Re: Learning Ancient Greek (was: Question Concerning Terminology)

Date: Mon Jan 24 2000 - 13:00:06 EST

Carl Conrad wrote (in part, in reply to Steven Miller):

> What I mean
>to suggest here is that everyone who uses English at a basic competent
>level has some inner knowledge of what types of sentences are grammatical
>and which are not, even if this person has no real academic knowledge of
>English grammar.

I don't know whether this is quite the same thing as what Chomsky once
referred to as a sense of the "deep structure" of the language or not, but
in any case, I'm not altogether sure it's true. Why, for instance, do I
either read in print or at least hear on voice media the jarring use of
nominative case forms in English after a preposition by respectable
"educated" persons whom I really would expect to "know better"--I mean
solecisms (or what would once have been called solecisms) like "for he and
I"? Of course this is intelligible, but can we call it "grammatical"?


Since Carl brought up Chomsky in relation to "grammatical," I thought
everyone might like to recall Chomsky's famous five-word sentence, which he
said was recognizable as grammatical by English-speakers, but which not
only made no sense, but no two successive words of which had ever before
appeared in an English sentence.

        Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

This delightful sentence stimulated renowned poet John Hollander to write a
lovely poem (published in _The Night Mirror_, 1971),in the form of an
American haiku (i.e., 17 words rather than syllables, lines 7-5-5 rather
than 5-7-5):

        Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
            While breathless, in stodgy viridian,
        Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Has Hollander shown that the sentence actually makes a marvelous sense? Or
has he achieved a tour-de-force in language? Whatever it be, I regard the
poem as one of his best (and he really IS good).

Edward Hobbs

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