Saturday, 22 November 2014

Transformational Grammar

Well, actually I know nothing about transformational grammar, except that it has something to do with Noam Chomsky, and I don't think it has anything to do with what I want to talk about, which is the transformation I have noticed in recent years in the way educated people, or at least young educated people, speak.

I work for the student society at the University of British Columbia. I don't hang out with the students, but I interact with them a fair bit. Also, my colleagues tend to be of a younger demographic, and it was one of these colleagues who first shocked me back in the late 90's when he talked about some meeting he was going to, saying: “Her and I will talk about tuition tomorrow.”

Actually, I don't remember what he said they would talk about; what I do remember is his use of “her and I.” Now, I was brought up to learn a certain sort of grammar in which subjective case was distinguished from objective case. The pronouns I, he, she, they were to be used when they were the subject of a sentence; me, him, her, them was for when these pronouns were used as objects.

Everyone still follows that distinction when there's only one subject or one object, I think. I don't think I've heard people say, “Her will talk to us about tuition tomorrow” or “Me want to go fishing.” (Well, maybe infant would-be fishermen say the latter.)

The change has happened with compound subjects and objects. I would have said, “She and I will meet about tuition” or “John and I will talk about tuition.” But now people will say “Her and I.” I confess that I hear that phrase so much that “She and I” has come to sound a tad precious to my ears, a little stuffy, like something out of a book or out of another century (which of course it is, just like me).

I think I have heard “Me and John will talk about tuition”; I hesitate I suppose because I can't believe that's what people say now, but I'm in fact pretty sure that's what university students and the others I encounter at the student society do say.

Some people would be appalled. In some moods, I'm appalled. It's the fault of the elementary schools, teaching self-esteem and creativity instead of grammar rules, they say. And maybe it is. But I'm not sure fault is the right word. The language always changes. The authors of Beowulf would have been shocked at the way we talk: you use the same word for “the” all the time? Whether it's a subject, an object, an indirect object, a plural, a masculine, or a feminine?

(Yes, Old English had masculine and feminine grammatical forms, like French. In fact, it had a neuter form too, like German, which is not that surprising, since it was German, the German dialect of those Angles and Saxons who travelled from Germany to take over Britain from King Arthur's hardy Celts. But that's another story.)

We have lost the feminine, masculine, neuter distinctions. We have lost the 16 different ways to say “the.” We have lost the distinction between subject and object for nouns; we have retained it only for pronouns (I versus me, he versus him, etc.) -- and now even that may be going.

I wonder if one day “she” will disappear, and we will only have “her.” As between “me” and “I,” that's a tougher one. Though “me” seems to be ousting “I” in “Me and John will discuss tuition,” in places where I was trained to use “me,” “I” has taken over. “That's between John and I,” people say. Or “He gave that to John and I.” There you have “I” used where traditional grammar would say you have to use the objective case (“me”).

So what do we have now (acknowledging that we may be in transition):

Traditional 20th-century grammar:
She and I will meet tomorrow.
John and I will meet tomorrow.
That's between me and John.
He gave that to me and John.

Young People's 21st-century grammar:
Her and I will meet tomorrow.
Me and John will meet tomorrow.
That's between John and I.
He gave that to John and I.

Except the last two sentences may be more common in a slightly older demographic, among people who remember being corrected for using “me” with another pronoun (“Me and John are going out to play”) and deduced that “I” is always to be used when there's another noun or pronoun.

Now I'm not sure how the younger demographic would say those last two sentences. One thing I am sure about is that pronoun cases are interchanged much more readily these days, prompting some to call for a return to the basics in the schools.

“Her and I” is not what I was taught, but I wonder if it's the way of the future, and if one day “she and I” will sound as archaic as the sixteen ways to say “the” or words like “forsooth.” The language moves in mysterious ways.