James Brown

The earliest, and certainly the most innovative, of these experimenters was James Brown, whose system of "American grammar," attempted a complete break with the terminology of English grammar—or indeed with that of any other system ever devised. A cursory glance at the pages of Brown's works provide the reader with definitions like the following:


Is a class of syllabanes, or ne-syllabanes, which is made up of those monos that have a branch dependence upon some other mono, or monos in the poetrone;
(J. Brown, 1847, p. 41).

It easy to see why Goold Brown (1862) dismissed the other Brown's work as "fantastical" (p. xiii). Such bizarre terminology, combined with his flagrant self-promotion and his captious attacks on rival grammarians can easily incline a reader to dismiss Brown as a mere crank. Yet Görlach's (1998) dry suggestion that "it would be worth studying Brown in case he is more than a productive eccentric" (p. 64) is well taken. Brown stands apart from the mainstream of nineteenth-century grammar, but some of his criticisms, such as the inadequacy of traditional definitions, are reminiscent of critiques by contemporary linguists.[4]

Most relevant to a consideration of diagrams, however, is Brown's treatment of constituency, or "scanning," as he calls it in J. Brown (1831).[5] Brown uses a system of brackets and numbers printed above words to show structural relationships among words. He divides up a sentence into "sections", as in the following example from J. Brown (1831), p. 36:

1   1 1 1     1 1 1  
[The sun shines] (upon all men) (who will receive his rays)
    1 1 1  
(which he sends) (from the heavens.)

Brown uses square brackets to denote "major sections," that is, word groups which he takes to be independent, and he uses parentheses to denote "minor sections," that is, word groups that depend on another unit. He uses numbers above individual words to distinguish "major words," which are left unmarked, and "minor words," that is, those that depend on another word. He also recognizes that these dependency relationships can be nested to an arbitrary extent, and uses increasing numbers to show the depth of the nesting:

4 3 2 1
Very much too cold weather.

In other words, with this notation, Brown indicates that very modifies much, which in turn modifies too, which modifies cold, which modifies weather. He uses similar numerical notations to show the dependency arrangements in the sections above: "the sun shines (upon all men1) (who will receive his rays2) (which he sends3) (from the heavens4.)"

As these examples illustrate, Brown was groping towards a way to illustrate syntactic structure. But his peculiar theory comports neither with grammar as it was understood in the nineteenth century nor with contemporary linguistic notions of phrase structure. The analysis here assumes that the root of language consists of nouns, and that all other words are
modifications of those fundamental terms. Thus, the major words in the constituents above are always nouns. (He groups pronouns and nouns in the same category.) For example, in the section "who will receive his rays," who and rays receive equal rank. In other words, the direct object, "his rays" is treated as a first-order constituent, on the same level as the subject. This treatment explicitly flips on its head the notion that the object of a verb is a dependent of that verb. A similar point can be made for his treatment of preposition phrases. Moreover, despite his use of numbers to annotate a degree of dependency, the way Brown deploys his brackets suggests that he remains stuck in a word-by-word way of thinking about structure. His sections simply divide up the sentence into groups one after the other rather than recognizing that one unit actually nests within another. In other words, he takes one section to depend on another section as a whole, rather than on a specific word in the section.

Brown does elaborate this system slightly to indicate the direction of the reference when there is more than one noun, and to handle compound relationships where a word refers to more than one other word at the same time, but the analytical shortcomings of the scheme, quite apart from his fondness for renaming all the conventional terms of grammar, ultimately doom this system to be a dead-end.

(This page was last updated Oct. 17, 2015.)


4. For an extensive discussion of Brown's overall work and its place in the intellectual currents of the time, see West (2000).

5. This work, although it has its own curious terminology, is relatively free of the dense neologisms of Brown's later works.