Monthly Archives: July 2014

I have been working on this post for a different language blog, but I wanted to see what you thought first:

There is no grammar (as we know it).

“You don’t need to know what the rules are, you just need to obey them. Don’t memorize the penal codes, just stop killing people.” – Khatzumoto

When reflecting on the bewilderment common to Greek students in rapidly shrinking classes, Antony Gorry once commented: “If we taught swimming this way, we would give children a couple talks on hydro-dynamics and throw them into the water.” And I agree. The numbers speak for themselves. In my first beginning Greek class there were over 30 people in attendance. The classroom didn’t even have enough seats for all of us. By the second semester this number was more than halved. By the third semester, halved again. By the fifth semester (the first semester of advanced Greek) there were only three of us, plus a grad student, but by the sixth semester there were no Greek majors left.

Now don’t get me wrong, Attic Greek is very hard. I’ve had many conversations with my Classics professors about just that. I think what makes it harder, however, is that initial transition between the artificial Greek at the beginning to reading real Attic Greek. In Beginning Greek you memorize grammar rules and forms, and every sentence you encounter obeys these rules and forms. The problem is, when you get to reading real Greek it looks like all of these rules have been thrown out the window [1], which is likely to cause any reasonable student to have an existential crisis. [2]

Grammar books do not offer rules but observations.

It can be crushing to arrive at advanced Greek and realize that there are no rules. What did I spend the last 4 semesters learning if there aren’t any rules? I was struggling with these very questions when I stumbled across this passage in Smyth’s Greek Grammar:

Smyth Greek Grammar

Smythe p. 274 on Attributive adjectives

I had to re-read the passage. What? Are you saying, “It does this…. but sometimes this… and occasionally this,”?

It didn’t seem like Smyth was giving me one principle here. He did not write: attributive adjective + substantive = x .

That is because grammar does not work like a math equation. There are peculiarities and exceptions. Therefore, Smyth can’t give me some once and for all rule, he can only give me his observations of Greek.

Some further investigation led me to the understanding that there are two types of grammar: descriptive grammar (how we do speak) vs. prescriptive grammar (how we should speak). It is probably safe to say that most of you reading this blog post have mastered descriptive grammar, whether you realize it or not. Those pesky prescriptive grammar rules, however, are the ones that still trip us up, and many of them make no sense! For example, take the rule: never split infinitives. [3] If we adhered to this prescriptive rule then we would all clearly see the glaring mistake of Capt. Kirk when he said the mission of the Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” He should have said “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”

And yet Kirk said what he said. The quote went down in history, and we all moved on to Next Generation.

Educational activists, here me out. I am not telling you to not heed your English teachers’ lessons, but I am telling you that double negatives are still intelligible and allowed in other languages. Maybe worry about those prescriptive grammar problems after you are fluent?

How do we learn without grammar?

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” – Noam Chomsky

Here Noam Chomsky gives us an example of a sentence that makes sense grammatically in English, and yet it is not English at all. No one would ever say this. It is an artificially constructed entity. Colorless green? green ideas? ideas sleep? (poetic) sleep furiously? Poetic maybe.

How do we know that this is not English? Well, we happen to not know the rules of English (as demonstrated above), and yet somehow we are (practically) fluent. For instance, I can say, “Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome,” and you can know exactly what I mean without ever going through the logic of needing and employing a genitive. It’s there but you didn’t go through the grammar to get there. I just know how to express it, and you just know how to understand it. You learned the grammar by observing examples, in the same way that you did not learn how to use English vocabulary words by reading the whole dictionary:

“When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style.” (From Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986. p. 87)

How do we learn without grammar, then? This is the wrong question to ask. We still have grammar. It can still be our guide through the murky waters of a new language. It just cannot be our crutch anymore. We cannot depend on it as a lifeboat that will carry us the whole way. We have to get our hair wet. We have to go out make our own observations about the language and lots of them.

Taking Bakhtin out of context again:

“The words of a language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances, we read them in particular individual works, and in such cases the words already have not only a typical, but also (depending on the genre) a more or less clearly reflected individual expression, which is determined by the unrepeatable individual context of the utterance. Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature.” (p.88)

Babies (that is, us a couple years ago) don’t learn words. They learn utterances. Sounds. As babies, we didn’t come to the language with any outside or preconceived notions. How could we? Our main social activities were blanket soaking and block stacking. Not much of a intellectual milieu to draw from there. We started from the bottom: basic sounds and noises. Then we began to associate these noises with meaning. We gradually learned to communicate more complex noises by imitating the ones coming out our parents faces so often, and so on and so forth. Now we are here.

– Winston Niles Rumfoord

notes and other links: (or a transcript of that video:

1. There are still rules and order, I know. there are just whole other worlds of possibilities, exceptions, and inflections. Yes, I do read my Smyth faithfully as you will see

2. Hey, maybe you have to be a little unreasonable to be able to translate ancient Greek

3.If you must know, this rule comes Latin and was clumsily translated over to English.


Leuconoë, don’t ask, we never know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.

(Horace, Odes Book I: XI)

Response to “Carpe Diem and the Modern Individual”

Virgil (our Virgil, not the author of epic) writes: “This is where I think the value of the carpe diem mentality comes into play. I think the way in which we can seize the day is by being our most true self, in the hope that we make an impact on others. They will carry us with them for the rest of their days. The value of our selves is the ingraining of it into other people, in large ways and small ways.”


When affronted with the phrase “Carpe diem,” there are two ways that we can look it at. We can see it for what it could possibly mean for us, like that sense of mindfulness that Vergil just described, or we can take it for that popular, Epicurean understanding that we all know so well.
Let’s look at this phrase for what it is. It’s contriver was the poet Horace in ode 11. In this poem the poet is trying to convince a young girl to sleep with him. To do this employs devices like “Carpe Diem” and even #Yolo (in so many words) to seduce this uninterested woman.

Ever since this phrase has still always carried with it the same brazen (and maybe even vain) sort of quality, though we may overlook it. “Day seizing” for Horace meant sex (and perhaps more abstractly or poetically youth), and the old adage has not changed very much in popular culture as Vergil has indicated (insert link).

Day seizing is a tool of persuasion. This was the purpose Horace created it for, and this is how I see it most often used today. The heralds of “carpe diem” informs their listeners that they are not, in fact, doing any day seizing activities. The person confronted with this (in reality, empty) call to action is faced with the problem that their day (and perhaps their whole week, their whole life…?) is lacking. That they are missing out.

There is a positive aspect. Carpe Diem does not have to refer to that #Yolo quality of getting smashed, going wild, and whatnot. It could mean doing what excites you. I don’t think this is necessarily dangerous because it has the flexibility to mean something different for each individual. Unfortunately, what we (by “we” I am referring to that collective cultural mind-brain that exists my circles in social media – so “we” as I know us) generally associate “excitement” with those things that don’t happen everyday. Things that by definition cannot happen every day. They happen on the weekend, maybe once a month, once a year, or maybe even once in a lifetime. But what about all those other days? Are those days unseized? Carpe diem vilifies the every day.
So how do we seize our every day?
This is the question that each of us must find our own answer to.
I think Vergil’s post is a great place to start.

– Winston Niles Rumfoord

My car happened to be created in the lucky transition between cassette players and audio input jacks. As such, I have to listen to CDs (which I’ve burned a ton of) or the radio. I’ve been sick of hearing the same CDs over and over and too lazy to buy new ones, so I’ve been listening to the radio for the past few weeks. Two of the stations that I listen to are Top 40 Hits stations. They play a few songs that I like, and then a whole bunch that I’m not fond of. I’ve noticed a trend with the music of today though: a lot of music is about seizing the day.

Of course, they think that seizing the day means to go out and get smashed, hook up with random people, and then do it all again the next day.

The past year of classes has shown me a lot about the carpe diem attitude. Ultimately, what it stems from is the idea that as humans, we are only given a specific amount of time on this earth. If I do not do something of value with my July 2nd 2014, that day is pointless. I may not as well have lived it. The problem lies in what we truly find as valuable.

We get stuck in a rut as children. We’re always asked,” What do you want to be when you grow up?” We think about the future, when we’ll be adults and be actually able to do things of merit, like be a doctor and help sick people. When we become adults though, we realize the triviality of our every day life. Not many people get to grow up and become superheroes. Upon this realization, we turn to trying to find a meaning in our life. We find some way to make value of our day, possibly drinking and partying like in the songs.

Hedonism is one manner in which we see the manifestation of carpe diem. If I’m happy, then my day was worth something.

I think there is a better way to live out the carpe diem though. It is based on the way in which I fundamentally view the world (like anything is). I feel that I am the combination of all of my experiences, even though I may not be able to recognize their effects in my life. I feel that every person I have ever seen (and even some people that I haven’t seen) has created my identity to be the way that it is today. In that sense, we are all important to the formation of everyone we come in contact to.

When I worked at an internship a couple of years ago, I saw a fellow intern watching the ground as she walked. She scanned the ground, searching for something. Then she stopped, reached down, and picked up a paper clip. It seemed really strange to me. She told me that paper clips are all over the ground. People drop them all the time without a care about them. She picks them up, and then she doesn’t need to buy staples.

Now, walking around, I will periodically see a paper clip lying on the ground and think back to that experience. It shifted the way I see the world in an ever so slight way. I bet hundreds of people passed by that paper clip without seeing it, because they had never been told to look for it. Because of my fellow intern, I had gained a new perspective on life.

This is where I think the value of the carpe diem mentality comes into play. I think the way in which we can seize the day is by being our most true self, in the hope that we make an impact on others. They will carry us with them for the rest of their days. The value of ourselves is the ingraining of it into other people, in large ways and in small ways.