Exploring Linguistics Through Literature

Littlefield 1Language is a fascinating part of being human, and is central to our experiences and interactions with one another.  No doubt this is a major reason why authors and storytellers often use linguistic phenomena to develop or enhance their plots and the portrayal of their characters.  Whether authors are correct in their use of and representation of these linguistic phenomena is an interesting question, and one that we pursued throughout this course.  This allowed us to read a wide range of fiction while simultaneously learning about the field of linguistics, one area in the cognitive sciences.

We began the course with a quick introduction to the core concepts used in the field of linguistics, briefly touching on the basics of structure of sounds (phonetics and phonology), words (morphology), sentences (syntax), meaning (semantics) and use (pragmatics).  Then, building on this foundation we began to explore areas where authors “break” the rules of linguistic phenomena, where they “present” the rules (but perhaps not all that accurately), and where they “make” the rules.

For “breaking” the rules, we focused mainly on the subfield of language acquisition.  While studying what linguists currently know about how children normally acquire language, we read a number of texts that utilized different aspects of acquisition in their plot.  For example, we examined how Rudyard Kipling portrays the main character’s speech, a young boy named Willie, in his short story “Wee Willie Winkie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’” (1888).  We found that Kipling accurately (but somewhat inconsistently) used some typical phonological features in Willie’s speech, for example, he says ‘pwoper’ and “wiver’ instead of ‘proper’ and ‘river’, while ignoring other typical features.  We also read two novels for this section of the class: in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), we focused on the role of input and the critical period in language acquisition, and how Shelly portrays these aspects in Frankenstein’s monster’s development.  We then turned to another classic novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1912) to examine the development of language by feral children.

Following our discussions of language acquisition, we moved to looking at how author’s portray discourse structure in their writing, and we compared actual conversation norms and routines with that found in fictional conversations.  Students collected data by recording conversations with their friends and then transcribing five minutes of that recording, using many of the conventions that linguists use to transcribe every word, interruption, overlap, and non-linguistic noise.  Students then compared and contrasted this transcript with a selection of text that they picked from a novel, short story or play.  They presented their findings to the class in a short oral presentation and a longer, more formal research paper.  Everyone in the class was surprised to see how different the two sources were!  We explored why author’s might not use (or even be aware of!) the actual features of natural discourse in their representations of dialogue.

Dialect is possibly the most visible and obvious thing that author’s use and manipulate in their writing, and we spent a number of weeks focused on this topic as well.  We began with a general discussion of language variation, the linguistic features of variation, and the sociocultural importance of variation to different populations.  As a springboard into the topic, we read selections from two authors who are the first to use and popularize the presentation of dialect in their characters’ dialogue: Sir Walter Scott (we read a significant part of Waverly, the first historical novel) and Jame Fenimore Cooper (a small selection from the Leatherstocking tales where French, German and other non-native English speakers’s dialect features are portrayed).  Then we focused more closely on select dialects and their specific features.

In examining the features of Black English, we read selections from texts like Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit(1881), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits” (1933), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1970).  Focusing on Native American Englishes, we read selections written by a range of authors, some of whom show very stereotyped (and inaccurate) portrayals of Native American’s English, while others (especially those pieces written by Native Americans, like Hyemeyoshsts Storm) give very nuanced portrayals.  Then, using works like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), we explored how authors portray the use of English by Asian Americans.  Steinbeck, in fact, uses his character Lee to make a point about linguistic stereotypes, and how speakers often hear only what they want to hear.  Lee’s conversation in the novel is nearly always in Chinese pidgin English which seems “broken” and unrefined, and has most if not all of the stereotyped mispronunciations, but in talking to one or two of the other characters (those he comes to trust), Lee uses a very high level of Standard English.  This led us to a number of interesting conversations about language use and it’s role in society.

Student’s followed up on these discussions of dialect by researching a dialect of their own choice, and then seeing how it was portrayed in a work of fiction.  Students presented their findings to the class, and we heard about dialects of English from around the world, from Singapore English to Scots English, from Southern dialects of the USA to Cockney English in London, and beyond.

Our last topic focused on how authors create the rules of language by actually creating languages for their works of fiction, leading us into the domains of fantasy and science fiction.  We discussed the processes that natural languages use to generate new words, and then looked at the ways in which authors use (or violate!) these rules to create their own new languages.  We looked at how authors incorporate new languages in their writing, and to what effect, and read works by Lovecraft (“The Call of Cthulhu” (1928)), Elgin (Native Tongue (1984)), Orwell (1984 (1949), and others.

Students’ final projects explored any topic of their choice, as long as it combined some area of linguistics and examined it in literature.  Projects focused on a wide range of topics.  One explored the dialogue in the film Schindler’s List and compared it to Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark; another examined the similarities and dissimilarities between Arabic and Chakobsa (the native language of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune.  Other’s focused on Anthony’s Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Herge’s created languages in The Adventures of Tintin series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s created languages in The Lord of the Rings, the use of code-switching in novels presenting bilingual speakers, and the use of structure of Lapine in Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Throughout the course, students gained a deeper knowledge of the field of linguistics, and learned the skills needed to engage in basic linguistic analysis and research.  The projects throughout the course allowed students to engage in hands-on research that provided opportunities for first-hand knowledge of the topics that were discussed.  And, of course, students gained exposure to a varied selection of fiction, which allowed us to explore a wide range of issues and topics, both in the cognitive sciences and beyond.