Ádám MAKKAI

Ádám MAKKAI, Molière as Inventor of Transformational Grammar, or Was It Applied Stylistics ? > 99

 

There was a time in linguistics in the sixties and the seventies and especially in the United States, when first-generation, second-generation and third-generation students of Noam Chomsky were engaged in serious competition to prove that they had found the true origins of Transformational Generative Grammar [henceforth TGG]. Robin Lakoff, for instance, believed that she found TGG’s sources in the Port Royal Grammaire raisonnée, and Peter Salus insisted that the medieval Modistae were proto-generativists. While there may have been certain minor elements of truth in these findings, our valiant colleagues appear not to have done their homework too well. Maybe the library was too far ; maybe they forgot their high school French, or just never learned to read in the language without too much effort. Whatever the case, the fact remains that Condillac, for instance, was never mentioned despite the fact that he was the first scholar to say that « chaque langue est un calcul, et chaque calcul est une langue ». This certainly would have made a brilliant slogan for people enamored with symbolic logic. Yet the love for logic above all prevailed throughout the 43 years of TGG’s documented history, during which time practitioners of the creed never came to grips with one essential question : Do transformations really preserve meaning, or not ? If they do, to what extent ? What is gained or lost in denotation and connotation if we express the semantic content of a given sentence as another sentence, related to the original by some alteration either of word order, mode or voice, particularly the active and the passive ?

It is reasonably clear that an English sentence such as

1. « Brutus killed Caesar », and its passive counterpart

2. « Caesar was killed by Brutus »

DENOTE the same set of circumstances. Whichever way the sentence is put, the reader or listener understands that Brutus is the DOER or AGENT, (in fact he may also be called the AGGRESSOR), and Caesar is the GOAL, TARGET, or the VICTIM. It is equally clear the act is one of « killing » and not « embracing » or « kissing » ; as is the fact that the sentences make a statement rather than ask a question. Furthermore that the statements made refer to the past. In other words, an eyewitness of what transpired on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. would not perjure himself in a court of law if he were to state what he says either in the active or in the passive voice.

 

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