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What is Literature, Part II: Grammar

Some reflections on what people have meant by the term grammar, from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image, page 185 ff. in my Canto edition

To give an educational curriculum a place in the Model of the universe may at first seem an absurdity; and it would be an absurdity if the medievals had felt about it as we feel about the ‘subjects’ in a syllabus today. But the syllabus was regarded as immutable…; the Liberal Arts, by long prescription, had achieved a status not unlike that of nature herself.

‘Grammar talks’, as the couplet says; or as Isidore defines her, ‘Grammar is the skill of speech’. That is, she teaches us Latin….

Grammar… sometimes extended far beyond the realm it claims today. It had done so for centuries. Quintilian suggests literatura as the proper translation of Greek grammatike, and literatura, though it does not mean ‘literature’, included a good deal more than literacy. It included all that is required for ‘making up’ a ‘set book’: syntax, etymology, prosody, and the explanation of allusions. Isidore makes even history a department of Grammar. He would have described the book I am now writing as a book of Grammar. Scholarship is perhaps our nearest equivalent.

I like all that because it is informative and helpful. I add what follows because it is amusing.

In popular usage Grammatica or Grammaria slid into the vague sense of learning in general; and since learning is usually an object both of respect and suspicion to the masses, grammar, in the form grammary comes to mean magic…. And from grammary, by a familiar sound-change, comes glamour — a word whose associations with grammar and even with magic have now been annihilated by the beauty-specialists.

One of the things that bothers me about contemporary language is the contradiction between text books and reality. If you study language in the books it tells you two things: 1. language is conventional, and 2. it is formed by the usage of the common people.

I deny both, at some level, but especially the second. It is disgusting the extent to which language is altered and manipulated by advertisers who are professionally indifferent to anything without a utilitarian defense (they would lose their jobs if they submitted to nature). Meanwhile, the human mind, human communities, and human souls deteriorate because the most powerful tool they have for development and growth is stolen from them.

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