A linguist deaf to the poetic functions of language and a literary scholar indifferent to linguistics are equally flagrant anachronisms. Roman Jakobson (1960)
by Marcello Giovanelli
Despite the fact that these words were spoken over fifty years ago, it is curious that ‘English Language’ and ‘English Literature’ are largely still viewed as discrete subjects. Even when they are studied together, they seem to be part of a combined course, part ‘lit’ and part ‘lang’, rather than a fully integrated one. Whilst the growth of A level English Language over the last twenty years, with its emphasis on providing students with a practical and rigorous toolkit for a systematic analysis of texts, points towards the value of language-based textual work, all too often responses in literary studies ignore the essence of literature itself: language. Instead, the direction and focus are geared towards biography, historical context, and fantastical speculation about what authors might or might not have thought, felt and said. The worst kind of criticism is either rooted in vague impressionistic language or else relies on verbose rhetoric. For students this can have the unfortunate consequence that ‘Literature’ becomes difficult to access without resorting to impressionism of their own or else relying on what critics or teachers say that texts ‘mean’. The literary text remains somehow ‘special’, and uniquely creative in comparison to mundane ‘everyday language’.
An integrated approach: stylistics
An integrated approach to studying literature gives priority to language, encourages close reading, helps to avoid superficial, impressionistic comments, and is inherently democratic in that with practice everyone can develop skills and respond to literary texts in meaningful ways. In higher education, the explicit application of linguistic knowledge and models in the service of literary criticism is known as stylistics (see Simpson 2004 for an overview). Its principles of being clear, transparent and focused on how particular language choices give rise to particular effects are extremely useful as a working model for students of all ages. As an example, look at the first line of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A working party’, published in 1917.
Three hours ago he blundered up the trench
There’s plenty of subtle and sophisticated work that students can do with this line simply by asking questions about language, as a way of developing their skills at literary criticism. Here are four such questions.
 The poem begins with the adverbial ‘three hours ago’, placed at the front of the clause. This emphasises a time shift – the narrated events at the start of the poem happen three hours before the recounting time of the poem. Why is this important? What would be the effect if this were at the end of the clause?
 The soldier is referred to using the third person pronoun ‘he’. Why not use a proper noun or an extended noun phrase such as ‘the young/old/tired soldier’? The use of the pronoun reduces the referent (the soldier) to the smallest, depersonalised lexical unit. However, ‘he’ (and other such pronouns) tends to be used when readers are able to access the intended referent without any difficulty: i.e. they know who ‘he’ is. When they can’t, we tend to use more specific terms such as common and proper nouns. So here, we have the paradox of an expression that both depersonalises and emphasises closeness. Why?
 ‘blundered’ suggests movement but of an awkward kind; ‘up’ is a preposition that suggests a certain kind of orientation (vertical rather than horizontal). Why not ‘along the trench’? How does this preposition fit with the meaning of ‘blundered’?
 Sassoon uses ‘the trench’ rather than ‘a trench’. As with ‘he’, ‘the’ tends to be used when the addressee/listener knows the referent or is in its vicinity. So overall what is the significance of the use of the definite article? Would it matter if it were ‘a trench’?
These questions promote thinking about how key aspects of style are important in the act of literary interpretation. Indeed, the fact that these features are significant is in itself a type of emphatic patterning known as foregrounding. The act of interpretation also provides a motivation for teaching linguistic models and ideas in their own right. The examples above offer ways in to enquiry and learning about syntax, the pronoun system, semantics, prepositions and the motivation for using definite or indefinite articles. They involve students exploring language features, asking questions about prominent patterns and choices, and considering the likely effect of alternative ones (for a detailed exploration of the benefits of textual
intervention see Pope 1995; and also Madden 2006, and Queneau 2009).
Creativity in non-literary texts
Very briefly, I’d like to show how an integrated approach also provides novel ways of looking at non-literary texts. A fully integrated ‘English’ denies sole privilege to literary discourse, and sees an inherent value and creativity in everyday language (for detailed discussion of this idea see Carter 2004). An interesting example for students would be to look a phenomenon such as metaphor that might be thought of simply as a literary trope, and explore its pervasiveness and importance in non-literary discourse. Here are two such texts: the first is from an interview with George Osborne (the current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the BBC website; the second is part of a conversation between two year 11 (age 16) students about a forthcoming GCSE (national) examination.
Britain is moving from rescue to recovery. But while the British economy is
leaving intensive care; now we need to secure that recovery.
Akbar: so what you gonna revise for
Jack: well (.) Slim will come up (.) that’s what Mr Jones reckons
Akbar: yeah (.) he thinks it will be there (.) I bet he’s not right though
Jack: but (.) but I’m not going to risk it this year if it is there
Akbar: how would he know (1) he’s just guessing
Metaphor works by mapping attributes from one concrete area of knowledge to another that is more abstract (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In the first example, two metaphors are evident: the personification of the economy as a hospital patient; and the idea of a journey (moving/leaving from one place to another). Exploring why these metaphors were chosen in this example of political discourse can be just as intellectually demanding and satisfying as looking at metaphor in literary texts. Equally, in the second example, students can explore how the speakers co-construct an entire dialogue built around the metaphor ‘life is a gamble’. Both texts show the inherent creativity in seemingly everyday discourse.
The kind of work I have been describing is as easy to promote with younger students at Key Stage 3 as it is at A level. Indeed, one of the challenges of the future seems to me to offer students of all ages opportunities to engage in integrated work that can support rigorous, systematic and transparent analysis as a way of developing skills in areas of knowledge that might be seen as traditionally either more ‘literary’ or ‘linguistic’ in focus. This type of ‘language and literature’ work naturally resists a crude compartmentalisation of the subject, and instead sees the value in an integrated ‘English’.
Carter, R. (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk, London: Routledge.
Jakobson, R. (1960) ‘Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in T. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 350-70.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Madden, M. (2006) 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, London: Jonathan Cape.
Pope, R. (1995) Textual Intervention: Creative and Critical Strategies for Literary Studies, London: Routledge
Queneau, R. (2009) (3rd edition) Exercises in Style (translated by Barbara Wright), Richmond: OneWorld Classics.
Simpson, P. (2004) Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, London: Routledge
This article was first published in The Voice (2013)