Today’s reading: Grammaire générale et raisonnée de Port-Royal, by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot, published in 1660.  Let’s call it PRG. You can get it here, in the 1803 edition. My understanding was that it was a precursor to Chomsky, and in fact he claimed as much in a book, Cartesian Linguistics (1965).  Spoiler: it isn’t.


Undoubtedly your first question will be: as a grammar from Renaissance times, how does it compare to the word of Šm Fatandor Revouse, Pere aluatas i Caďinor? In overall coverage and linguistic knowledge, it’s fairly similar— for instance, PRG, like Šm Revouse, stumbles in the phonology section through not having any vocabulary or notation for phonetics; both are reduced to talking about letters.

On the other hand, PRG is fairly free of the sort of metaphysical and nationalistic nonsense that Šm Revouse indulges.  In particular, they never claim that the ancient languages are better than the modern, nor do they try to find spiritual categories or whatever within language. They acknowledge at several points that many aspects of language are arbitrary, and vary between languages. (They do sometimes appeal to the notion of ‘elegance.’)

By the way, see here for an argument from W.K. Percival that there is really no such thing as “Cartesian linguistics” at all, that PRG was not particularly innovative or Cartesian, and that Descartes’ idea of language, to the extent he had any, had very little resemblance to Chomsky’s.

Anyway, what is PRG? It’s not really a grammar at all, either of French or the ancient languages. It could be called a sketch of a comparative grammar, or an overview of the concepts needed to study grammar. So it starts with sounds, then discusses nouns, pronouns, adjectives, cases, verbs, etc.  It never gives enough information to fully cover any topic or tell you in detail how a language handles it, but it does define all grammatical terms, gives examples, and opines on what the functions of each thing are.

Chomsky felt that his notion of “universal grammar” was prefigured here, but I’d say PRG starts from the pretty obvious fact that a similar grammatical analysis can be used for the major languages of Europe. PRG never really runs into a fact about modern French that can’t be described using the terms of classical grammar.  So, for instance, they are perfectly aware that French nouns don’t have case, but they find it useful to relate subjects to the Latin nominative, PPs with de to the genitive, and PPs with à to the dative.

The languages covered are very few: of ancient languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; of modern, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are a couple of references to German; none at all to English, and nothing on languages the authors surely were aware of: Basque, Bréton, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabic.

Chomsky went so far as to assert that PRG prefigured his “surface and deep structures”. This is completely absurd; PRG talks about things like subjects and predicates and propositions, but this was bog-standard thinking about language since ancient times. They come a little closer in this passage on adjectives:

When I say Invisible God has created the visible world, three judgements occur in my mind, contained in this proposition. Because I judge first that God is invisible. 2. That he has created the world. 3. That the world is visible. And of these three propositions, the second is the principal one, and the core of the proposition; the first and the third are incidental to it.

The idea that the adjective invisible applied to God represents a proposition God is invisible reoccurs in generative grammar. On the other hand, it is not part of a transformational view of language, nor it is part of a systematic treatment of semantics. It’s really a pretty basic observation about adjectives… if you want to say what an adjective is, you’re almost bound to observe that it says what something is like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve invented deep structure, or phrase structure rules.

There are some interesting bits where the authors try to relate meanings to other meanings. E.g. they say at one point that Petrus vivit ‘Peter lives’ is equivalent to Petrus vivens est ‘Peter is living’, or that Pudet me ‘I am ashamed’ is equivalent to Pudor est tenens mihi ‘Shame is had by me’. You could generously relate this to generative semantics, except backwards: GS tends to make verbs primitive, while PRG tries to restate verbs in terms of adjectives or nouns.

But we really have to avoid overinterpreting texts in terms of current theories. PRG is, by modern standards, hobbled by a lack of semantic terms and frames of reference. The authors didn’t have predicate calculus to think about, or Minsky’s idea of frames, or Fillmore’s idea of semantic roles, or Rosch’s prototypes or fuzzy categories, or Lakoff’s ideas on categories and metaphors.

They’re doing the best they can with the concepts they have. On verbs, for instance, they reject the old idea that verbs represent actions or passions, pointing out (quite rightly) that there are stative verbs which are neither. They propose that the essence of a verb is that it affirms something— that is, it asserts a proposition about something. The prototypical affirmation is the word est “is”, which is why they restate Petrus vivit as Petrus vivens est. Essentially they’re reducing sentences with verbs to things they have already discussed: objects and attributes.

They have a very short chapter on syntax, whose content is rather disappointing. It amounts to these observations:

  • Some words have to agree with each other, to avoid confusion.
  • Some words require each other (e.g. nouns and subjects), and some words depend on another (e.g. adjectives on nouns).
  • When everything is stated well, without rhetoric, the order of words is “natural” and follows the “natural expression of our thoughts”.
  • However, sometimes people want to be fancy, and they omit words, insert superfluous words, or reverse words.

I’m guessing they were in a hurry to wrap up, because they certainly knew Latin well enough to know that the basic sentence order was different in Latin and French, but also could be more freely varied.

A minor point of interest: PRG frequently, like generative grammar, gives negative examples— things we don’t say. This was by no means common in grammars— Whitney’s Sanskrit grammar, for instance, doesn’t do this.

Should you run out and read it? Eh, probably not, especially as it turns out it’s not a precursor at all to modern syntax. It is interesting if you want to know how early rationalists approached grammar, e.g. if you wanted to write something like Šm Revouse’s grammar for your own conlang.