What is Grammar? Part II: Verbs, Adverbs, and Pronouns


Welcome to Part II of this 3-part series on what is grammar? In this video, we move on to verbs, the action words. The verbal system is one of the largest components of a language, and we have several pieces to consider.

First, we have person, which refers to the relationship between you and the subject, that is, the one performing an action. Normally, we have first, second, and third person. Next, we have number, how many of the subject there are: singular, dual, plural, etc. We also have gender, as some languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, require a different verb form depending on the gender of the subject.

Next, we have tense, which refers to a combination of time, aspect, mood, and voice. Time is when an action takes place, such as past, present, or future. Aspect refers to the manner in which the action takes place, and usually denotes completion. The perfect tenses, for example, are for completed actions. Mood refers to the sense in which an action takes place, whether it actually happens, or is given as a command, or is only hypothetical. Common moods include the indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional, and jussive. Voice refers to the relationship between the subject and object of a verb. We have active voice, which is when a subject performs an action, such as “The girl throws the ball.” We also have passive voice, which is when an object becomes the subject, as in “The ball was thrown.” Some languages also have a middle voice. For a few languages we'd need to look at the concept of ergativity, which refers to marking the subject of an intransitive verb as an object, but let's not worry too much about that here… Ergative languages are relatively rare and include Tibetan and Aboriginal Australian languages.

A conjugation is the pattern a verb follows in changing for all the criteria we've looked at so far: person, number, gender, and tense. Conjugation is to verbs what declension is to nouns.

Within a conjugation, we can have several classes or sub-patterns.

We also need to consider a concept called form, which can be different depending on the language in question. Usually, it refers to changes in a verbal root to effect changes in meaning. In most Indo-European languages, we typically only look at forms of a single verb, like the infinitive, participles, and gerund. For some languages, like Arabic, you'll have robust systems by which a verb can be mutated into other related verbs. In Arabic, there are as many as 15 different patterns of mutation that allow you to create related verbs out of a single verbal root.

On top of all this, we need to consider how a language handles certain types of verbs, such as Modals, or Modal Auxiliary verbs. These verbs express ability, obligation, permission, and probability. In English, for example, we have: can, shall, must, may, and will.

Many languages also have Auxiliary Verbs. These are the “helping verbs”, usually used to form other tenses, such as the perfect or the passive. If I say, I have gone home, the verb “have” is here functioning as an auxiliary to form the present perfect.

Reflexives form another type of verb that often behave according to their own pattern. Reflexives are transitive verbs - that is, verbs that have direct objects - whose subject and object are the same. For example, She looked at herself in the mirror. The subject, “she” is the same as the object, so a reflexive must be used: “herself”. While we have reflexives in English, they are more prominently used in other languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese.

Finally, we also need to consider register in the verbal system and how verbs change for differences in formality. Many languages have formal second person pronouns, and some languages, like Japanese and Korean, have complex systems of honorifics attached to verbs that differ depending on the formality of the situation at hand.

As mentioned, the verbal system is often the largest component within the grammar of a language.

Adverbs are words used to describe actions. The first thing to consider is how adverbs are formed, because they are usually built out of adjectives. In addition to this, we need to look at adverb patterns and whether there are irregular adverbs. In English, for example, the adverb form of good is well, not goodly as we would expect based on the normal pattern.

As with adjectives, we need to look at how we can express comparatives with adverbs, marking when an action is performed with more of a certain quality. Likewise, we need to examine the superlative, when an action is performed with the most of a quality. In many languages, certain types of adverbs behave according to certain patterns. These adverb types include adverbs of time, describing when an action takes place, like today, tomorrow, yesterday, then, and now. We also have adverbs of manner, describing how an action takes place, like quickly, slowly, or thoughtfully. Adverbs of place describe where an action happens, like here, there, or everywhere. For some languages, other adverb types are also important, like adverbs of frequency or degree.

These components make up the adverbial system of a language.

Next we move on to pronouns, which are words used to stand in the place of other things. As with nouns, we have to consider number - how many of something there are - gender - the semantic and grammatical classification - and case - the function and relationship of something. We also need to consider the different types of pronouns, starting with personal pronouns, such as I, you, he, she, we, they, and so on. Wrapped up in personal pronouns is the concept of person, which we looked in verbs, as well.

Possessive pronouns and adjectives mark possession and include my, your, his, her, our, their, and so on.

Reflexive pronouns refer back to the subject and are generally used with reflexive verbs. They include myself, yourself, himself, herself, and so on.

Interrogative pronouns are the question words. Bear in mind that these question words often stand in the place of nouns and are not just used to ask questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Demonstrative pronouns are pronouns that demonstrate or point to something. This, that, these, and those are all demonstrative pronouns.

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. If I say, “The man who brought the letter,” then I am using the pronoun “who” as a relative pronoun. Bear in mind that other types of pronouns - like interrogatives or demonstratives - are often used as relative pronouns.

Finally, we have indefinite pronouns. These are words like some, one, all, anybody, and so on.

These are all the different elements we need to consider in the pronominal system of a language.

This concludes part 2 of our three-part video series on the grammar of language.

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