Linguistics and Language
Second Edition 2005
Contemporary linguistics, various studies of language structure and use, grew out of the methods of comparative philology. These historical language studies of the nineteenth century had mapped out relationships between languages by locating the evolutionary principles governing the sound systems of Indo-European languages (see Robins). But scholars especially associate modern linguistic study with synchronic linguistics, inaugurated early in the twentieth century by ferdinand de saussure, himself a comparative philologist who strove to distinguish more clearly than his contemporaries between diachronic and synchronic explanatory concerns. Saussure’s work marks the start of synchronic, nonevolutionary studies of language; besides language history, linguistic study now investigates present-time linguistic facts, principles governing the phonology (sound structure), morphology (grammatical inflection and word formation), syntax, and semantics of natural languages. And the field extends to interdisciplinary studies of language acquisition and use, including psycholinguistics, accounts of language learning and processing; pragmatics and discourse analysis, studies (inspired by linguistic philosophy) of speech acts, speech genres, and text structure; sociolinguistics, analyses of the social dimensions of language variation; and ethnographies of speech communities.
Much of linguistic study so described would seem in its concerns rather removed from the study of literature. But linguistics as a discipline is relevant here for its significant impact on literary studies. Indeed, the disciplines share at the least an interest in linguistic history and thus in (early) paradigm texts; more generally, both fields attend to the close workings of language. More specific disciplinary connections are sometimes controversial, but attempts to bridge disciplines have in fact characterized much of contemporary criticism. Sometimes critics have borrowed a linguistic or language theory’s terms and tools, often a general paradigm, an interpretive practice. Thus many literary terms and models derive from varieties of linguistics and linguistic philosophy.
At the same time, disciplinary tensions affect how modes of linguistic criticism are invented, rejected, or received within literary studies. That is, according to the linguistics-oriented critic, linguistic theory suggests a welcome alternative to an impressionistic or text-focused critical practice; for another critic, linguistics as a science proves unable to give either a dynamic account of textual meaning or a socially relevant theory of literary value. This is merely to suggest that such disciplinary discussion complicates any presentation of linguistic study for a literary audience; histories of linguistics simply look very different from the perspective of each discipline. What follows, then, is an overview of recent linguistics and linguistic philosophy, largely as presented by its practitioners in paradigm texts, but it is an account decidedly selected for the terms and models most important to literary practice.
Saussurean linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure’s impact on both linguistics and literary study in this context cannot be overstated. From within a discipline conceived as historical and philological, in lectures from 1906 to 1911 Saussure argued that scholars had confused those linguistic facts relevant from the point of view of speakers at any particular moment in time with those of exclusively historical interest (81–83, 90–98). A historically developing sound change, for example, could fail to impact existing linguistic distinctions; on the other hand, speakers could invest a new form with new significance, exploiting the expressive possibilities of the altered or introduced element. Further, the material form of a language could stabilize while distinctions expressed with those forms nevertheless altered, resulting in, from the speakers’ perspective, a different language system (83–87). In distinguishing diachronic from synchronic facts, the linguist clarifies the kind of linguistic change at issue and at the same time locates present-time structural relationships (79–100).
Saussure had been addressing a largely text-focused field, but the distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistic facts implies a mentalist conception of language, involving a distinction between form itself and its (synchronic) signifying function. Language in this account resides not in sounds or written symbols but in speakers’ knowledge of the rules and elements of the language. To cite another of Saussure’s binary oppositions, there is a distinction to be made between langue, speakers’ shared knowledge of the language, and parole, acts of speaking. Langue is social, rule-governed, potential; parole is individual, idiosyncratic, and actual (9–15, 19). Acts of parole express langue and are impossible without it; parole, on the other hand, gives life to langue and, through the idiosyncratic and accidental variations of everyday speech events, effects changes in it (19, 98).
If language is essentially form, not substance, then its elements or signs must derive significance relationally, within the context of langue, the language system as a whole. Signs themselves consist of a signifier, carved out of an otherwise undifferentiated stream of sound and an arbitrarily associated signified, delimited in an otherwise amorphous conceptual space (65–70, 102–5, 107–19). The signifier, material now assigned a representational function, achieves its significance within the system through an interplay of identity and difference. That is, an identity of acoustically varied utterances of the sound p are necessary to its stable signifying function. At the same time, p as a discrete unit is perceptually available as such only in its conventional contrast to closely related sounds (like b) (108–11). These principles apply as well to signifieds or concepts. In Saussure’s example, the relational meaning or value of a plural morpheme in English is different than in Sanskrit, since Sanskrit marks a three-way distinction between singular, dual, and plural (116). Or the value of "sheep" (opposed in English to "mutton") differs from (uncontrasted) mouton in French (115–16; see also 79–81, 87–89). In Saussure’s famous formulation, "In language there are only differences without positive terms" (120). Principles of identity and difference finally structure signs within the larger system. Identity defines associative relationships—like elements, exchangeable categories (e.g. , classes of verb inflections); difference defines syntagmatic or linear structure—the ordering of different associative classes (verb stems before inflections) (122–31).
Within the field of linguistics, Saussure’s (synchronic) language-as-system metaphor proved productive for historical linguistics, providing an account of the relational, languagewide effect of introduced changes. The distinction between acoustically actual and linguistically relevant sound was crucial to developing phonological theory and to modern conceptions of the phoneme. Procedural methods involved in mapping out associative (later "paradigmatic") and syntagmatic relationships were important to American descriptive linguistics. And Saussure’s mentalism inspired the later focus on speakers’ shared linguistic knowledge.
European structuralism, more than any other linguistics, has most broadly impacted literary studies in the United States, especially by way of French critics, in particular roland barthes. That is, structuralist critics found many Saussurean terms and metaphors suggestive, especially "system" (a literary text or corpus is a rule-governed system); langue and parole(a text, genre, or interpretive norm constitutes langue, actualized instances parole); "sign" (art is a sign, its material a signifier, its signified shared and abstract); and "syntagmatic" versus "paradigmatic" axes of language (analogously the structural dimensions of narrative) (see Culler, Henkel). Additionally, Saussure’s account has figured in poststructuralism and deconstruction in the general conception of art-as-sign, here with an emphasis on the contingency and artificiality of the signifier, and in a negative and differential account of meaning (Derrida, Of Grammatology 52–53). Eventually jacques derrida’s analysis of Saussure’s conception of "sign," largely directed to its failures as a semantics, negatively defined (from the perspective of literary circles) general attitudes toward linguistics (see Of Grammatology).
Prague school structuralism. Saussure’s immediate intellectual descendants were members of the Prague Linguistic Circle (or School), working from 1926 to 1939 and comprising both linguists and literary critics (see prague school structuralism). Prague school linguists shared an interest in elaborating, sometimes in correcting, Saussure’s linguistics. Their most important technical achievements were in phonology (Nikolai Trubetzkoy and roman jakobson were largely responsible [see overview in Robins]). Specifically, they developed a "distinctive feature" analysis of phonemes, an analysis of sound units in a language as consisting of bundles of contrastive acoustic features distinctive or meaning-producing in that system. Distinctive-feature phonology, especially as refined by Jakobson’s student in the United States, Morris Halle, and by noam chomsky, was standard for many years and historically crucial to later phonology. In studies of inflectional morphology, Jakobson developed the broadly influential notion "markedness," also an extension of "difference," familiar in literary studies as applied to sexist language ( "authoress," that is, is the morphologically marked and by implication unusual form) (Jakobson with Pomorska, "Concept" ; Robin Lakoff 23, 35–37). In its syntactic theory (lacking in Saussure’s account) the Prague school adopted a "functionalist" perspective; specifically, it attempted to integrate rhetorical and syntactic concerns (see, e.g. , Mathesius). Prague school work on syntax has been less influential than its phonology, especially in the United States, but (Western European) structural-functional syntactic studies, known to literary critics in the United States as "text linguistics," derive inspiration from the Prague school approach (Halliday, Van Dijk).
The Prague school’s functionalism meant that its members theorized also about history, variation, and discourse. Responding to Saussure, they objected first to his too rigid distinction between synchrony and diachrony. As Jakobson explains, diachronic facts impinge on the present; speakers’ knowledge of etymology, real or invented, is synchronically meaningful. Second, language is not the system of Saussure’s account, he argues, but a "system of systems" ( "Sign" 30). For Jan Mukařovský, the Circle’s foremost critic, language consists instead of functional dialects governed by distinct expressive needs (referential, poetic, emotive), reflected in each subcode’s particular deixis, syntax, and vocabulary ( "On Poetic" 1, 5, 13–14 ; see also Jakobson, "Closing" 353–57). For Jakobson, such (system-internal) functional needs motivate linguistic evolution, external in origin for Saussure (Jakobson, "Efforts" ; Jakobson and Tynjanov, "Problems"). Finally, partly in later work, Jakobson elaborates a structuralist semiotics, beyond arbitrary signification (here the "symbol") to partially motivated, nonarbitrary signifiers (the "index" and "icon," bearing a causal or visual relation to a signified) (see "Quest"). Similarly, Mukařovský’s metaphorized sign applies not just to language but to literature and other cultural practices as well (Aesthetic, Art).
Thus, Prague school revisions of Saussure extended to literary theory, embedding poetic language in a general theory of discourse, generating an account of literary evolution, and positing a nonessentialist definition of literature. Poetic and ordinary language, oppositional forms of discourse in the earlier russian formalism, now operate within the larger system as subcodes in dialectical tension. Poetic discourse, language made new or "defamiliarized" in the well-known Formalist formulation, now arises from the subcode’s function or expressive need. Thus, the literary language of a given period loses its expressive effect as ordinary language borrows its linguistic devices; in order to regain expressive power, literary language must then evolve, deforming linguistic norms or borrowing from a nonpoetic code (Jakobson, "What Is" ; Mukařovský, "On Poetic" 6–9). Poetic language is then a comparative and historical effect, and literary works are finally multifunctional systems organizing both aesthetic and referential functions (Jakobson, "Dominant" ; Mukařovský, "On Poetic" 55).
Partly for reasons of delayed or limited translation, discussion in the United States has focused largely on Jakobson’s later criticism and semiotics (especially on his "Closing Statement"), written from somewhat different assumptions than was the work in his earlier, Prague period. That this remains so is surprising, given the Prague school’s interest in matters both linguistic and literary, though several critics have explicitly tried to revive interest in this criticism (Galan, Striedter). (mikhail bakhtin’s readers will also recognize some similar formulations [see Todorov].)
American structuralism. Saussure’s model rather differently impacted linguistic study in the United States, that is, American structuralists working in the 1930s through the 1950s, exemplified especially by Leonard Bloomfield. First, unlike their European counterparts, American structuralists were inspired by Saussure’s descriptive procedural methods, as opposed to his mentalism. Languages were to be analyzed on their own, internal, and unique terms rather than on the distorting model of classical languages. Second, in seeking to reformulate linguistics as a science, American structuralists severely constrained the methods and order of data analysis (see Pike), and they invested in early forms of behaviorism, affecting their approach to language acquisition (Bloomfield 28–33). Third, such linguists doubted that meaning, an unscientific but also unlimited notion, should figure in linguistic analysis. As Bloomfield suggested, a full-fledged semantics must account for "everything in the speaker’s world" (139).
A linguistics thus constrained had brief literary application. American structuralists are rather known for their fieldwork and rigorously applied analytical methods; for their grammars, of English, but especially of indigenous American languages; and, of interest to educators, for their resolute descriptivism (their claim that languages and dialects are all equivalently adequate and complex), a position that did not win them general public support.
Generative grammar. Frustrated with (American) structuralist proscriptions on data analysis, Noam Chomsky argued, first in 1957, against a restricted view of scientific practice. In ordinary science, he noted, researchers arrive at hypotheses by any insight or means, and analysis proceeds in any order; what matters is simply a reproducible result (Syntactic 53–56). Moreover, analysis should account not for flawed and incomplete data, a corpus of collected sentences, but for all possible sentences, those sentences native speakers deem grammatical (Syntactic 13, 15, 48 ; Aspects 15–16). Linguistic hunches, grammatical intuitions, excluded in structuralist practice, are a legitimate explanatory focus. "Competence," that is, speakers’ linguistic knowledge, is distinct from "performance," actual data or utterance acts (Aspects 4). Like Saussure, Chomsky thus locates interest in the shared linguistic norms of an idealized ( "homogeneous") speech community, but "competence" is less general than langue, which is complete ( "internalized") in every speaker (Aspects 3, 8).
In a paradigm shift known as transformational-generative grammar, Chomsky modeled syntactic analysis on logic and mathematics. Early grammars consist of "phrase structure rules" specifying the order of morphemes and the (hierarchical) constituent structure of sentences; "transformational rules" translating basic sentences into alternative arrangements (e.g. , from active into passive sentences); and a lexicon providing words and attendant grammatical restrictions (Syntactic; Aspects 15–18, 63ff.). Together these components of the grammar specify as their output a strictly defined but infinite set, all and only the sentences of the language. Thus, the explanatory goal is to formulate rules that describe and predict ( "generate") sentences speakers find grammatical, excluding those they would not (Syntactic 13–14). Additionally, the grammar models crucial aspects of linguistic competence—the ability to produce new sentences, an infinite variety of sentences, and infinitely long sentences from finite means (Aspects 15–16).
Like his structuralist predecessors, Chomsky first believed sentence interpretation to be related unpredictably to grammatical form. (He cites the asymmetrical semantics of active and passive sentence pairs [ Syntactic 101–3 ].) But in his later Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), the basis of "extended standard theory," he reasons that a linguistic model should not ignore certain obvious connections between syntax and semantics. In later models, a semantic component at the level of a theoretical (or underlying) syntactic "deep structure" constrains transformations, which translate deep structures into "surface" or actual syntactic form. An approach called "generative semantics" both extended such suggestions and challenged standard theory, but many semantic facts resisted syntactic treatment (see Newmeyer, 1st ed., 112–14, 215–16).
The psychological claims of generative grammar are rather more consistent (Newmeyer, 2d ed., 51). The theory develops a mentalist conception of language; it refers to a range of speakers’ linguistic responses and abilities; its descriptive apparatus suggests questions about sentence processing; and it develops the explicit claim that analysis should accord with facts of language acquisition (Aspects 1–15, 37–59). Reviewing B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1959), Chomsky elaborated the (antibehaviorist) "innateness hypothesis," a term positing rich, biologically given mechanisms constraining and directing language acquisition. Language learning, Chomsky observes, requires neither reinforcement nor sustained correction; nor does it rely solely on generalizations of available data. Language learners need exposure to adult language, but they are also language ready, biologically predisposed to generalize in certain ways from language data and not in other logically possible ways. Only such a theory, he argues, could account for the speed and universality of language learning, for the across-language uniformity of stages in language acquisition, and for learners’ success in forming correct hypotheses about language structure despite their exposure to flawed and incomplete data (574–78).
While certain initial aims and distinctions have eroded as generative theory has evolved, linguistic study since Chomsky has remained a model-building activity (see the accessible Knowledge). Additionally, arguments for psychological relevance have affected the form both of succeeding models and of psycholinguistic research. Specifically, linguists have condensed transformational schemes, have more strictly defined syntactic-semantic concerns, and have elaborated claims for linguistic universals. Chomsky now finds in this process a theoretical paradox: the more linguists model previously unknown syntactic facts, investigating the diversity of natural languages, the more impossible a task language learning seems to pose; thus the more necessary it now seems to posit abstract properties of language innately available to all learners. Relating the various and the universal in language, Chomsky argues, is now the theory’s central task ( "New" 7; Smith x–xi).
While such directions may not relate to literary projects, Chomsky’s earlier theory proved so suggestive to the reader-oriented critics of the 1970s and 1980s that certain generative metaphors persist in current critical vocabulary. Just as Chomsky focuses not on sentences but on the linguistic knowledge that made production of sentences possible, critics argued, so should we now outline the rules of "literary competence," the knowledge by which readers "generate" or make sense of literary texts (Culler 48, 114, 117–18, 121–22 ; Fish 44–45, 48). Such an approach shifts critical interest from texts to readers; yet interpretive chaos does not ensue, for reading practices are rule-governed, shared and understood within an "interpretive community" (Culler 113–22 ; Fish 292, 338–55).
Speech act theory. Speech act theory is a significant contrast to the linguistic studies discussed here, a species of ordinary philosophy in the analytic tradition, so called because it focuses on problems of reference, truth value, and meaning from the perspective of ordinary utterances (see speech acts). But beginning in the 1970s, speech act accounts have had considerable impact on both linguistics and literary criticism—in linguistics, in studies of sentence-level semantics and discourse structure; in literary studies, in accounts of fictional and public language.
The term "speech act theory" itself refers especially to J. L. Austin (How to Do Things with Words, 1962), John Searle (Speech Acts, 1969 , and related essays), and H. Paul Grice ( "Logic and Conversation," 1975). Their shared, basic insight derives from the disjunction in ordinary discourse between what is said and what is meant. That is, sentences do not mean the sum of their word meanings; and sentence meaning is itself problematic since a sentence has different meanings in different conversational contexts. Thus arises a distinction between locutions (involving syntactic form, basic sense, and reference) and illocutions, or utterance acts (Austin 94–108). In Austin’s example, the locution "Bull!" constitutes different illocutions, depending on the whether it is uttered as a description or a warning (55–62); conversely, different locutions may encode identical illocutions (e.g. , the invitation "Come!" and "We hope to see you") (Searle, Speech 22–26). If meaning does not reside in form, then in communicating interlocutors must rely on conventionally signaled speaker intentions, on conventions governing speech practices, and on shared extralinguistic knowledge of the world and conversational context.
The intentions at issue are narrowly linguistic; unconscious intentions are at play, but by definition they cannot constitute the stable and publicly shared signifying practice that is the theory’s focus (Henkel 156–63). Speakers strategize speech actions, and hearers ponder speakers’ motives. Nevertheless, the event itself, a hearer’s "illocutionary uptake" or recognition of the promise as such, is often not at issue (Austin 117). The conscious and unconscious intentions and effects that attend illocutionary acts are to be distinguished from specifically linguistic intent. Illocutionary acts—assertions and promises—are predictable, convention bound; on the other hand, "perlocutionary acts" —effects of belief, suspicion, gratitude—are unpredictable and nonlinguistic (Austin 121–22 ; Searle, Speech 46–50).
Thus, Austin and Searle focus on both illocutionary conventions and embedding institutions. Austin’s central example, the "performative" utterance "I do" of the marriage ceremony, is of interest because it cannot meaningfully be termed true or false, unlike descriptions or assertions ( "constatives"); rather, saying "I do" is doing rather than describing or asserting something (1–11). Yet if such utterance acts cannot be false, they can nevertheless go wrong. As Austin considers such possible "infelicities" for the performative "I do," he outlines institutional conditions necessary for its success (12–38). In this case, authorized (unmarried) persons must participate, the ceremony must be complete, and the speaker must not be obviously insincere. Austin finally subsumes all utterance acts to the performative, including descriptions and assertions, for similar conventions finally bear on less obviously institutionalized constatives (133–47).
In Searle’s account, such conventions, obliquely invoked, explain not just infelicitous but also indirect speech acts. (Thus derives the conversational logic of "Can you help me?" related to a norm such as "speakers request actions hearers can accomplish" [ "Indirect" ].) In Grice’s scheme, a general conversational logic applies: hearers understand what speakers imply by calculating the distance between what was said and expectations of conversational relevance and economy. Thus, an apparent irrelevance prompts hearers to work out an implied but related proposition.
Speech act theory figures largely in pragmatic accounts of politeness, irony, indirection, and implication (see Sperber and Wilson) and in analyses of language institutions and social class (Bourdieu 66–89, 105–26). In literary criticism, the theory has suggested accounts of literary reference; of fictive indirection and implication, especially in drama (see Petrey); of genre conventions and institutionalized interpretative norms (Culler, Fish); of literary language as playful, performative (Derrida, "Limited" ; Felman); and of utterance acts as forms of institutional action (Butler, Bodies 1–23 , Excitable).
Sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistic study focuses on language variation and use. Its initial impetus was William Labov’s work, beginning in the 1960s. Labov aimed, first, to expand the domain of mainstream linguistics beyond "homogeneous speech communities" and, second, to improve on existing variation research, which had focused on regional, rural, and mostly lexical speech differences. Labov proposed instead to apply both social science methodology and generativist linguistics to the diversity of urban speech.
In a now classic study, Labov investigated New York department store clerks’ use of postvocalic [r], a phonetic variant said to be linguistically unpredictable, sometimes occurring, sometimes not ( "Social"). Labov suggested that such variants were in fact not random but socially constrained; noting that r-pronunciation represented a new prestige norm for the city, he further hypothesized its association with status, with careful speaking styles, and with younger, presumably innovating, speakers. Eliciting spontaneous speech samples (the phrase "fourth floor" in both a normal and emphatic style), Labov found patterned variation at the level of sound—greater use of [r] in high-status as opposed to low-status stores; on high-status as opposed to low-status floors within stores; from high-status as opposed to low-status workers in stores; in emphatic as opposed to normal utterance acts; and from younger speakers as opposed to older (51–57). In a larger, related study, low social status delayed speakers’ exposure to prestige norms, complicating generalizations about age; and the "linguistic insecurity" of mid-status speakers prompted hypercorrect speech in formal styles, complicating assumptions about class (52–54, 57–65). And others soon explored the impact on speech behavior of language attitudes; of consciously invoked class-associated variants; of local economic opportunities as opposed to class; and of gender and national forms of working-class identity (see overviews in Coates, Wardhaugh). Corrections to the variationist model notwithstanding, Labov located social sensitivity in the smallest units of language.
Other sociolinguistic projects include studies of discourse and studies of linguistics applied to education and public policy. Discourse analyses are, for example, of speech genres and conversation, politeness and indirection, community linguistic norms and cross-cultural communication (see, e.g. , Brown and Levinson). Topics in applied linguistics include language planning and standard language policy, bilingualism, and second language teaching. An influential (early) descriptivist statement is Labov’s "The Logic of Non-standard English" (1972), a famously thorough attack on educators who assume that speakers of nonmainstream varieties are verbally deficient. Recently linguists have responded, sometimes in a similarly frustrated vein, to proponents of "English Only" legislation and parties in Ebonics controversies (especially Baugh).
Scholars in women’s studies have naturally remained conversant with sociolinguistic work on language and gender. Other critics refer to sociolinguistic studies on topics that, for example, relate spoken genres to literary narratives or modes of criticism (Gates, Pratt) or compare linguistic variation to literary representation (Fisher Fishkin).
Cognitive linguistics. While generative grammar assumes a set of specifically linguistic universal principles underlying all languages, cognitive linguists theorize that such universals derive from general cognitive processes. Historically, this approach to language derives from the arguments of generative semantics (see above), and in fact George Lakoff, associated with this earlier challenge to generative grammar, authored its founding text, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). Like the generative semantics before it, cognitive linguistics responds to the felt limitations of generative grammar, though the mode of argument is often similar to it (e.g. , sets of superficially similar sentences). And it develops an expanded account of the relation between syntactic form and meaning, focusing on such topics as the relation of discourse situation or perspective to the meaning and choice of particular syntactic forms; patterns of metaphor in everyday language; and the pragmatics of lexical meaning. Since work in cognitive linguistics attends to the linguistic effects of (immediate) speech contexts; to the semantics of apparent sentence paraphrases, alternate syntactic forms; and to culturally general patterns of metaphor, it is obviously suggestive for literary analysis (see overview in Lee). Of interest to critics are Eve Sweetser’s pragmatics of polysemy, ambiguity, and lexical change and Elizabeth Traugott and Richard Dasher’s recent discourse-grounded historical semantics; Ellen Spolsky metaphorically extends basic precepts of cognitive linguistics to literary interpretation.
Other, future connections between studies of language and literature are difficult to predict. But public controversies suggest an important shared educational role on issues at once literary and linguistic—on the expressive and literary value of nonmainstream dialects and multiple codes; on problems of promoting written standard language; and on issues of language education.
See also noam chomsky, discourse, roman jakobson, prague school structuralism, ferdinand de saussure, speech acts, and stylistics. Primary Sources
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