02 May, 2006

Grammar and magic

A major figure in the history of grammar is Priscianus Caesariensis, or Priscian, who wrote a Latin grammar for the bilingual Greek audience at Constantinople, c. 500 AD; his was the first work of its kind to discuss syntax, the ordering of vocabula in a sententia. To break Priscian's head, therefore, translating diminuere Prisciani caput, is to violate the rules of grammar, to commit a solecism.

In the Middle Ages we see a profusion of linguistic scorn for grammar with all its niggling, un-Christian rules; hence the grammaticaster or petty grammarian, the glomerel or poor grammar-student (coined for Henri d'Andeli's juicy burlesque epic of 1250, Le Bataille des Sept Ars), the artigrapher or composer of Artes grammaticus, and so on. But while some saw the grammarian as a peddler of dusty precepts (Macrobius had awarded him pedibus illotis or unwashed feet), others saw him as a necromancer—thus the popular mind makes the leap from language to the occult. Hence the most mysterious words of all, gramarye (black magic), grimoire (a textbook of black magic), and glamour (black magic or bewitchment, originally a Scotch form of grammar, under the semantic influence of gramarye). Compare the sense-development of spell (speech or discourse, magical incantation).

In this progression is illuminated the dark matter of linguistic thought. It is often noted that ancient societies viewed language, and names in particular, with fear and reverence: the use of formula in ritual, the sacredness of divine names for the Egyptian and Israelite (among many others), the verbal superstition of the kabbalah and speak of the devil, taboo deformation of words for 'left-handed', etc. I suspect this very deep-rooted feeling has never disappeared. There are common words and names which I find it difficult to utter, and not words which have any obvious connection to significant or sensitive objects. For instance, I intensely dislike using the names of British supermarkets. I don't know why. Perhaps my unconscious knows. I would be surprised if others did not have similar secrets. The popular conscience reveals the same tendencies in semi-comic taboo-replacements of political (or pseudo-political) objects, hence 'liberty cabbage' and 'freedom fries'.

In our hearts, we are all fully aware that words exercise an unpleasant sorcery.

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