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Grammatising Europe's Languages : the Latin Model

The greater part of Europe's languages owe their grammatical “toolkit” (grammars and dictionaries) to the Latin grammatical tradition which sometimes interferes with other traditions, such as Greek in the case of the Slavic languages. The development of a language's grammatical tools is called "grammatisation" by Sylvain Auroux, senior scientist at the CNRS, and is an important process.

Grammars and dictionaries are not simply representations of pre-existing languages, but are rather external tools which modify communication and have an influence on languages. When it became necessary to tool up Europe's vernacular languages, it seemed natural to turn to the instruments which were at hand, and so the Latin grammatical tradition came to play a central role. Constituted by essentially two works, the Ars of Donatus (a technical treatise circa 350) and the Grammatical Institutions of Priscian (ca 525), the Latin tradition equipped European languages with first of all a minimal description (letters, parts of speech, and their accidents or functional categories) and secondly the foundation for a more elaborate description (most notably a syntax).

Donatus' Ars holds the particular interest of having been split in the Middle Ages into two treatises: Ars Minor with its description of parts of speech in the form of question and answers, and Ars Major, a more complete work containing elements of phonology and a treatise on figures of speech. The first European vernacular grammars were based on Ars Minor.

When European grammarians felt the need to construct a syntax for the languages they were describing (and were often slow to describe it, after the morphological description, early constructed), they used Priscian's Grammatical Institutions, the last part of which is, precisely, a treatise on construction.

This process took place over a long period stretching from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, with a notable acceleration during the Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance that the grammatising of European languages truly took wing, quickly followed by descriptions of the exotic languages encountered during the “Age of Discovery”. The grammatisation therefore of European languages slightly preceded and certainly stimulated the same process applied to the world's languages.



à lire

Auroux, Sylvain (1994).
La révolution technologique
de la grammatisation
Liège, Mardaga.


Histoire des théories linguistiques
Université Paris VII-ENS Lettres
Sylvain Auroux
Bernard Colombat

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