the uses of BIEN in French or I in Polish in Russian is illuminating. A contrastive analysis
brings to light the fact that languages do not all present the same facility of
access to the natural metalanguage : the
me- talinguitic readability of languages
offers a wide field of investigation for the future. Meanwhile the
English DO , with his extraordinary spectre of uses can be regarded as a sort
of grand slam of linguistic analysis.
With –ING and DO the grammar of
English offers two examples of
thematicity : -ING concerns the predicate and DO signals the thematicity
of the predicational node . Anyway, in
both cases we are dealing with
presupposed entities. From this point on the Double Keyboard falls into
place : successively it appears
that the V1 to V2 / V1 V-ING opposition and
grammatical pairs such as a / the, this / that, till / until, nearly
/almost etc function according to the two-phase microsystem. Little by
little an extraordinary symmetry emerges that replaces the « diabolical
pairs » of English grammar and the
laundry-lists of descriptive grammar. The best I can do now is to comment on
authentic utterances - diagnostic
examples - which have been chosen for their quality as tokens of the cryptic system that makes English understandable and
of some of the diagnostic examples proposed in ‘CLEFS POUR BABEL » (EMA
editions, 2000) (pp.74-79)
I have always been contrastive-minded
in my linguistic research. In my thesis on BE+ING I systematically referred to
French , Polish, Russian or German when
discussing the problem of BE+ING. In particular,the French distinction Passé
Simple / Imparfait and the aspectual pair Perfective / Imperfective could not be eluded in my quest for an invariant for BE+ING. It
so happened that my thesis opened up new vistas on the above mentioned
questions. I found that the Passé
Simple/Imparfait opposition was based on
the same microsystem as the English opposition minus/plus BE+ING . In other
words the Passé simple was the rhematic Phase 1 and the Imparfait the thematic
Phase 2 : the two past tenses of
French grammar corresponded to the OPEN/CLOSED paradigm we have seen in the
functioning of English grammar. Let us examine the following examples to make
things clearer :
a)Christophe Colomb découvrit l’Amérique alors qu’il cherchait la route des Indes.
b) ( Inscription found in the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris) Météorite tombée en 1492. Cette année-là Christophe Colomb découvrait l’Amérique.
The -IT / -AIT opposition reminds us of the minus/plus
BE+ING one : in both cases we have to deal with a ternary predication in the Passé Simple utterance (Christophe
Colomb/ découvrir/l’Amérique) and with a
binary relation in the Imparfait : Christophe Colomb /
Here is another example which is self-explanatory :
c) Napoléon Bonaparte naquit à Ajaccio le 15 août 1769.
d) Six mois plus tôt il naissait Italien.
Let me add to make myself understood
by everybody that PISAć gives PISZę in the present (I write or I am writing) and
PISAŁEM (fem.PISAŁAM) which corresponds to the English I WAS WRITING
(the French Imparfait : j’écrivais).
On the other hand NAPISZę is
I will write and NAPISAŁEM translates the English preterite I WROTE
or the French Passé Simple j’écrivis.
Current grammars of Polish and Russian continue to present the Perfective
/Imperfective opposition in spite of recent research in the field and in spite of innumerable counter-examples (the
same situation prevails in grammar-books of English as far as the BE+ING form
What I have been claiming for years
is that the Perfective/Imperfective opposition is in fact a manifestation of
the two-phase microsystem. You can find a complete demonstration either in my
« Clefs pour Babel » or in my 1995 paper. For want of space I shall propose
only one Polish example to show what is
at stake :
1- Wczoraj spotkałem Zosię na dworcu.(Yesterday I met Sophie at the station/ Hier je rencontrai S. à la gare).
2- Co niedzielę spotykałem Zosię na dworcu( .On Sundays I used to (would)
meet Sophie at the station/ Tous les dimanches je rencontrais S. à la gare.)
The opposition SPOTKAŁEM / SPOTYKAŁEM appears more neatly in French : je rencontrai
vs. je rencontraiS. The analysis of
example b) is parallel to that of French where TOUS LES DIMANCHES bears on the
predication link –AIT, multiplying the relation by as many Sundays as you can
count. The role of the English modal WOULD is also quite clear.
Ample explanations on all the
above points can also be found in my « Le Français Déchiffré, Clé du
Langage et des Langues » (Armand Colin 1991) which opens with the
microsystems VOICI/VOILA and A / DE .
2- THE PRINCIPLE OF CYCLICITY :
The Double Keyboard Theory shows us
that there is a covert symmetry between categories of grammar that have nothing
in common at first sight. The common denominator of the this/that microsystem and the nearly/almost
microsystem is to be looked for in the abstract two-phase system that regulates
the emergence of BE+ING or DO. This cryptic basis functions on a very simple
opposition : OPEN paradigm versus CLOSED paradigm. I have only exposed the Double Keyboard of
English but I could have demonstrated
that the same dichotomy explains the functioning of French (see « Clefs pour Babel » where
full details are given) and of other languages (German, Portuguese, Polish).
What all these analyses reveal is that the grammatical distinctions we find in
our monumental grammars reduce to the ITERATIVE APPLICATION OF THAT BASIC
DICHOTOMY (hence THE PRINCIPLE OF CYCLICITY). However surprising such a fact
may appear it is a demonstrable fact. Here is a diagram showing the mechanism I
am proposing :
This / that
a / the to/-ING
OPEN / CLOSED till / until
nearly / almost O,
-s, -ed/ do,does, did
first time I have used the label PRINCIPLE OF CYCLICITY was in my book about
the acquisition of the mother-tongue by
children : « Caroline Grammairienne en Herbe ou Comment les Enfants
inventent leur Langue Maternelle » (Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle 1995).
In my opinion the key to L1 acquisition is
in the organization of language itself : languages are built in
such a way that children cannot fail to discover their secret. The intelligence
of the child meets the intelligence of the system . The Principle of Cyclicity
ensures that the whole of language does not have to be learnt since any of the
major grammatical problems can trigger all the others. In spite of my genuine
admiration for Noam Chomsky whose trajectory I have been following since 1957,
I do not agree with the inneist theory
and I consider Plato’s Problem a fallacy.
The Principle of Cyclicity is also of paramount importance for the
construction of pedagogical grammars . Learners of L2 will now find an
organised presentation of the grammatical structure of the foreign language
instead of the unprincipled
juxtaposition of grammatical items, based on a purely observational basis . The
new approach will permit a programmed grammatical teaching which was absolutely unthinkable in the
descriptive model, with its artefacts and blind alleys. I shocked an assembly
of teachers of English one day with a lecture entitled : « Is English
learnable ? ». Well, English as a Foreign Language was not only UNlearnable, but also UNteachable. On
the level of linguistic research, things were not very much better : the
descriptive approach proved sterile in
many doctoral dissertations . I have in mind a thesis on BE+ING published in
the seventies whose conclusion claimed to be a confirmation of the” limited
duration “theory and another very interesting study of the pair nearly and almost, with hundreds of
excellent examples but which unfortunately went completely astray for lack
of linguistic insight .
THE METAOPERATIONAL GRAMMAR OF ENGLISH :
The main credo of metalinguistic grammar is expressed in the conviction that
the linear utterance is not the message.
is the linguistic credo of metaoperational theory (« Clefs pour Babel » pp. 49-50 )
The linear utterance is the final product of
simultaneous/successive cipherings :
1- The phonological ciphering :
phonemes with which the speaker builds up the signifiers
(« signifiants ») belong to a
closed system of oppositive units. In Saussure’s signs , signified and
signifier are closely linked. Apart from the phonemic system stricto sensu
there are rules of prosody which apply to the linear string (rhythm and
intonation). Phonology seems to me to be the best introduction to
linguistics : the systematic patterning of the phonemes as combinations of
a handful of minimal distinctive features is a good stepping-stone to the
systematicity of grammar.
2- The lexical ciphering :
utterer has inherited a lexical stock which is by no means a series of labels
attributed to the objects of the extralinguistic world. Nothing will be said
here about the possibility of a « mentalese » underlying and preceding
the structuring of the utterances (see S.Pinker’s point of view in his
well-known book : « The Language Instinct »).
3- The syntactic ciphering :
The processing of the utterance
consists in a series of deep abstract ordered operations.
On the grammatical level the utterer
does not operate with ready-made chunks but can play with the potentialities of
his grammar. In doing so he takes into account the situation of enunciation,
the verbal context and the nature of the intended message.
morphology of the lexical elements (grammatical gender and number of nouns,
verbal endings etc.) and the order of their appearance in the final linear
chain, as well as the tracers of the structuring operations (free or bound
morphemes such as a/the, this/that,
to/-ING, do, un(e)/le, la, à/de, bien ...) are the surface tokens of the
ciphering operations executed by the utterer/architect. The result of this
complex processing (Humboldt’s ergon)
represents an algebra which mirrors in a revealing way the encoding of the
utterance, and not the extralinguistic world, hence the impossibility of a
direct assignment of the meaning.
Therefore one can understand easily the totally artefactual character of an
analysis which tries to assign meaning to the successive elements of the linear
string. However this is exactly what has always been done and what is still
being done in descriptive grammar. This atomistic approach has produced
catastrophic results both in the conception of grammar treatises and … in the
brains of the learners ! How can one account for the use of a BE+ING
construction by focussing on the verb alone ? What image can one give of
the deep function of the French Imparfait if one does not see what sort of
predication is being signalled by the –AIT metaoperator ?
Languages offer varying degrees of readability (lisibilité) in their
surface utterances. For example we have seen that the English DO reveals a
major metalinguistic operation of predication. In German, the order of elements
in subordinate clauses, far from being a national freak, conveys precious
information on the organisation of the sentence as a whole. In French the à/de microsystem can almost be
deciphered at surface level. What must be kept in mind is the fact that a
particular grammatical point can be a cryptotype (cf. B.L. Whorf) in one
language and almost a transparent marker in another. This explains why it is
impossible to describe a language in isolation : autarcic grammars belong to an outdated practice. Contrastivity
is thus an absolute necessity in linguistic analysis.
In my first grammar of English published in 1982 : « Grammaire
Linguistique de l’Anglais » I tried to apply the principles enumerated above.
It was the first grammar built on an original linguistic theory and it differed
totally from the grammar-books in circulation at the time.First there was a
preface where I presented my approach to grammar and where I defined a certain
number of prerequisites . So far grammar-book authors did not bother to explain
their conception of grammar to their readers . Second, each chapter began with
an introduction explaining not only the
contents of its pages but the precise aim of that chapter in the construction
of the totality of the grammar. For exemple, the introduction of the first
chapter (entitled : « La Relation Prédicative : Sujet- TO –
Prédicat et les Opérateurs O, TO , -ING ») warned the reader that he would
be dealing with a grammar where the sequencing of the chapters was neither due
to chance nor to a whim of the author :
« Le premier chapitre d’une grammaire ne peut en aucun cas devoir sa qualité de premier au seul fait qu’il serait placé avant le deuxième. Il doit être premier au sens fort, c’est à dire qu’il doit conditionner la suite, constituer la base sur laquelle on va construire les autres chapitres ». (p.9)
« The first chapter of a
grammar should in no case owe its first place to the fact that it is situated before the second. It must be first in a
strong sense, that is to say that it must condition what comes next, constitute
the basis upon which the other chapters will be built ».
What does all this mean ? It means that to deserve the label GRAMMAR the presentation of the functioning of a language must be a coherent whole , not a hodge-podge of unrelated problems. Metaoperational grammar was founded on the DoubleKeyboard theory and so was in a position to present an organised, programmed grammar. For the first time in the history of grammar the choice of the starting-point of the grammatical enterprise was crucial . Why did I decide to begin my book with the TO/-ING opposition in the first place ? My aim was to kill two birds with one stone : first give my reader an idea of the rhematic/thematic microsystem in the functioning of V1V2 constructions (V1 TO V2 vs V1V2-ING) –and this was a completely new approach to English grammar- and then pave the way to chapter two where the concept of presupposition would be essential to undertand the grammar of the BE+ING constructions.The Double Keyboard Theory was going to accompany the reader throughout the whole grammar : the modals, DO, a/the, this/that, who, which/that etc.
have adopted a different strategy and start with the metaoperator DO :
this was also an excellent opportunity of acquainting my readers with the
notion of tracer of an operation and
simultaneously prepare them for more metaoperators of the natural metalanguage
of English. Another opening had tempted me for some time : why not place
the chapter on the Modals first ? This would have enabled me to show the
mirage of linearity and the geometry of the grammatical elements tradition
had misnamed “defectives » !
Be it as it may, when you are introducing novelty into a field of knowledge,
you cannot succeed if you do not help
your readers to forge the tools of
analysis that will be necessary
to analyse the raw data of language. I
understood that simple truth still better when composing my second
grammar-book, ten years after the first : « Les Clés de la Grammaire
Anglaise » (The Keys to English Grammar). This time, I placed a list of
twelve Preliminaries in a separate introductory chapter that the student was
expected to read BEFORE tackling the grammar itself.
Grammar is not a bed of roses. My
generation has witnessed the birth and the decline of many attempts at
capturing language . The
short-lived epistemological reign of so many successive approaches has
provoked prudence and suspicion in the
ranks of researchers and teachers. This state of things explains the success
of eclecticism : let’s pick and
choose the best achievements of the different theories which are to be found on
the market. Alas ! An eclectic approach to the grammar means the death of
grammar since eclecticism is the negation of coherence and systematicity,
the negation of what makes language language.
To conclude this rapid explicitation
of metaoperational grammar I would like to insist on the importance of L1 in
pedagogical grammars of English. I have already remarked the impossibility of
autarcic grammars : no language is able to explain its working by his own means. Pedagogical grammars of English should be
based on the grammar of the L1 for the simple reason that the grammar of L1 is
the best port-hole (hublot) through
which the learners can apprehend language.We all know how important
language-awareness is in the learning of languages. And we also know how
difficult it is to convince the speakers
of a language that being able to speak a language does not make you an authority to speak ABOUT it. Here are the opinions on
that painful subject of two famous linguists :
Lee WHORF : « The truth that those who easily and fluently use the
intricate systems of language are utterly blind and deaf to the very existence
of those systems, until the latter have been, not without difficulty, pointed
out ».(« Language , Thought and Reality », MIT 1956,p.256.
Gustave GUILLAUME : “La langue est pleine d’opérations mystérieuses(…) L’étude de la langue nous met en présence de choses auxquelles un esprit même cultivé peut n’avoir pas songé, et qui s’écartent complètement des voies suivies par la pensée courante ».(« Leçons de Linguistique, 1945-46 A , N° 7, 1987).
language if full of mysterious operations(…). The study of a language confronts
us with things that even a learned mind may not have dreamt of and which are
completely foreign to current thinking).
I have said nothing on a very important subject : the quest of Universal Grammar . Noam Chomsky and his followers have lately devoted quite a lot of space on this theme, especially in the latest developments of generative theory. U G plays an important role in the problem of the acquisition of L1 by children. However interesting all those developments may be, I for myself have not been convinced by the arguments and the linguistic examples put forward to defend the inneist stand.
I claim that my Principle of
Cyclicity with its underlying Double Keyboard Theory is a step towards a different conception of
Universal Grammar. My translingual
invariants , which have emerged in my research on the comparison of languages, tend to show
that similar operations of utterance processing can give quite different
surface traces : the English DO, the French BIEN , the Polish and Russian
I or the Turkish –DIR do have something
in common, however diverse their particular spectres may be. The same is true
for the ENGLISH BE+ING, the French Imparfait or the so-called Imperfective
Aspect in the Slavonic languages.
My last word will be about the
teaching of English as a Foreign Language. The current presentations of English
grammar make English unlearnable . Everybody agrees that the teaching of
English, at least in France, is a failure, to say the least (some even speak of
“disaster”) . However, any novelty in the grammatical approach of the language
of Shakespeare is considered as an outrage (by publishers, teachers and
students !).So the old drudgery continues in spite of the dozens of theses
and hundreds of papers offering new
viewpoints to remedy the present
situation. Only the end of the resistance of the old paradigm will signify the end of the blindman’ s buff.
Meanwhile linguists will continue to be spurred on by “the wanting to see the
wheels go round”.
Professeur Emérite à l’Institut du
Université de la SORBONNE NOUVELLE
ADAMCZEWSKI, Henri :
- "BE+ING dans la Grammaire de l'Anglais Contemporain", 720 pages, thèse d'état 1976, Champion Paris 1978.
- "Grammaire Linguistique de l'Anglais", Armand Colin 1982.
- " Les Clés de la Grammaire Anglaise", Armand Colin 1991.
- "Le Français Déchiffré, Clé du Langage et des Langues", Armand Colin 1991.
- "Caroline Grammairienne ou Comment les Enfants inventent leur Langue Maternelle", Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1995.
- "Clefs pour Babel ou la Passion des Langues" , Ema, 60340 St Leu d'Esserent, 1999-2000.
- "La Problématique de l'Aspect en Français et en Polonais. Une Nouvelle Approche: la Théorie des Phases" in Zofia Cygal-Krupa Ed. "Les Contacts Linguistiques franco-polonais", Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1995.
CHOMSKY, Noam :
"Knowledge of Language, its Nature, Origin and Use" , Praeger,
New York, 1986.
JOOS, Martin :
Review of A.Ota's "Tense and Aspect in Present-Day American-English
". LANGUAGE VOL.40 N°3,
HIRTLE, William :
"DO Auxiliary. A Meaningful Support and Operator". LINGUA N° 100, 1998.
LANGACKER, Ronald :
"Foundations of Cognitive Grammar", Vol.1,Stanford University
PINKER, Steven :
"The Language Instinct", Penguin 1994.
WILMET, Marc :
"Grammaire Critique du Français", Duculot 1998.