Grammar is the architecture of language. In everyday speech, we largely draw on our intuitive understanding of language to communicate. But when we write, we have the opportunity to be literary—that is, to consciously reflect on the structure of language, and to make specific choices to enhance the beauty, effectiveness, or clarity of our language. Grammar is a toolkit in our construction, and it gives us opportunities to build all kinds of different sentences. With our toolkit, we can write short, pithy sentences. But we can also write long, sprawling sentences that move in one direction—only to then sharply turn to another direction—all before slowly reaching a gradual end.
I’ve recently enjoyed reading Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language by novelist and translator Nicola Gardini. This passionate book explores the literary power of Latin and invites all readers—regardless of their level of familiarity with the language—to celebrate how this esteemed language helped to shape our civilization. Gardini’s book is also an exploration of how language itself works, and how grammar supports us in our efforts to communicate with each other.
In a chapter on Caesar, Gardini considers how Latin can lend itself to precision in structure. Gardini considers as his primary example Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Caesar’s account of the Roman conquest of Gaul. Gardini notes that “distance, breadth, depth, and all variety of record-keeping—of space and time alike—are distinctive traits throughout his work.” For Caesar, language is “an account of something that occurs in a particular moment, for a particular reason, in view of a particular aim, and with particular consequences.” Gardini elaborates that “his is a language under pressure: in the fewest words possible he must lay out how the structure develops, how its various parts interact, and how they correspond to form a whole.”
To see this in action, take a look at the following excerpt from Commentarii de Bello Gallico, rendered first in the original Latin, and then translated by Gardini. As a fun exercise, see if you can identify any word roots or vocabulary in the Latin before you read the translation.
Rationem pontis hanc instituit. Tigna bina sesquipedalia paulum ab imo praeacuta dimensa ad altitudinem fluminis intervallo pedum dourum inter se iungebat.
Here was his plan for the bridge. First he took pairs of one-and-a-half-foot pilings, cut to equal length—to match the depth of the river—and he tapered to a point, and trellised them together, setting a pair every two feet along the waterline.
Notice the first word in Latin, rationem, which Gardini translates as “plan.” You might observe that this word looks like “ratio” and “rational,” and indeed it is the root of those English words. Ratio is an important word: it shows up in mathematical treatises, but also in philosophical works considered with “right reason,” and even in considerations of art that recognize beauty in the “rightly ordered” (which is often seen in specific ratios, in the mathematical sense, in image composition, for example). Another word from the passage worth considering is instituit, which looks like our English words “institute” and “institution.” In Gardini’s translation of that first sentence, there is no obvious verb. Yet we can readily infer the action of instituting, both instituting the plan itself, and by extension, instituting the bridge. In addition to these two significant words, consider also dimensia (from which we derive dimensions) and altitudinem (from which we derive altitude) and intervallo (from which we derive interval). By noting the resonances of these foreign-yet-familiar words and the way they have shaped our own vocabulary, we are witnessing the beauty of a language that greatly influences our speech and writing to this day. By observing the grammatical structures of these Latin sentences, we can think more carefully about how we might structure our own sentences.
Reflecting on this passage, Gardini writes: “what renders such a passage extraordinary is not simply that it describes the engineering with exactitude and concision, but that it puts the labor of language itself on display: the process of linking one piece to another to form a solid, enduring structure.” He further writes:
Language, Caesar shows us, is a bridge, a wall, a ship: it conjoins, contains, transports. It is, in other words, syntax: a group of necessary components assembled according to a given function, which, for Caesar, in this particular case, is to inform and explain, surveying and conquering every inch of the expressible.
I think Gardini’s insights can help us approach grammar education. Instead of presenting grammar as a dry and tedious exercise in applying rules, we can help our students see it as a toolkit allowing them to build. One of my favorite language arts activities to do with kids who are learning parts of speech is to create silly sentences together on a whiteboard. I’ll say, “Okay, so we need a subject noun: who do we want this sentence to be about?” – “A horse!” – “Great! Now can you give me an adjective—a description of the horse?” – “Angry!” – “Okay, and what is the angry horse doing? What’s the verb?” And on and on it goes, with plenty of adverbs and direct objects thrown in for good measure. This activity gives students an active role in learning how to construct sentences by using parts of speech as though they were selecting and using blocks to create a tower. In the end, when we present grammar as a forum for creativity and craftsmanship, we can empower our students to revel in the unlimited possibilities of expression available to each of us.