The passage I wanted to talk about (see post below) was this one:
The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language.49
49A synthetic language uses grammatical inflections to dictate syntax, whereas an analytic languages [sic, at least in my edition] uses word order. Latin, German, and Russian are synthetic; English and Chinese are analytic.
For a start, I’d just like to make clear something David Foster Wallace doesn’t entirely (though he makes some amends in the next sentence). When he says “English grammar is modeled on Latin”, he isn’t meaning the grammar itself; he’s meaning so-called grammatical rules, like not having split infinitives or not ending sentences in prepositions. (Oddly, DFW is in favour of splitting infinitives (I’d noticed this already in the book and was preparing to pick him up on it), because he feels the rule’s derived nonsensically from Latin; but he’s against ending sentences with prepositions, presumably because he doesn’t realise it has precisely the same justification).
(Also – another aside – it is the fact that English “grammar” is modeled on Latin that causes the injunction against split infinitives, rather than it having anything to do with synthesis or analysis.) [ed. This is technically incorrect. It is the fact that DFW misuses the terms synthesis and analysis that led me to make this statement].
But anyway, I started wondering to myself about this distinction between synthetic and analytic languages, and when it comes down to it, I really don’t think there’s all that much in it.
For instance, the other night I asked a German friend, since she spoke a synthetic language, whether it was true she could construct sentences in any order in German, that word order could be played about with in this manner. – Being asked a question about an aspect of Germanness, naturally she became defensive: – her reply: “Well, you can play around with word order in English too”. (You see, Germans are just like us). I was prepared to concede this, since (as an idle “writer” who spends most of his so-called time “writing” merely re-ordering English sentences) I’d thought of it before, and tried to dismiss it as a point to come back to. – Anyway, we were drinking, and perhaps that wasn’t the best subject for a conversation anyway…
So I’d thought I’d try Latin instead. – I thought for once I’d avoid poetry (which is never the best for deriving grammatical rules) and have a look at some prose. So I took up some Cicero; – but found his rhetorical flourishes perhaps a little too extreme. I needed something simple and plodding. So I turned to Caesar’s Gallic War.
Here’s the opening of Caesar’s Gallic War
a) In Latin:
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celta, nostra Galli appellantur. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt. Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit. Horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissime absunt, minimeque ad eos mercatores saepe commeant atque ea quae ad effeminandos animos pertinent important, proximique sunt Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt, quibuscum continenter bellum gerunt.
b) In English
Gaul is a whole divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, another the Aquitani, the third those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls. These all differ among themselves in language, institutions and laws. The Garonne river divides the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine divides them from the Belgae. Of all these, the strongest are the Belgae, because they are furthest removed from the civilisation and humanity of the province, and merchants mix less with them and sell them less things which encourage effeminacy; and they are next to the Germans, who live across the Rhine, and with whom they continually waging war.
I’ve marked in bold where I’ve had to change around word order in English to make sense of the Latin word order (I’ve avoided noting changes of Latin phraseology, and those based on Latin’s superior succinctness – though this is derived in part, I guess, from its syntheticness).
Now, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much of a difference there in the language’s supposed usage or not of word order as an indicator of meaning. The vast majority of the passage (and all Latin) can be rendered into English without changing the word order in the slightest.
It’s equally obvious that the words affected are always the same: – they are always the verbs, and the subjects of those verbs (and possibly the objects too – there just aren’t any examples here); – and this, of course, should be no surprise to anyone.
In fact, for someone claiming that Latin words can be in any order in a sentence, it is noticeable how many times in Latin prose (like in German, or so I recall) the verb is anchored at the end of the sentence (by which I really mean clause), with its subject somewhere close in the vicinity. – If word order doesn’t matter, then why?
The major exceptions to this are:
- The verb “to be”, which (as always) acts strangely: – in technical terms, the verb “to be” causes the subject and the object to be in apposition: – that is to say, the object is the subject; and in terms of a synthetic language, both are in the nominative case
- Verbs which are more for performance than actually part of the meaning of the sentence: – for instance, Cicero begins the speech I was looking at “Credo ego” / “I believe” – cf. this to the Spanish “yo creo que” / “I think that”, which is used much like English “Well … “, as a pause at the beginning of a sentence (listen to a Spanish footballer being asked – in Spanish, obviously – questions about the game he’s just played, and see if it’s not the first thing he comes out with).
What the difference between synthetic and analytic languages (or, at least, Latin and English) boils down to, I feel, is this: –
English tends to structure the cores of its sentences:
Subject – verb – object
Whereas Latin tends to structure them:
Object – subject – verb
[ed. This view needs more investigation!]
[The only real difference perhaps is the dropping of the accusative.]
All other parts of the sentences in both languages (in Latin, anything in other cases (though in Latin – AS IN ENGLISH – the genitive must always be next to the word it depends on / adjectives will be close by their nouns), in both all adverbs, prepositional phrases etc.) are (more or less) entirely moveable. Latin can – it’s true – create some nice effects which English can’t, particularly by a sort of adjectival wrapping – but there are (no doubt) unwritten rules limiting these too.
Perhaps, you will say: – but the difference is that Latin could structure its sentences in weird ways if it wanted to. – Yes, but the thing is, it tends not to, and I sense there’s a (grammatical) reason behind this. (My German friend’s answer to this was that, Yes, there were certain pretentious German writers etc.). Which brings me back to why I spend so much time as a “writer” fiddling about with the minutiae of sentence structure. It’s because, to me, for whatever reason, by whatever incomprehensible rule of the language, the sentence doesn’t sound right – and that this is something deep down in EVERY language, which is dependent upon word order.
(Oh yeah, there was a whole other section I was going to write – the opposite of this – about how English uses grammatical inflections absolutely everywhere – there just so familiar that you can’t see them. But I’ll save that for another time).