As far as I know, linguists determine grammaticality by judgement tests. Native speakers are presented with several types of utterances and, based on their intuition, they can judge each of these utterances as being grammatical or ungrammatical.

But languages like Latin and Gothic, for example, are not spoken natively by anyone anymore. So, does it make sense to talk about grammaticality for dead languages?

4 Answers 4


That may depend on your definition. We Latinists trust in corpus research and what Roman grammarians said themselves about what they found acceptable. Of course we have less certainty than with living languages, but overall it isn't really a fundamental problem.

It could even be said that corpus research is more reliable than judgement tests, because people may say they would "never write" certain things that they do in fact write on occasion. (Keep in mind that the Latin we know is a literary language: we don't make many claims about spoken Latin. Grammaticality differs between spoken and written English too, at least for most people.) I have heard many Dutchmen claim they pronounce the n of the infinitive (lopen) and plural nouns (apen) who wouldn't accept that they did not in fact pronounce it. Another example is the famous linguistics student who said in class, "that is not true, Professor: I don't say don't!", then cowered in shame.

  • With "literary Latin" you mean "written language"?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 13:19
  • @Ale: Not exactly: I mean the Latin used in written texts in literary circles and official papers, which is admittedly the bulk of what has survived (mediaeval minks only copied texts deemed valuable or interesting). We have some written Vulgar Latin too, but that is different. We also have simulated Latin of a lower register in many comedies, which uses many different rules of grammar and vocabulary.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 14:56
  • There's an unbroken, living tradition of Latin, quite different from Gothic.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 22:10
  • @vectory, unbroken? Do you mean it's descendants or would you say the transition from Vulgar Latin to Medieval/Ecclesiastical Latin is unbroken? Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 11:01
  • 1
    @tobiornottobi: Well, I can't speak for every accent and dialect, but, in a normal context in standard Dutch, the n usually won't reappear in hiatus (rather, the schwa might disappear, too). It is always absolutely possible to add in the n again, but it's not the very most standard thing to do. The n will often reappear in song, for example, which I consider a non-standard situation.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 20:19

One interesting source of information comes from what old prescriptive grammarians found to gripe about.

Every now and then you'll see someone write something like "It's very bad to use the form X. You should only ever use this other form Y." What that tells us, in an indirect way, is that some people had started using X. (After all, why would you complain about a "mistake" unless some people around you were actually making it?) In other words: for at least some speakers of the language, we can conclude that X had become grammatical.

So in these cases, we can learn about how people actually talked, and not just how they believed they should talk. But this sort of thing is pretty rare. Usually, yeah, it's just corpus work on the written language, like Cerberus describes.

  • 2
    No, it didn't mean that somebody had started to use form X, but that somebody had started to consider form X to be bad. Shakespare used singular they and split infinitives, it took the Victorians to start complaining about it.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 14:40
  • @kaleissin but it can be concluded that X was used by some speakers of the language and that it was grammatical for them. Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 11:17
  • @tobiomottobi also, it doesn't prove that Y existed at that point since prescriptivists are perfectly willing to make things up. Spelling "doubt" with a "b", say.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 2:25

No, I'm afraid you are wrong. In generative syntax, there are two distinct concepts, acceptability (=the native speaker's intuition) and grammaticality (=observing or violating rules of grammar created by the linguist). You can read more about it in any intro textbook on generative syntax (Haegeman 1994, Adger 2003 etc.).


No, It doesn't make sense for exactly the reasons you posited.

Grammaticality judgments require a native speaker. It's safe to say that anything found in the corpus of a dead language is grammatical but there is no way of judging the grammaticality of anything not in the corpus.

  • No-one actually spoke literary Latin, just as no-one speaks written English...
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 1:30
  • 3
    @Cerberus - True, But strictly speaking grammaticality judgments have nothing to do with linguistic performance. Grammaticality judgments are made not on corpora, prose, or conversational speech, but on words, phrases or sentences that a linguist invents to test some hypothesis or illustrate a principle.
    – Dan Milway
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 2:55
  • 2
    That's probably why I wondered about definitions in my answer. But are you talking about the concept of grammaticality, or about a way to test it? I suppose it is much harder to glean negative information from a corpus ("x is unacceptable"), but we do it nevertheless: if the dative is used with parco in 99.9 % of cases, provided that it is fairly frequent, which it is, we consider any other case most probably unacceptable. I emphasised that we cannot get the same degree of certainty, nor can we test rarer constructions; but in many cases the result is fairly satisfactory.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 14:33

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