Why and how do writers of literary English deliberately break accepted rules of grammar, pronunciation or organization? Illustrate your answer by using examples from Block 4. What in your opinion is “literary language”?
Every language has rules for combining sounds with words and linguists have pointed out syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations between words. These syntagmatic and paradigmatic rules are often exploited and broken in literary language. In fact, rules governing the sound system, the writing system, word structure, grammar and paragraphing can be broken, individually or in combination.
We will be exploring into different genres, mainly poetry, plays, short stories and novels as we investigate into how and why these writers break accepted rules of grammar, pronunciation or organization.
As we explore on how and why writers break accepted rules of grammar in literary language, we want to narrow our focus into poetry.
First of all, poets use metaphors, collocation, iconicity, vernacular, dialects as well as other devices to manipulate grammatical rules.
Metaphors are used to highlight particular qualities through direct comparison, sometimes in a surprising way. In the poem, ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake, the ‘burning of the tiger’s eyes’ and the stars’ spears are some examples of metaphors. Another poem, ‘Litany’ Carol Ann Duffy compares marriages metaphorically with cellophane around polyester shirts, which evokes images of relationships that are dry, brittle and somehow ‘synthetic’.
Poetic effects often depend on unusual juxtaposition of words where collocations are invoked to create a metaphor. Collocation refers to the combining tendencies of words. In ‘Litany’, Duffy is relying on the reader’s knowledge of the collocation of the word ‘crackle’ to make sense of her unusual choice of verb. The poet juxtaposes particular words or phrases to highlight unusual and striking associations of meaning. Likewise in the poem ‘The Langur Coloured Night’ by Sujata Bhatt, she places an inanimate object after the word ‘awaken’ to suggest that the cry was loud enough to wake objects normally unwakeable.
Writers can manipulate another layer of meaning in literary language through iconicity by highlighting the manner in which a word relates to the object or process it is representing. This relationship can be symbolic, indexical or iconic. Iconicity can be achieved through the manipulation of grammatical rules. Wordsworth’s language imitates the movement and dizziness of the narrator so effectively that we can almost feel the childish exhilaration of the skater. Speakers of English expect the verb sooner rather than later but when it fails to occur in his poem, there is either a feeling of frustration and expectation or a breathless, rush towards the verb.
The use of strongly vernacular language would seem to go against the idea that literary language represents the most prestigious forms of English and is distinctively different from everyday usage. This is seen in the work of the Jamaican poet and writer, Louise Bennett, who wrote her poetry ‘Country Bwoy’ in Jamaican Creole. She uses different varieties of English to create different characters in the poem.
Next, we want to look at how and why writers of plays, short stories and novels deliberately manipulate or break rules at various levels. In the extract ‘My Children! My Africa!’ the writer uses punning to highlight particular relationships between two different sets of meaning for dramatic effect. Writers of short stories and novels also use vernacular English in some of their writings. The Singapore writer, Catherine Lim uses vernacular Singaporean English in her short stories to convey a realism that also addresses the issue of linguistic oppression. This is seen in her story, ‘The Teacher’. Having a background of Taoist Chinese, she is interested in ways of adapting English to reflect her own culture, adding a more local flavour to her books.
Some authors attempted to represent the speech of their characters in ways that reflect particular aspects of accent, dialect and idiom. Their writings not only reflect upon their lives but also on their societies. Some examples are ‘Trainspotting’ a novel set in Scotland by Irvine Welsh, ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, Thomas Hardy’s novels set in ‘Wessex’. Using snappy sentences and vocabulary not only creates a fictional vernacular, it also conveys particular messages about the character’s personality e.g.
In ‘Waving’ the character of Duncan has a vernacular speech which seems to add to his naivety. Other writers have invented vernaculars, as part of the futuristic world. In Russel Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ English has degenerated in its vocabulary, grammar spelling and meaning. The language both tells us about that disintegration and represents it in the form of words and phrases. ‘Huckleberry Finn’ by Twain is one of the most influential models of nonstandard usage of English. Twain adds a special kind of authenticity to the characters with the power of the vernacular. It reflects specific authorial purposes, to do with plot and character development as well as imaginative authenticity.
Apart from grammar, writers of literary English have attempted to break accepted rules of pronunciation as seen as in the poetry, plays, novels and short stories.
Looking at poetry, some poets have creative ways of manipulating pronunciation rules. In ‘The Tyger’, every line has four stressed syllables alternating with three or four unstressed syllables, thus giving it a rhythm that resembles the beating of a drum. This beat is emphasized by the frequent plosives, /d/, /t/ and /p/, all suggestive of sounds made by hammering or hitting. The phrase ‘What dread hand and what dread feet’ iconically imitates the sound of the beating of an anvil, while individual words have symbolic relationship with the thing they are representing (hand, feet).
The repetition of the sound /t/ at the end of the first two lines of the first and last stanza (bright night), symmetrically reflects the initial sound /t/ in ‘Tyger! Tyger!’. Blake uses such alliteration, rhythm and assonance with the purpose of giving the poetry its musical effect. Likewise, in ‘The Prelude’, the stop sharp plosives of stopped short just have time to echo in the sudden stillness before the sentence continues, like the apparent movement of the landscape to a dizzy skater. Iconicity at the level of phonology, where a word imitates the sound it represents, is known as Onomatopoeia e.g. buzz, plop. Onomatopoeia is a device used by writers and is easily recognizable as the sound of a word echoes the action it is describing. In ‘The Prelude’, Wordsworth uses the /s/ sibilant sound to describe skating on ice.
Through poetry, writers have also capitalized on the pronunciation of various dialects and accents in contrast with that of the accepted rules of pronunciation. Liz Lochhead is a Scottish poet who uses Scots and English to a great effect in her works. In ‘Kidspoem’, she writes on a child’s poem using different dialects of her language as well as English. This unique treatment of the poem not only attracts her readers, it also shows us how pronunciation can be manipulated creatively. The poet, Tony Harrison, shows us an example of the Leeds accent through his poem ‘Them ; [uz]’. The phonetic symbols represent different sounds associated with contrasting accents. His poem is an example of a vigorous riposte to those ‘nicely spoken’ keepers of English culture and letters.
Writers have gone to some lengths to convey the vernacular in their stories and novels. This is seen in ‘Trainspotting’, ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘The Colour Purple’ where writers choose to use the vernacular part of their background and not follow the rules of pronunciation. Some authors give a character an eye-dialect, where a word is written as nonstandard, when its pronunciation is actually the same as the spoken standard e.g. wot and what. Wot is then a symbol, rather than an accurate representation of nonstandardness, and is often used by authors for less intelligent, less socially prestigious characters.
Writers of literary language have also creative ways of organizing their ideas through their texts. In poetry, it is evident that different poets use patterns of rhythm, rhyme and repetition to foreground certain qualities of language. In the poem ‘The Tyger’, every line has four stressed syllables alternating with three or four unstressed syllables-a rhythm associated with English with songs or ballads, as in the traditional nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’. In each four-line stanza, the first two and last two lines rhyme in the pattern aabb. The symmetry of the rhyme scheme in each stanza reflects the ‘fearful symmetry’ in the design of the tiger that Blake describes. Rhymed or repeated words would increase their emphasis and develop in the reader a sense of expectation or inevitability. The last stanza and the first are identical except for one word; this break in the pattern provides the sense of closure, and of a powerful design fulfilled.
Similarly, writers displayed skilful manipulation of the organization rules through their works in narratives. Narratives are basically a story of events that the narrator considers important. They are found in newspapers, histories, epic poems, ballads, comic strips, novel and short stories. Some writers play with the organization of the events as they weave them into a story (the ‘sjuzhet’).
The sjuzhet may include significant emphases, omissions, inferences and flashbacks, which are part of the narrator’s art. In plays such as ‘Night School’ by Harold Pinter, he organized his dialogues in such a way that there are no overlaps, interruptions, hesitations or self-corrections. He writes in complete sentences and, while he parodies the tendency of people to repeat each other’s words, he stylizes these repetitions to create a rhythmic and mesmeric pattern. This pattern implies that people’s everyday lives are made up of such pointless repetitions.
In the above, we have discussed about how writers of literary English break accepted rules of grammar, pronunciation or organization and their reasons for doing so. With this manipulation of rules, it not only helped us understand the creative and artistic uses of language, but also brought in a whole new perspective in the versatility of literary language.
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