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The Parts of Speech Problem. Grammatical Classes of Words

The parts of speech are classes of words, all the members of these classes

having certain characteristics in common which distinguish them from the

members of other classes. The problem of word classification into parts of speech

still remains one of the most controversial problems in modern linguistics. The

attitude of grammarians with regard to parts of speech and the basis of their

classification varied a good deal at different times. Only in English grammarians

have been vacillating between 3 and 13 parts of speech. There are four approaches

to the problem:

1. Classical, or logical-inflectional, worked out by prescriptivists

2. Functional, worked out by descriptivists

3. Distributional, worked out by structuralists

4. Complex

The Principles of Classification as Used by Prescriptive Grammarians

Prescriptive grammarians, who treated Latin as an ideal language, described

English in terms of Latin forms and Latin grammatical constraints. Similar to

Latin, words in English were divided into declinables (nouns, adjectives, pronouns,

verbs, participles) and indeclinables (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions,

interjections, articles). The number of parts of speech varied from author to author:

in early grammars nouns and adjectives formed one part of speech; later they came

to be treated as two different parts of speech. The same applies to participles,

which were either a separate part of speech or part of the verb. The article was first

classed with the adjective. Later it was given the status of a part of speech and

toward the end of the 19th century the article was integrated into the adjective. The

underlying principle of classification was form, which, as can be seen from their

treatment of the English noun, was not only morphologic but also syntactic, i.e. if

it was form in Latin, it had to be form in English.

The Principles of Classification as Used by Non-Structural Descriptive


Non-structural descriptive grammarians adopted the system of parts of

speech worked out by prescriptivists and elaborated it further. Henry Sweet

(1892), similar to his predecessors, divided words into declinable and indeclinable.

To declinables he attributed noun-words (noun, noun-pronoun, noun-numeral,

infinitive, gerund), adjective-words (adjective, adjective-pronoun, adjectivenumeral,

participle), verb (finite verb), verbals (infinitive, gerund, participle) and

to indeclinables (particles), adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection. Henry

Sweet speaks of three principles of classification: form, meaning, and function.

However, the results of his classification reveal a considerable divergence between

theory and practice: the division of the parts of speech into declinable and

indeclinable is a division based on form. Only within the class can we see the

operation of the principle of function.

Otto Jespersen, another noted descriptivist, also speaks of three principles

of classification: “In my opinion everything should be kept in view, form, function

and meaning...” (O Jespersen, 1935:91). On the basis of the three criteria, the

scholar distinguishes the following parts of speech: substantives, adjectives,

pronouns, verbs, and particles (adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections).

Otto Jespersen’s system is a further elaboration of Henry Sweet’s system. Unlike

Henry Sweet, Otto Jespersen separates nouns (which he calls substantives) from

noun-words, a class of words distinguished on the basis of function – a noun word

is a word that can function as a noun; he also distinguishes pronouns as a separate

part of speech, thus isolating them from Henry Sweet’s noun-words and adjectivewords.

Both scholars treat the verb alike: to Henry Sweet the verb includes

primarily finite forms: he doubts as to the inclusion of non-finites in the verb.

Although the scholar speaks of form, function and meaning, in practice he gives

preference to form.

Date: 2015-12-17; view: 1203

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