Grammar teaching in the nineteenth century

From Anna Morpurgo Davies: The History of Linguistics: The nineteenth century (Longman 1992)

[p. 294] In the nineteenth century academic linguistics and language teaching tend to move apart. Admittedly the historical bias of the century has some influence even on textbooks but normally we are dealing with a one-way movement. Yet the so-called Reform Movement of the late nineteenth century brought together the two fields – even if at present not enough work has been done to establish the exact ways and means through which this rapprochement influenced the future developments of linguistics. The starting point is perhaps the appearance in 1882 of the pamphlet Der Sprachunterricht must umkehren! Ein Beitrag zur Ueberbuerdungsfrage …, published under the pseudonym Quousque tandem by the young German teacher Wilhelm Vie”tor (1850-1918), who had taught English in Germany and German in England before moving to University teaching first in Liverpool and then in Marburg. The reactions among teachers were important and the end result was the creation of a new movement which brought together a number of teachers and, in addition to Vie”tor, at least three other linguists, all of whom mainly worked in phonetics and, with one exception, had had experience of school teaching: Henry Sweet (1845-1912), Paul Passy (1859-1940) and, somewhat later, Otto Jespersen (1860-1943). The recurring complaints, both in Vie”tor’s pamphlets and in the remaining literature by these authors, concerned the current teaching methods with their constant confusion between speech sounds and letters, their acceptance of old linguistic features as part of the modern language (even if no one ever used them), their nonsensical grammatical definitions mostly introduced on the basis of Latin grammar even when this was irrelevant (English was treated as if it had real cases, a productive subjunctive, etc.), their rote learning of rules rather than texts, etc. The desiderata for the classroom were intensive phonetic teaching, the priority of spoken language and the use of real sentences from the beginning. In reporting about this movement in 1884, Henry Sweet reiterated most of these points, attacked the idea that dead languages should be taught before the living ones and deplored all forms of historical explanations in the teaching of languages. “The constant application of historical and comparative illustrations is often positively injurious, from the disturbing influence it has on the purity and definiteness of the groups of associations gained by the practical study. … happily the practice of throwing crumbs of philology into practical grammars, &c, seems to be falling more and more into discredit, even when the language is to be studied solely for scientific purposes.’ ([1884] 1913, 36ff.) The distinction between spoken and written language, the emphasis on phonetics, the sharp contrast between historical and non-historical study (we should say diachronic and synchronic) certainly permeate all the work the authors cited but are found elsewhere. Yet the coming together of school teachers and academic phoneticians from a number of different countries and their attempt at implementing their views in the classroom were probably more influential than a purely academic debate would have been. Sweet’s book The Practical Study of Language (1899), Passy’s De la méthode directe dans l’enseignement….

[unknown page] A possible generalization is that, while in the nineteenth century for phonology and morphology the new developments came from the scholarly work that we have been describing, in the first six or seven decades of the century for syntactical analysis the lead was taken by the school grammars. Thus the graphic representation of sentence structure in the shape of a tree (which in this century was first adopted by Tesniere and then, in a different manner, by American structuralism) goes back in the last resort to schoolbooks used to teach Latin (Coseriu 1980, Lepschy 1991), which influenced first Franz Kern (1830-94), who wrote about German syntax, and then H. Tiktin, the author of a Romanian grammar (1891-3) which included a volume dedicated to syntax. …[Coseriu 1980: Un précurseur méconnu de la syntaxe structurale: H. Tikin (In J Bingen, A Coupez and F Mawet (eds.) Recherches de Linguistique. Hommage a Maurice Leroy. (University of Brussels) 1980: 48-62]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.