Each language supports an array of grammatical machinery that functions alongside its words and phrases. The purpose of this machinery is elusive: while it does indeed convey information about the speaker, the subject, the tense, etc., this information is often redundant; English, to name an example, gets along largely without it. Alternatively, though, perhaps this machinery tells us about the language’s speakers: their priorities, their culture, and their attention to detail. Languages, after all, are organic, and these structures came from somewhere.
The machinery’s purpose and origin, alas, are not my areas of expertise. I discuss grammatical organization of a series of languages.
Italian features a small, well-oiled, clean grammatical machine. It has few exceptions and errors; it’s efficient, avoids bulkiness, and rolls off the tongue with a little training and little effort. More broadly, it effectively organizes verb conjugations, tenses, and noun gender in a very “compact” way.
Each verb conjugates according to its subject. English verbs, perfunctorily, also conjugate – recall I have, you have, he has – but the conjugation only changes in the “he/she/it” case, also known as third person singular. Italian verbs, meanwhile, feature different endings for all six scenarios: first (I), second (you), and third (he/she/it) persons, as well as either singular (I, you, he/she/it) or plural (we, you, them) number. The subject, then, can be identified simply by the ending of the verb; by consequence, Italians often omit subject pronouns before verbs (“he walks” would become “walks”, with no information lost).
Italian nouns each have a gender. A door (porta) is feminine, a tree (albero) is masculine, a table (tavola) is feminine. These genders are denoted by the vowel ending the noun – as you might notice, feminine nouns end in “a” and masculine ones end in “o” (there are rare exceptions). Adjectives which describe nouns, then, must “agree” in gender: they must use the same ending as the noun does. (Red door “porta rossa”, tall tree “albero alto”, beautiful table “bella tavola”.)
Verb tenses, also, are handled very compactly. Different verb tenses such as imperfect (I was cleaning), conditional (I would clean), imperative (clean!) and future (I will clean) each operate by carrying their own set of six conjugational endings. These “modified endings” convey the typical conjugation (person, number) while also, because of their modification, conveying tense. These tensed endings are typically achieved by applying a systematic modification (such as an extra syllable or an accent) to the usual six endings. Other tenses such as past (I have cleaned, I cleaned) are achieved using an auxiliary verb (e.g. to have), which is also conjugated.
Italian, then, efficiently conveys subject, tense, and noun gender through systematic use of sets of verb and noun endings.
Russian is a vast, bulky machine, with many, many small moving parts which seem (in my stage of learning, at least) to be quite difficult to keep track of. The language, in any case, conveys a wealth of information through its grammatical machinery, including, in addition to the basic conjugation and gender, noun cases, verb prefixes indicating circumstance, and, in general, a much finer degree of subdivision.
Russian, like Italian, features six conjugational endings for each verb, with modified ending packages to convey tenses. It also features noun gender, including the typical masculine and feminine, as well as a third neuter. Russian, however, very quickly ramps up the complexity.
Russian also features six noun cases, which, through noun endings, convey the relation of that noun to the rest of the sentence. The six noun cases loosely partition the various functions a noun may serve in a sentence. Nominative is used on the subject of a sentence: in “I walk the dog”, I is in nominative. Genitive is (mainly) used to describe ownership or possession: in “the family’s car is green” (think “the car of the family is green”), car is in nominative and family is in genitive. Accusative refers to a sentence’s direct object: in “I love you”, I is in nominative and you is in accusative. Dative is used with indirect objects: in “I give the gift to her”, gift is in accusative (direct object), while her is in dative (indirect object). Instrumental is used, most commonly, with prepositions like with and using: in “I went to the movies with my brother”, my brother is in the instrumental case. Finally, prepositional is usually used in prepositional relations: in “I am in Moscow”, Moscow is in the prepositional case. Because of cases, many prepositions (of, to, with, etc.) may be omitted in Russian.
I remind the reader that the ending of a noun must convey both its gender and its case. You might imagine that with three genders and six cases, we’ve already accrued a large possible array of noun endings. Furthermore, an adjective modifying a noun must agree with that noun in both gender and case. Finally, and staggeringly, the set of adjective endings is different from the corresponding set of noun endings, even amongst pairs which agree! This makes proper case use an imposing challenge. I also note that pronouns (I, you, her), possessive pronouns (my, his, their) and even indefinite pronouns (who, what) each, themselves, have a full set of cased versions.
Russian also features finer subdivision than that seen in English. The English verb “to study” might be translated into three Russian verbs: учиться (uchit’sya), to study at a university, as in “I study at UNC”; изучать (izuchat’), to study a subject, as in “I study math”; and заниматься (zanimat’sya), to do schoolwork, as in “I study in the library”. The English word “to go” has a ridiculous number of possible translations, including идти (idti) to walk with destination (I walk to the store), ехать (yekhat’) to drive with destination, ходить (khodit’) to walk without destination (I walk in the park), ездить (yezdit’) to drive without destination, and so on. Finally, each of these verbs of motion can be changed to their “coming” equivalents by adding the prefix при (pri), or to “departure” equivalents by adding the prefix по (po) or у (u). Prefixes exist for “coming near to something”, “motion from the inside to the outside of something”, “motion around something”, and even “motion to the inner part of something for a short while, or movement round the corner of an object or building”. (3)
Russian, at my stage of learning, seems quite a daunting challenge, and I marvel at native speakers (and the human brain which effortlessly facilitated their abilities). The Russian grammatical machinery, like a vastly complex work of engineering, runs through every strain of the language, organizing it into fluid perfection.
Chinese (Mandarin) (4)
Chinese is a language composed of characters, “building blocks” of language which associate a symbol, a one-syllable pronunciation, and a meaning into one package. There is no alphabet or words in the traditional sense, only collections of characters. Many characters mean a full, well-defined word, such as 狗, gǒu, dog. Some characters mean “part of a word” or a more abstract idea: 么 (me) on its own, is translated by Google to the vague “suffix of interrogative and relational pronouns”; much more commonly, however, it’s paired with 什 (shén) (which, coincidentally, also doesn’t have much meaning on its own) to form 什么 (shén me), the ubiquitous question word what. Other characters, finally (see below), mean nothing like a word in the English sense.
While this is a purely phonetic observation, it has strong grammatical consequences. Namely, Chinese cannot feature noun and verb endings like other languages. There’s no way to add an ending to a character. Characters are “fixed”, so to speak, and without letters in the phonetic sense, they may not be modified within sentences. Chinese, then, achieves its desired grammatical constructions by using an interesting array of auxiliary words, or “particles”, which, lacking any feasible translation into English, serve to effect grammatical constructions.
The particle 吗 (mǎ) is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a question; the particle 吧 (ba) is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a suggestion (think “let’s go”). The word 的 (de), when following a pronoun, indicates possession: 我的狗 (wǒ de gǒu) means roughly I + 的 + dog, or “my dog”. The particle 得 (de), pronounced the same way, follows a verb and precedes an adverb of degree or potential, which then applies to the verb. The complexity continues to rise.
In English, we might say “a pound of bananas” or “a bag of rice” or “a case of books”. The English words used here – pound, bag, case – are generalized to the Chinese phenomenon of “measure words”. Any description of quantity in Chinese must use a measure word: the phrases “three people”, “two fish”, and “five minutes” all use different measure words (which, in these cases, are absent in English). Measure words tend each to apply to a systematic category of nouns.
Why do different languages feature different grammars? Do they develop by pure chance, or do they say something about the people behind the language? Why do languages use grammar at all, when it seems only to increase complexity? If languages don’t tend automatically to simplicity, which factors and characteristics do shape a language’s evolution? These are questions for which, unfortunately, I don’t have ready answers. (Comments appreciated!) I do know, for one, that vowels often feature maximally distinct spectra, a sign of lingual evolution. Is grammar too shaped by evolutionary factors?