language and literature Because all literature is created with words, the medium of literature is language. Not all combinations of words, however, result in literature. Literary combinations are differentiated from the enormous mass of casual discourse by some filtering device or set of rules. These words then pass into the permanent stock of preserved sounds or texts, forming the literary tradition of the group that produced them. One must therefore question what makes one group of words literature and another group not literature, and what the precise connection between language and literature is. This article addresses these questions. Further information may be found in aesthetics; criticism, literary; deconstruction; figures of speech; linguistics; phonetics; phonology and morphology; psycholinguistics; semantics; semiotics; structuralism; syntax; and versification.
Some linguists regard literary artifacts simply as preserved utterances, distinguished by the very fact of their preservation. The great mass of casual speech vanishes into air and out of memory just a few seconds after being uttered.
Psycholinguists have demonstrated, for example, that, whereas most people can relate the gist of statements made a few minutes earlier, few can repeat the exact words they heard. By contrast, noncasual speech must be repeated word for word in order to achieve the total effect. The medium the words chosen and their particular order is part of the message. As the French poet Paul Valery has indicated, ordinary discourse vanishes or dissolves as soon as it has done its work as soon as it has communicated an idea and brought understanding but literature is preserved and interpreted again and again, as if its usefulness can never be exhausted.
Even strictly defined, however, literature includes an astonishing variety of material. Besides poetry, drama, and novels, literature includes folktales and folk music, religious rituals, sermons, diaries, journals, political documents, essays, philosophical treatises, chronicles, and speeches in courts and legislatures. What all these kinds of discourse have in common is a formal setting: anything written or uttered in a situation recognized as artistic thereby acquires the status of art and loses its status as a casual, or transitory, expression. A printed passage entitled "Sonnet XI" cannot, by the rules of Western culture, be taken as a casual utterance. Artistic displacement a fire hydrant removed to a museum, for example assigns special status to the object displaced. The very fact of displacement suggests to the onlooker that someone became convinced enough of the value of the object in question to take it out of its casual setting. Hence any utterance, even a telephone book, if read or presented as literature on a literary occasion and surrounded by literary trappings, loses its utilitarian aspect and is interpreted for itself alone.
Another approach to defining literature starts with the assumption that preserved utterances have a special type of language or language organization that is not present, or at least not so prominent, in casual utterances. The elevated diction used in English and French poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries is an obvious example of literary language. Less elaborate means exist, however, to differentiate special linguistic devices from those found in ordinary discourse.
Roman Jakobson has distinguished three processes at work in the creation of language of any sort: selection, equivalence, and combination. Most expressions are produced semiautomatically, by unconscious mechanisms. This proposition can be illustrated by the following example: a person sees a 4-ft-high object made of wood slats hooped with steel, from the interior of which issues a sound like "Rowf! Rowf!"; further, the person looks inside the object and sees a small, four-legged creature with a tail, from which the sound seems to be coming. If the person decides to comment on the situation, then first, either semiconsciously or unconsciously, he or she selects certain words equivalent to the situation barrel, barking, dog and also a few functional or relational words in, a, the, and. Second, almost always unconsciously, the person combines the words into a complete linguistic account of the experience. The words selected are strongly determined by the situation, but the ways of combining them are not. Here the speaker can choose, again unconsciously, among several possibilities, with the final choice based perhaps on personal style. For example, the speaker might choose from such expressions as "There's a dog in the barrel and he's barking"; "A barking dog is in the barrel over there"; "I think that a dog is barking in that barrel"; and "There's a barrel with a dog in it over there." Sometimes, however, the speaker selects the combination of words with as much care as he or she gave to selecting the words themselves. He or she might follow a rule such as "No odd syllable is to bear a strong stress." Then the only allowable sequence to describe the situation would be something like "a dog is in the barrel and he's barking," with stress on the second, sixth, and tenth syllables. A more elaborate rule or set of rules would provide this alliterating sentence: "a Bloodhound's in the Barrel, and he's Barking and he's Baying." A speaker looking for onomatopoeia in this instance, the replication of the actual sound of the barking in the sounds of the utterance might choose words with fricatives (consonants pronounced by forcing the breath through the teeth) and declare"a schnauzer's in the hogshead; he shouts, he rages." In each of the foregoing examples the sound pattern of the utterance is distinctive and stands out as something worth preserving. The sentences cannot vanish or dissolve as soon as their meaning has been communicated to repeat only the gist would be to miss the point. In their own humble ways, the sentences are literature.
Edmund L. Epstein Bibliography: Chomsky, Noam, Knowledge of Language (1986); Doss, Francois, History of Structuralism (1997); Epstein, Edmund, Language and Style (1978); Garfield, Jay L., and Kiteley, Murray, Meaning and Truth (1990); Holman, C. Hugh, A Handbook to Literature, 6th ed. (1992); Miller, George, and Johnson-Laird, Philip, Language and Perception (1986); Tsur, Reuven, What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive? (1992).