a resource for studying literary theory

Literary Linguistics

Literary LinguisticsLiterary Linguistics is, as its name implies, the study of literature from a linguistic perspective. However, literary linguistics is also referred to as stylistics or poetics, which means that different terms are used to refer to the same discipline.

So what exactly is this linguistic discipline about? According to Short (1996: 1), “stylistics is an approach to the analysis of (literary) texts using linguistic description”. This implies that it is concerned with the study of both literature and linguistics; however, the word literary is included in brackets in Short’s definition. This is because the object of study in stylistics is mainly literature but not exclusively so as the stylistic techniques of analysis can also be used to gain insights into other types of texts. Stylistics studies language and creativity in language use by considering if a language’s rules are or are not observed to create a specific effect in a text (Simpson 2004: 3-4). Consequently, it can equally be used to study, for example, newspaper articles or advertisements.

With regard to the study of literature, literary linguistics highlights links between theoretical linguistic models and literary texts. Thus, it helps to enhance one’s reading and interpretation of these texts through the application of various aspects of linguistic theory. As a consequence, it builds on the assumption that the study of literature and language need not be regarded as mutually exclusive but rather as significantly related to each other.

Today, literary linguistics is an established discipline that approaches literary texts through linguistic frameworks. However, this was not always the case, especially in the early days of literary linguistics. Thus, especially literary critics did not initially approve of the fact that linguists started studying what was originally ‘their’ data. There was for instance a famous controversy between the linguist Roger Fowler and the literary critic F. W. Bateson in the 1960s which took the form of contributions and responses in the journal Essays in Criticism, in which they discussed the academic validity of this new discipline. The argumentation at the time was sometimes far removed from an objective approach, which is reflected in the following example from Bateson (1968), who said: “Would I allow my sister to marry a linguist? It is a good question. And I suppose, if I am honest, I must admit that I would much prefer not to have a linguist in the family”.

Now, the focus of stylistics is on the study of the linguistic features of a text in order to arrive at its interpretation and these linguistic features can relate to different levels of language. They can, for example, stem from the level of phonology and how sounds or pronunciation are represented in written texts, like for instance in the novel Trainspotting which is set in Edinburgh (e.g. “Yiv goat tae huv fuckin brains tae be a fuckin judge”, Welsh 1993). Apart from sounds, one can also look at words, i.e. lexicology, and the constituent parts that make up words, the morphemes, to see if a text contains a lot of simple (e.g. rain) or complex (e.g. rainbow) words, if a negative theme is co-created by negative prefixes (e.g. unfaithful) or if a text is written in a rather nominal style (e.g. scarcity, dreadfulness). When studying the meaning or combination of these words into larger constructions, this involves the levels of semantics and syntax respectively. For example, a text could comprise words from a particular semantic field like nature (e.g. trees, flowers, meadows) or include simple sentence constructions in the direct speech of a young child to contribute to their characterization. When considering the context in which a text is embedded and thereby going beyond the level of the text, one moves into the domain of pragmatics and discourse analysis, referring to the situation, culture, society and historical time frame of which a text forms part. All of these levels are of course interrelated as they operate simultaneously in a literary text and, therefore, a stylistic analysis can relate to more than one of them at the same time (For a checklist of linguistic and stylistic categories see also Leech and Short 2007: chapter 3).

Stylistics is “concerned with relating linguistic facts (linguistic description) to meaning (interpretation) in as explicit a way as possible” (Short 1996: 5). Stylistics is thus not only interested in the meaning of a text but also in how this meaning is achieved, i.e. it refers to the means that readers use consciously or unconsciously when making sense of a text. What allows readers to arrive at similar interpretations of a text is their knowledge of the structure of a language like English as well as shared procedures of inference, drawing on both the context in which a text is embedded and general world knowledge. Therefore, unusual collocations of words can usually be made sense of by comparing them to their familiar counterparts (compare for example fast snails with fast cars).

This also relates to the types of attestations that are of interest to literary linguists. While they generally want to find out more about the language used in a text, they are particularly interested in forms and constructions that stand out, a phenomenon that is referred to as deviation in stylistics. The effect that is created through deviation is called foregrounding; in linguistic terms, the foreground does not conform to the rules or expectations of a language or text type (Short 1996: 10-16 and chapter 2; Verdonk 2002: 5-6). One way in which foregrounding can be achieved is through repetition, examples of which also appear in the poem ‘Goblin Market’. The repetition can pertain to individual words but it can also involve longer structures, like imperative constructions (compare e.g. the construction come buy, come buy in the poem). The following analysis of ‘Goblin Market’ will discuss this in more detail and also illustrate the use of a corpus linguistic methodology in the study of literary linguistics.

Analysis