Monday, November 21, 2011

The Power of the Word: Grammar

     This is the first of seven essays that will lightly touch on the seven liberal arts: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.
     Perhaps quite appropriately, "Grammar" is a loaded term, one with a variety of uses and meanings.  To the linguist it is the study of the rules of the composition of clauses, phrases, and words.  To the layman it simply means to "speak good."  It is the banner that rallies anal-retentive nitpickers that delight in flagellating those who confuse "your" and "you're", while at the same time allowing clauses to dangle, and committing other linguistic crimes.  But for the Medieval scholar, grammar was the beginning of thought.
     Grammar is the first of the trivium; the three core liberal arts, which deal with language.  Grammar is the science of the word: Per me quivis discit, vox, littera, syllaba quid est - "By me may anyone learn what is the voice, letter, and syllable.  The word, composed of the letters and syllables, and given life and power by the voice, was the beginning of existence, and the foundation upon which was built thought and action.
     A succinct example of this concept is found in The Gospel of John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."  The active principle of God begins with the Word, and the Word goes out to fill the void and organize and create the universe.  Likewise, the Genesis myth begins with the word of God as the power to create.
     The ancients recognized what we too often forget:  That words have a power of their own, and that they must be handled with care and wisdom.  In fact, it is not much of a stretch to say that without words we could not exist as human beings.  Thought does not become rational until it is clothed with words, nor can it be expressed with any degree of exactness without words.  Philosophers have dreamed of a purely ideographic language, in which each symbol represents one entire idea, and that idea alone.  But that is a fantasy.  Words do not exist in isolation:  Every word comes wrapped in connotations and denotations, context and the emotional baggage of the listener, and therein lies the beauty thereof.  When we take care with our words, choosing them precisely, honing and polishing them, arranging them just so for maximum effect, speech becomes art.  We paint mental pictures and move men to contemplate, invent, and act. 
     It is not enough to be sloppy and lazy with our words, trotting out the hackneyed excuse "Well, you know what I mean."  Clarity of communication is dependent in great measure on our word choice and usage.  Something as small as a comma, if misplaced, can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.  How you speak determines how others perceive you.  If you fail to take care with your words, listeners will judge you as less intelligent, uncouth, and uneducated; they will be more likely to ignore what you have to say, and they will be justified in doing so.  However, a small amount of care in the arrangement of your words can raise even base ideas to a level where they will be thoughtfully considered by your listeners.  Think of the story of Eliza Doolittle.
     Grammar is not snobbery.  It is not elitist.  It is, however, elite.  And should we not aspire to being elite?  Should we not place ourselves on pedestals where we may influence our brothers for good, where they may see us as an example of refinement and values?  Truth and Beauty depend on Grammar if they are to be shown to the world and work for the betterment of the individual and the collective.  So we must be willing to analyze our own strengths and weaknesses in this field, study great writers and orators, and open our own mouths.  Build a strong foundation of beautiful words, and rational persuasive thought will be its natural offspring.

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