We are all born with the neurological wiring, or capacity, to learn language, and infants spend a good portion of their first two years learning the structure of the language--or languages--they hear spoken around them. This is a complex--and marvelous--process that we all went through, and it is learning that takes place unconsciously; in other words it does not require formal instruction. Do you ever see toddlers memorizing lists of irregular verbs? By the time a child is ready to enter kindergarten, she already "knows" in the unconscious sense just about all of the linguistic structure she will need to make sense in her native language(s).
For example, if she is a native speaker of English, she has learned (without learning any of the grammatical terms for these things) that articles and adjectives precede the nouns they modify:
1. The cat sat on a mat.
2. Big cats sit on small mats.
The learns too that prepositions precede the nouns (or noun phrases) they govern:
3. on the mat
She would also recognize structures like these as "not English" even though they are possible in some of the world's languages:
4. *Cat the sat mat a on.
5. *Cats big sit mats small on.
By contrast, a child growing up in, for example, a Japanese-speaking family would recognize structures like these, with modifiers and postpositions (the equivalents of prepositions) following nouns as proper to her native language (with the words themselves in Japanese, of course):
5. cat the
6. mat on
The point is not just that these structuresand the rules that form them‹are unconscious, they are also systematic. If you are a native speaker of a language like English, then prepositions, for example, precede the nouns they govern. Similarly, all verbs in an English sentence carry information about tense (or the time in which an action occurred).
We recognize a sentence like 7 as an English sentence because the verb was is marked as a past form. Sentence 8, however, does not seem like a complete English sentence because it has no verb marked for tense:
7. The runners were racing to cross the finish line.
8. *The runners racing to cross the finish line.
Systematic rules are part of a tacit understanding that allows speakers of a language to communicate. Speakers of English, for example, couldn't communicate if the choice of whether to put modifiers before nouns or after them were completely haphazard; in many cases, it would be impossible to identify the relationship between the two elements.
Perhaps the most important thing I hope you will gain from this class is respect for the complexity of the process by which you--and all of your future students--learned language. We will only cover a small part of the grammar speakers of English acquire as infants in the course of a single semester, but I hope what we do cover leaves you with a sense of the intricacy of the grammar you already have in your brain.
I also hope you will come out of this class with concepts and terminology that will allow you to talk and write about language precisely, rather than simply reacting to it impressionistically. For example, consider the first line from William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium":
The speaker is an old man preparing to leave his life and taking comfort in his art as providing a kind of immortality. The choice of the initial word is significant. It's a demonstrative pronoun showing what a linguist would call "remote deixis." It points to something known to the speaker and his listener that is in the distance--in this case, the life of those who are still young and vital, and it shows that the speaker already considers himself as standing apart from their world. Compare an alternative version with this, a demonstrative pronoun that conveys "near deixis," or points to something near at hand:
The speaker of this sentence is still very much part of this world. You don't get that sense of a barrier between him and the world of the young.
I don't think you'll be using terms like "remote deixis" in talking with your students about literature, but knowing the concepts and knowing that they present contrasting impressions might help you to draw your students' attention to the poet's choice of words.