Can Linguistics Help Writers? October 2015

One of the things I sometimes wonder about is how little we writers take an interest in linguistics. The most we generally venture into its territory is by thinking about the etymology of a word and considering whether that deepens the meaning of a phrase or passage. The fact that words develop and change their meanings is of interest to linguists, but it merely scratches the surface of the extraordinary insight that the study of language can give.

To give one simple example, writers are very interested in the added texture and meaning that is brought about by the connotations of words rather than what they denote. What is less well known is that there is a simple linguistic test to determine what a word denotes and what it connotes. Take for example the latinate word ‘prostitute’ and the more earthy, Anglo-Saxon word ‘whore’. Both words mean the same, which is ‘person who without coercion exchanges sexual services for financial or material gain’. However, the connotation of each is different, the former being a quasi-technical term and the latter carrying the implication of moral judgement.

The fact that the connotation is not part of the words’ meaning, what it denotes, can be established by this linguistic test. If one speaker describes someone as a ‘whore’, it does not make sense for the second speaker to respond by saying ‘no they’re not’ and mean ‘yes, they do willing sell sex for money but it isn’t wrong’. The answer ‘no they’re not’ can only mean, no they don’t sell sex or no they don’t do it willingly, because the moral judgement is not part of the meaning of the word. To disagree with the connotation, they would have to answer, ‘yes, they are a prostitute but prostitution isn’t morally wrong’.

This is a useful insight in understanding how poetic language can have shifting and sometimes unpredictable meanings. There are precise definitions of words but the connotations can change in different times and places and for different people. However, though this is useful, is it is a relatively minor insight from linguistics. In contrast, one of the most important for writers and those interested in literature comes from the field of ‘pragmatics’. Pragmatics is the area of language that explores how humans can convey meaning that isn’t encoded in the words that they are using. To me, this is one of the most wonderful and rich aspects of human communication.

Pragmatics explains, for example, how when someone walks into a room and says ‘It’s cold in here’, the person already there knows that newcomer wants them to get up and close the window. There is nothing in the sentence that should communicate that meaning, and a robot would be unable to understand it. So also would a human if a particular part of the brain was removed. There was famously a general who was shot in the head in the Iraq war and the part of his brain that was damaged was the part that was responsible for pragmatics. This meant that he was apparently unaffected – he could walk and talk without a problems – but he no longer understood jokes. Humour relies heavily on pragmatics.

One of the central theories of pragmatics is Grice’s maxim’s of conversation. These maxims state that in conversation people should be truthful, informative, relevant, and avoid ambiguity. The significance of these maxims is that they are not meant to be instructing people what to do, but that they are describing the unconscious assumptions that are already embedded in human communication. This is why, even though most people don’t know about them and couldn’t articulate them if asked, they understand that the question ‘So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels’ is funny.

We find this question funny because it (deliberately) flouts one of Grice’s maxims. The question doesn’t require the modifier ‘millionaire’ to identify Paul Daniels (there isn’t a non-millionaire Paul Daniels that we might mistake the questioner to be referring to), yet the maxim of relevance tells us that the apparently superfluous information must be significant. We use our contextual knowledge that people’s romantic choices can be affected by material considerations (and culturally this is a trade-off especially associated with younger women and older men) and our specific knowledge that Debbie Magee would generally be considered more attractive than Paul Daniels. The implied meaning therefore is that Debbie Magee married Paul Daniels for his money rather than because she found him attractive.

Though important to humour, these maxims are also absolutely central to literature. Take for instance one of the most famous short poems of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

This fourteen word poem, influenced by Japanese Haiku, consist of two lines, neither of which is a full sentence (both are noun phrases without a verb phrase), and there is no grammatical connection between them. In the absence of pragmatics, therefore, there is no way to make sense of the poem. It is only through the maxim of relevance that the reader knows that second line is presenting a description of the first, that the literal meaning of the poem is ‘The faces that appear in the crowd [at the underground station] look like petals on a dark, wet branch’.

To get below the surface meaning of the poem, the reader needs to explore the connotations of the words, particularly the connotations of ‘metro station’, ‘apparition’, ‘crowd’, ‘petals’, ‘wet’ and ‘black bough’. In addition, interpreting the poem will be helped by contextual knowledge about the ‘metro’ at the time Pound was writing and the cultural significance of urban transport and the natural world. All this exploration will help scholars understand why the poem has such an affect on people (which it does without readers consciously thinking about how the affect is generated), but can never provide a definitive ‘explanation’ of the poem’s meaning, because connotations are never fixed and agreed.

And to me, it is this fluidity, the way pragmatics enables language to carry and create meaning that has a visceral impact but that can never be fully nailed down, that makes literature so fascinating and powerful. And it is linguistics that helps us to understand and appreciate its potential, which is why it should be the very first tool in any writers’ kitbag.

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