Re: "Grammatical" Categories

From: Carlton Winbery (
Date: Sun Sep 19 1999 - 23:31:24 EDT

Kevin Smith wrote;

> Dear friends, I have followed Carl Conrad's (in particular, though
>not only) comments about so-called grammatical categories and
>categorising with keen interest. Although I feel out of my depth
>commenting on the matter, I want to make one or two observations from a
>student's perspective. Firstly, Carl's caution against the
>artificiality of the complex descriptive-classificatory systems employed
>by some grammars is well received and is quite clearly correct. For
>example, one could easily apply a similar method to English and come up
>with, for instance, 20-30 categories describing how "of" is used (as is
>done with the genitive case). However, such categories would be very
>artificial since no English speaker consciously uses such categories.
>Instead his meaning is intuitively grasped by his audience. Secondly,
>in spite of the artificial nature of the categories in question, an
>awareness of the various *functions* that, say, a genitive noun or a
>participle can convey is very helpful to those of us who don't have an
>instinctive feel for Greek as we do for our own language. Awareness of
>what a given construction could mean helps one to make sense of it. If
>understood functionally, various categories can serve as valuable clues
>to guide one's thinking. As long as they are understood functionally, as
>guides to meaning, they can be helpful. Thirdly, the danger underlying
>the descriptive-classificatory approach is that Greek students (like
>myself) tend to get the impression that the categories are an inherent
>part of the Greek language rather than a functional description of how
>the language is used in different contexts. When I first read Wallace's
>Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, I literally thought Greek had 43
>different kinds of genitive and 7 different kinds of perfect tense (I
>don't know if it was Wallace's intent to create that impression; that's
>just how I interpreted him). Greek seemed to be a completely different
>and much richer language than English. The result of my erroneous
>understanding of the nature of Greek was that finding the correct label
>for a given construction became the goal of my study of the GNT. How
>foolish! Thanks Carl for your thought provoking comments that have
>opened my eyes to the artificial nature of descriptive categories. I
>shall continue to be a big fan of Wallace's grammar, but will use it more
>wisely knowing (English "causal participle", right?!) that his categories
>are not part of the language itself. Kevin Smith Doctoral student
>University of Stellenbosch South Africa

Kevin, I think that this is a very good discussion of the subject. The
categories are indeed discriptive and analytical. They are not part of the
Greeek language itself. I give a lecture at the beginning of syntax class
in which I warn students not to think that Paul ever thought about a
subjective genitive. He used the language and we try to analyze by defining
the limits of meaning that can be observed from the study of function in
the text.In my years of working teaching English as second language (Bill
mentioned our oriental son), I have longed for and even invented some
discriptive categories to help. Sometimes they work. Kevin is surely right
that you have to remember that these are our categories that we use in
trying to get into Paul's head. Are some of the categories wrong headed.
Yes. I will drop some while revising our syntax book. (Edward eliminated at
least one. And Carl also.) I agree that we have been far too creative here,
but some such classification is necessary in the process of developing a
"feel" for the Greek language that will enable us to gain the ability
"think" in the language. Language is not only a means for communication but
is a tool with which we think. Thought patterns can be classified.

Dr. Carlton L. Winbery
Foggleman Professor of Religion
Louisiana College
Ph. 1 318 448 6103 hm
Ph. 1 318 487 7241 off

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