Loughner Believed Grammar Has a Politics; So Did the First Grammarian

In the gymnasium of conspiracy, Jared Lee Loughner's belief that "The government is implying mind control and brain wash on the people by controlling grammar" seems unusually tortured, not least because it inflicts on us his own vigorous desire to be free of the shackles of correct speech. Recently, a connection has been drawn between Loughner's beliefs and the fringe of fantasy scholarship, the writings of grammar conspiracy maven and self-proclaimed King of Hawaii, David Wynn Miller.

As it turns out, the first full scale grammar of a modern European language, Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática Castellana, published on August 18, 1492, made a not dissimilar claim. Nebrija, considered Spain's first humanist scholar, argued that the path to glory and dominion lay through grammar, and urged Queen Isabella of Castile to see the ungoverned colloquial speech of her diverse subjects and provinces as a threat to her crown.

As Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders argue in ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, Nebrija's advocacy of grammar turned what was "an unproblematic historical fact" into "a problem for the architects of new kind of polity - the modern state." Nebrija, they claim, wanted to exert a form of prior restraint on printing by standardizing the rules of writing. Grammar, in this account, was a new form of bureaucratic power.

While it could be argued that the desire for royal patronage might have pushed Nebrija to over-dramatize the power of grammar, especially in the new age of the printing press (which was at that point just 35 years old and not self-evidently a revolutionary device to everyone), it is clear that Nebrija is not alone in seeing a formal and printed grammar as a form of state power. As he pleads in his introduction:

"Now, Your Majesty, let me come to the last advantage that you shall gain from my grammar. For the purpose, recall the time when I presented you with a draft of this book earlier this year in Salamanca. At this time, you asked me what end such a grammar could possibly serve. Upon this, the Bishop of Avila interrupted to answer in my stead. What he said was this: 'Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a new need; the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the need for the language we shall bring with us.'"

At Salamanca, Isabella was unmoved; nature, she believed, made everyone the proprietor of their own tongue -- and, therefore, uneducable by anything but their own industry. But Nebrija eventually got the better of her doubt by appealing to her sense of manifest destiny: It was the queen's duty to civilize as much as to conquer. As he concluded, "siempre la lengua fue companera del imperio" ("language was ever the companion of empire").

The timing of the argument couldn't have been better: two weeks earlier Christopher Columbus had sailed for the New World, under the patronage of the Crown of Castile.

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Trevor Butterworth is a weekly columnist for The Daily and a contributor to the Financial Times.

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