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Literature and Linguistics  

Nigel Fabb

The linguistic study of literature addresses the ways in which language is differently organized in verbal art (literature): form is added to language, altered, attenuated, and differently grouped. These different kinds of organization are normatively subject to limits, some derived from limits on general linguistic form or language-specific linguistic form. However, linguistic form can in principle be altered in any way at all, for example, in avant-garde texts or to produce artificial languages for literature; this possibility raises the general question of whether some organizations of literary language are cognitively transparent and others are cognitively opaque. Of the various added forms, the most extensively studied has been metrical form, which requires the words of the text to be grouped into lines. Metrical form combines a non-linguistic counting system with a rhythmic system that adapts the rhythmic systems of ordinary phonology; most accounts of meter have focused on the rhythms as these are of greater linguistic interest than counting (which plays no significant role in language in general). The metrical line may have a special status, as a cognitively privileged level of grouping, possibly because it is fitted to working memory. Rhyme and alliteration are two common kinds of added form; most linguistic interest has been in what counts as “similarity of sound” between two words, whether at a surface or underlying level. Rhyming and alliterating words are distributed relative to the grouping into lines and other constituents. The other major kind of added form is parallelism, where two sections of text are structurally similar, usually in syntax and vocabulary. The various added forms may allow for variation (e.g., every line in an English sonnet can be in a different rhythmic variation of iambic pentameter), and can be intermittently present; there is no clear equivalent to ‘grammaticality’ in literary linguistic form. This may be because literary linguistic form holds as a presumption about a text, derived by inference, rather than as a constitutive structural device. All literary texts have a discourse structure, which includes division into various types of group or constituent, including the division of a narrative into episodes, exploiting verbal cues of episodic boundaries. Narratives also require the tracking of referents such as people and objects across the discourse, which draws on the study of pronominals. Literary texts may also have a distinctive vocabulary, borrowing or inventing words to an unusual degree, and engaging in various kinds of wordplay. Literary texts have ‘style’ and ‘markedness’, ways in which the language varies in noticeable ways but without coding a different linguistic semantics. These stylistic variations are sometimes treated as having determinate interpretations, but there are also approaches to stylistic variations in literature that treat them as having a non-determinate relation to meaning. Literature cannot have a different semantics or pragmatics from ordinary language, but meaning can be ‘difficult’ in literature in ways not characteristic of much ordinary language (but in common with ritual speech and other ways of speaking). A major mode of linguistic investigation involves corpora, over which statistical analyses are undertaken. This has a relation to the question of whether our literary-linguistic knowledge has a probabilistic basis, a question that ties the study of language to questions of expectation in aesthetics (e.g., music) more generally. Literature exists in various modalities—writing, oral literature, and signed literature—and linguistic approaches to literature have been sensitive to this, as well as to the special questions about how texts are set to music in songs.


Discourse Analytic Approaches to Language and Identity  

Dorien Van De Mieroop

Rather than thinking of identity as something that defines a person in such a way that it makes them distinguishable from others, researchers using discourse analytical approaches within linguistics—especially in the fields of pragmatics and interactional sociolinguistics—tend to adopt a social constructionist perspective and thus view identity as a multimodally constituted activity or process. From this perspective, identity is not something one is or has, but something that one does or creates by means of various linguistic and paralinguistic resources as well as bodily movements. This performative view of identity has a number of implications. Rather than thinking of identity in the singular, a plural conceptualization of identities is capitalized on. Moreover, these identities should not be regarded as pertaining to only the ‘large’ macro-level sociodemographic categories individuals belong to, such as gender, race, and social class; identities are often described in much more nuanced terms. Such a fine-grained approach is needed to do justice to this performative perspective on identity, as it helps to capture the many dynamic and extremely fleeting ways in which people engage in identity work. Furthermore, all these identity constructions are not necessarily always consistent with one another, and they may sometimes even be contradictory, as people may not always be—or be able to be—equally prone to enacting a particular identity. This may depend on what they are doing and with whom, as identities are also related to the identities other people may construct around them. All these aspects make the analysis of identity quite a complex endeavor, as not only can their plural and fleeting nature make identities quite hard to capture, but it can also be quite a challenge to pin down precisely at which points in an interaction we can actually observe identity work in action.


William Labov  

Matthew J. Gordon

William Labov (b. 1927) is an American linguist who pioneered the study of variationist sociolinguistics. Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Labov studied English and philosophy at Harvard University (BA, 1948) and worked as an industrial chemist for several years before entering graduate school in linguistics at Columbia University in 1961. He completed his PhD in 1964, under the direction of Uriel Weinreich. He worked at Columbia until 1971, when he joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught until his retirement in 2014. Labov’s influence on the field began with research he conducted in graduate school. His study of changing pronunciations on Martha’s Vineyard, the subject of his master’s thesis, introduced a method for observing sound change in progress and broke with tradition by exploring social motivations for linguistic innovations. For his PhD dissertation, Labov carried out a study of dialect patterns on the Lower East Side of New York City. Using a systematic, quantitative methodology, he demonstrated that linguistic variation is socially stratified, such that the use of pronunciation features (e.g., dropping of post-vocalic /r/) correlates with social class, ethnicity, etc. in regular patterns. Labov’s early research was greatly influential and inspired many scholars to carry out similar projects in other communities. The paradigm came to be known as variationist sociolinguistics. Much of Labov’s scholarship seeks to advance our understanding of language change. Historical linguists traditionally study completed linguistic changes, often long after they occurred, but Labov developed a method for examining active changes through a quantitative comparison of speakers representing several generations. This approach produces a new perspective on the change process by revealing intermediate stages. Labov has brought insights from this research to bear on theoretical debates within historical linguistics and the field more broadly. His work in this area has also documented many active sound changes in American English. Among these changes are innovations underway in particular dialects, such as the vowel changes in Philadelphia, as well as broader regional patterns, such as the Northern Cities Shift heard in the Great Lakes states. Throughout his career, social justice concerns have fueled Labov’s research. He has sought to demonstrate that the speech of stigmatized groups is as systematic and rule-governed as any other. He led a pioneering study in Harlem in the late 1960s that shone new light on African American English, demonstrating, for example, that grammatical usages like the deletion of the copula (e.g., He fast) are subject to regular constraints. Labov has served as an expert witness in court and before the U.S. Congress to share insights from his study of African American English. He has also worked to promote literacy for speakers of non-standard dialects, carrying out research on reading and developing material for the teaching of reading to these populations.