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Linguistics and the Language of Literature John P. Broderick Old Dominion University.

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1 Linguistics and the Language of Literature John P. Broderick Old Dominion University

2 What can we learn about the language of literature by examining it from the perspective of linguistics?

3 Is the language of literature like a dialect or style? I.e., can we describe it by listing a co-occurring subset of phonological, morphological, and syntactic features that occur only in literary texts? Probably not.

4 This is because literary language (fiction especially, but also poetry and drama) can include all dialects and styles... Is there, thus, anything truly distinctive about the language of literature (that linguistics can describe)?

5 Before pursuing this basic question further, let’s consider an important issue that relates closely to answering it: the fact that literary language is considered to be art. But, what is art?

6 What makes this oil painting art?

7 Or this?




11 Is this photograph art?

12 Why are the voices of a choir singing art, but the voices of an audience talking are not?

13 Why do people gather to hear others bang on things, blow into pipes, and pluck on strings and call it art?

14 Why do people gather to taste wines, spitting out each mouthful and ending up just as thirsty (and sober) as when they began? Does art have something to do with seeing, hearing, tasting,... ?

15 In each instance, art intensifies, clarifies, and interprets experience, inviting the partaker to exercise one or more human faculties (a sense experience, imagination, …) as an end in itself...

16 ... to look at a painting of a still life, not evaluating it as food -- for it cannot, after all, be eaten -- but noticing color, texture, composition...

17 At a concert, the invitation is to listen, not for a message, but for the sheer pleasure of listening. At a wine tasting, the invitation is to taste, not to satisfy thirst, but for the sheer pleasure of tasting.

18 A work of art, can, of course have a message (social, political, philosophical) but that is not what makes it art. Let’s take another look at the still-life paintings...

19 Poetry (literary language) can exercise the imagination and intellect as well as the senses, but the usual rhetorical purposes of language are not primary, if present at all.

20 The language of literature is therefore best defined by purpose (to be art) rather than by linguistic form, and so it might seem that linguistics can have little or nothing to say about it. Alas!

21 We can return now to our original question... Is there anything truly distinctive about the language of literature that linguistics can help describe?

22 It turns out that, even though literary language is defined by purpose (to be art), linguistics can describe certain recurrent patterns in literary language (patterns that can also occur outside literature, but which creators of literature commonly use as part of their craft)...

23 SAILING Come Spring, when clouds are whipped to white-capped froth, spiders spin their fragile rigging webs against the scudding wind which flings those first, fine thread lines up, up beyond the bud furled tips of Chinese Elms as though the buoyant breeze, fitted out with only silken lines, could moor the very sky – to trees. – Susan Murray

24 1a FOREGROUNDING Using any linguistic structure more or less than “might be expected” under “ordinary conditions of language use.”

25 1b PROJECTION Using foregrounded patterns (parallelism) to imply connections and relations paradigmatically instead of asserting them syntagmatically.

26 2 COHESION OF FOREGROUNDING (AND PROJECTION) Coordinating several instances of foregrounding (and projection) in support of the aesthetic purpose of a literary work.

27 A Partial Analysis of Sailing Morphological Foregrounding (AND PROJECTION) in Sailing 1... 2... Syntactic Foregrounding (AND PROJECTION) in Sailing 3... 4... Cohesion of Foregrounding (AND PROJECTION), i.e. of 1-4, in Sailing

28 [Morphological f & (P) in Sailing] 1.Lexical items referring to the sea and sailing are foregrounded: whipped, white-capped froth, rigging, scudding, flings, lines, furled, buoyant, fitted out, lines, moor. (THIS PROJECTS – IMPLIES – A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SPRING AND THE DYNAMIC UNPREDICTABILITY, EVEN DANGER, OF BEING AT SEA IN A SAILING SHIP.)

29 [Morphological f & (P) in Sailing] 2.The modal auxiliary could is foregrounded by virtue of being the only modal in the text (and thus the only intrusion of the poet’s subjective judgment into the poem). (THIS PROJECTS – IMPLIES – THAT SPRING IS A TIME OF POSSIBILITY AND PERHAPS UNPREDICTABILITY – A TIME OF “COULD.”)

30 [Syntactic f & (P) in Sailing] 3.“Periodic” structures are foregrounded, i.e., dependent clauses precede main clauses and premodifiers of nouns are favored over postmodifiers. (a) Come spring, when clouds… (b) their fragile rigging… (c) first, fine, thread… (THIS PROJECTS – IMPLIES, CREATES, IMPOSES – A FEELING OF TENSION OR EXPECTATION, AS THE READER MUST WAIT FOR THE MAIN CLAUSE OR HEAD NOUN.)

31 [Syntactic f & (P) in Sailing] 4.All of the verbs in the poem are not only transitive, they also require nuclear prepositional phrases and in all but one case the expected preposition denotes movement: whip clouds (in)to froth, spin webs against wind, fling lines up beyond tips, fit out breeze with lines, moor sky to trees. (THIS PROJECTS – IMPLIES – A SENSE OF DYNAMIC ACTION, MOVEMENT.)

32 [Cohesion of f & (P), of 1-4, in Sailing] All four instances of foregrounding project related ideas: Spring is a time of unpredictability, change, dynamic movement, possibility, even danger. (I.e., what is on the surface a calm, placid, pastoral, spring scene hides all of the unpredictability and uncertainty of the universe.) The author’s aesthetic purpose is to provide the reader of the poem with such an experience, even though she never overtly (syntagmatically) states such a connection in the poem.

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