New methods in literary linguistics (26 Nov 2004)

Date: 26 November, 2004
Location: Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
Event type: Workshop

Programme | Abstracts | Event report

Past event summary

This event consisted of four sessions that gave a short account of the intellectual base for the field together with practical sessions on applications of linguistic techniques to literary studies.


10.30 - 10.45 Introduction
Nigel Fabb
10.45 - 11.45 Pragmatics: Applications in the teaching of literature
Barbara MacMahon
11.45 - 12.45 Getting precise about rules and variations: working with poetic metre
Nigel Fabb
12.45 - 01.30 Lunch
01.30 - 02.30 Language change and the grammar of poetry
Sylvia Adamson
02.30 - 03.30 Cognitive approaches to literary discourse
Peter Stockwell
03.30 - 04.30 Discussion

Event report: New methods in literary linguistics

by Alison Dickens

the sessions on approaches to metre and using relevance theory were both very useful

- Workshop attendee

This event consisting of three presentations and a discussion considered the question of how literary study may accommodate linguistic approaches. It was organised by Nigel Fabb (Strathclyde) who began the day with some thoughts on the ways in which Linguistics methodologies may contribute to, and possibly also conflict with, those used in the teaching and study of literature. Some of these noted by Nigel were:

  • The Stylistics approach which relates form to meaning and provides a vocabulary for talking about literary texts
  • The problem-solving approach in Linguistics whereby students are taught in workshop-mode and given problem-solving tasks to complete
  • Attention to form in Linguistics allows separation of form from meaning normally in literary study a more holistic approach is taken to texts
  • A linguistics approach to a text might be more concerned with the general features of texts than the specificity of a particular text as is more often the case in literary study
  • Linguistics will search for the essentials in language, e.g. will reduce to as few rules as possible, where in literary study a diversity of nomenclature and descriptions is encouraged

Further questions relating to the status of Linguistics within literary study and the tensions between what seem to be generally opposing methodologies were explored in the final discussion. These included:

Questions of language

  • Is literary language different from ordinary language (i.e. the language generally studied by linguists); if there are differences, are these formal or functional/interpretive differences?
  • Do literary texts have their own internal grammar?

Questions of status/curriculum

  • In terms of attractiveness to undergraduates, does Linguistics need literature more than literature needs Linguistics?
  • Is Linguistics in practice expected to be a service' subject to English e.g. are linguists mainly called upon to fill in students (and to some extent academics') gaps in grammatical knowledge, philology etc.?
  • Can Linguistics take a more integrated role in English Literature departments (as at Strathclyde, where linguistics influences many aspects of the literature curriculum, without usually being taught as a subject on its own.)
  • Is an English degree naturally changing (becoming more linguistic) as students (particularly in England) come through with English Language A' levels?

Questions of teaching

  • How can students be encouraged to take ways of learning (such as problem formulation and problem solving) from language and linguistics into literary study?
  • How can students be thrilled' by Linguistic theory e.g. by exposure to new methods (workshops, problem-solving, research) or tools (concordancing)

Questions of theory

  • Linguistics and literary studies each take a different view of what '(a) theory' is; can these be reconciled?
  • Is a problem-solving approach appropriate to literary studies?

Abstracts and handouts from the presentations

Pragmatics: applications in the teaching of literature

Barbara MacMahon

Download workshop activity: Pragmatics: applications in the teaching of literature (pdf 202Kb)

This session will cover developments in relevance theory, a pragmatics which takes a cognitive approach to communication, and argues that the interpretation of any utterance (literary or non-literary) involves a level of inferencing as well as straightforward linguistic decoding. The focus here will be on the use of relevance theory models and concepts in the study of literary texts. Relevance theory has been most productive in this respect in accounts of poetic effects, sound patterning and literary voice, and a broad outline of work in these areas will be given. The session will explore pedagogic applications of this work by considering examples of seminar activities for HE students, and by engaging participants in workshop activities on communicative processes in literature. Texts used will include work by Robert Browning, Tony Harrison, Jane Austen, James Kelman and Alexander Pope.

Barbara MacMahon is a senior lecturer in linguistics and English language in the English Department at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research interests are in the area of literary linguistics and pragmatics. Her publications include articles on malapropism, the language of Finnegans Wake, relevance theory and literary interpretation, relevance theory and poetic voice.

Getting precise about rules and variations: working with poetic metre

Nigel Fabb

Download handout: New methods in literary linguistics and their relevance for linguistics and literature students (pdf 248Kb)

I will begin by discussing the standard 'foot combination and substitution' approach to metrical analysis, exemplified for example by Fussell, and then consider the 'footless' approach proposed by Attridge in his textbooks on metre. I will suggest that in both cases, the representation is too close to the surface rhythm of the verseline; instead a categorial disctinction must be made between metrical rules and rhythmic variation. This categorial distinction is made in the generative metrics tradition, of which the most recent version is Bracketed Grid Theory (Fabb & Halle). This simplifies the representation of the metrical line (an advantage for teaching), but requires some other explanation for the actual rhythms, the variations and tendencies which are found in English verse. I will show how a pragmatics (relevance-theory) based approach to these is appropriate and usable in teaching students how to work with metrical verse.

Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics and head of the Department of English Studies at University of Strathclyde; an editor of Journal of Linguistics ; the author, co-author or co-editor of eight books, including Linguistics and Literature (Blackwell 1997), Language and Literary Structure (Cambridge 2002), Ways of Reading (Routeldge, 3rd edition 2005), and with Morris Halle the forthcoming A Treatise on Metre.


  1. In the discussion the question was raised (but not answered) of the relation between metrical practices and their historical context.
  2. The problem was acknowledged that metrical analysis is difficult for students, in any form & the issue raised of whether it was a step too far, formally, to expect them to learn it.

Language change and the grammar of poetry

Sylvia Adamson

Download handouts:
Case-study: the origins of free indirect style (charting a stylistic change) (pdf 28Kb)
Case-study: Frost at Midnight (interpreting an 18th century chronolect) (pdf 37Kb)

The study of literary language as conducted under the aegis of Departments of Linguistics has been overwhelmingly synchronic. In the 1960s this was not a surprising bias, given that the linguistics paradigms that established dominance in stylistics were Hallidayan functionalism and Chomskyan structuralism, neither of which had a great interest in the historical dimension of language. But the last twenty years has seen a great revival in historical linguistics, so it's now both surprising and sad that so little work has been done in developing a historical stylistics to match. In this session, I will aim to show how an understanding of the history of English, of the history of linguistic thought in England and of the theories and findings of contemporary historical linguists can enable us to provide more illuminating approaches to literary texts written before (and perhaps after) 1900.

Previous work of mine that bears on this issue includes:

Adamson, Sylvia (1989) `With double tongue: diglossia, stylistics and the teaching of English', in Reading, Analysing and Teaching Literature ed M.Short, London: Longman, pp.204-240.

Adamson, Sylvia (1994) `From empathetic deixis to empathetic narrative: stylisation and (de-)subjectivisation as processes of language change', Transactions of the Philological Society, vol. 92 no. 1, pp.55-88.

Adamson, Sylvia (1998a) `The Code as Context: language-change and (mis)interpretation' in Context in Language Learning and Language Understanding, ed. K.Malmkjaer & J.Williams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.137-168.

Adamson, Sylvia (1998b) `The Literary Language', in The Cambridge History of the English Language, 4, 1776-the present day, ed. S.Romaine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.589-692.

Adamson, Sylvia (1999) `The Literary Language', in The Cambridge History of the English Language, 3, 1476-1776, ed. R.Lass, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.539-653.

Adamson, Sylvia (2000) `Understanding Shakespeare's grammar: studies in small words', in Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language: A Guide, edited by S. Adamson, L. Hunter, L. Magnusson, A. Thompson & K. Wales. London: Arden Shakespeare, pp 210-236.

Adamson, Sylvia (2001) `The rise and fall of empathetic narrative: a historical perspective on perspective', in New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective, ed W. van Peer & S. Chatman. New York: SUNY Press, pp.83-99

Cognitive approaches to literary discourse

Peter Stockwell

Recent developments in cognitive science have allowed for a cognitive turn' to be taken towards literary reading. This has the potential to be able to connect the different dimensions of textuality, individual interpretation and cultural readings in a principled way. Cognitive poetics' asks questions such as: how does the reader keep track of plot and character; how does the texture of the text contribute to the reader's response and emotions; which readings are culturally natural' and which are eccentric; how is the reader's attention drawn across a literary work; how is the world of the work built and maintained? With examples drawn mainly from contemporary prose fiction, this session explores the possible insights offered by this new approach. We will be interested in discovering what cognitive poetics' has to offer literary scholars and teachers of literature, whether the approach tells us more about reading or more about literary texture, and whether its claims to a radical reorientation of literary study are sustainable.

Peter Stockwell is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Nottingham, Head of Modern English Language and Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts. His recent book publications include Language in Theory with Mark Robson (2004), Cognitive Poetics (2002), Sociolinguistics (2002), The Poetics of Science Fiction (2000), Investigating English Language with Howard Jackson (1996), and the co-edited collections Contextualised Stylistics (2000) and Impossibility Fiction (1996). He edits the Routledge English Language Introductions series and is the treasurer of PALA the Poetics and Linguistics Association.