le verbe / le Verbe

11:17 AM Posted by James Owens

A brief excerpt from a report on the teaching of grammar issued by France's Department of Education a couple of years ago (my translation).

A pdf of the full report (in French) is here

Can you imagine anything like this in a report from the U.S. government?


Grammar and the Power of the Intelligence

June 2005: Nine o’clock in the morning. The scene is set on an elementary school playground on a sunny day. The teacher poses little Vanessa on a carefully chosen location and asks Tiphaine to mark the spot with an “x.” Then Kader is given the task of outlining Vanessa’s shadow on the ground. The children come back at 10 o’clock, Vanessa stands in the same place again, another child draws her shadow where it falls on the ground. The same thing happens at 11, at noon, and so on until 4 o’clock. Thus, as the hours pass, a succession of silhouettes recalls the different positions of Vanessa’s shadow.

The teacher asks her students: “What do you think about what you see on the ground?”

Nearly all the students answer in chorus: “Teacher, a flower!” And they point out the petals and argue about what sort of flower it is. Some say rose, some daisy.

But this teacher is a stubborn one (as all teachers should be). She won’t let herself be carried along. She is not happy with a simple statement like this: just naming things is not enough.

“Did I ask you to draw a flower?”

“No,” answer the students, “but you see, it is a flower.”

“Think, now. We came this morning, and Vanessa stood there on the mark, and we came back and did the same thing again, and again, and again....” She insists, and she waits patiently and obstinately. She waits for the spark to flash, because this teacher is ambitious for her students. She is betting on their intelligence. After long minutes faced with courage, her stubbornness is rewarded. Vanessa, in a timid voice, ventures: “I believe that it has turned....”

Ah, that was worth the wait! Vanessa has said “I believe,” showing that it is really intelligence at work, not merely a report of her eyes’ evidence.

“It has turned” wins out over “It’s a flower.” The verb turn wins out over the noun flower. The verb, grammar’s ruling force, what gives language its true power of explanation and argument. The verb, opening the horizons of the future, and making stories of the past live again. How fortuitous that French names both these things under the same designation: the word that articulates a sentence and the linguistic tool that articulates our thought, the verbe that we conjugate, the Verbe (Logos) that imposes human reason on the world. It is this grammatical category, the verb, that manifests the best ambition of human language: never to be limited to answering the question “What is it?” but to attempt to rise to another level: “Why are things as they are?”

Thanks to grammar, little Vanessa has dared privilege reflection over perception. The choice and organization of words have given her the power to go beyond what her eyes allow. Five centuries later, she is walking in Copernicus’s footsteps. Her words echo his, audacious and daring, organized by a grammar that carried his thought and opposed it to the certainty of all those who saw, with their own eyes, the sun move above their heads. Toe to toe with “authorized” truth, he landed word after word, like blows: “The earth turns around the sun.”

And he was understood. And if he was understood as he wanted to be, it was because, beyond simple word choice, he used the grammatical means the language made available.

By placing “earth” before “turns” he forced his interlocutors to make it the agent of the process “turning.” The agent, and nothing else, no matter what they might have wished. By using the preposition “around,” Copernicus gave “the sun” a very specific role in the scene he was constructing. These grammatical indicators gave him an assurance that, no matter what his interlocutors’ ill will, they would not be able to betray the intentions of his speech.

Now imagine Copernicus deprived of the tools of grammar. He puts the three words “turns,” “sun,” and “earth” in a big hat, shakes them up, and pours them over the heads of his listeners, yelling, “Sirs, make sense of this!” What would have been the result? To a man, his judges would have assigned “sun” the role of agent of the verb “turns” and would have made “earth” the center of the sun’s rotation.

Without the power of grammar, words slide naturally down the steepest cultural slope. Expectation guides their arrangement, presided over by consensus. Any language that gave up the power of grammar would surrender its statements to trite consensus, interpretations based on obviousness, routine, and the status quo. Grammar appears to be truly liberating, though it has been called confining. It permits language to evoke, against conservatism, that which is not yet but will be one day, to affirm against prejudice that which is not visible but which shall be revealed as just and true, to write against conformity that which does not yet dare take shape but which generations to come will remember as magnificent daring.