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  • Introduction:Conjoining Linguistics and Literature
  • Andrea Gerbig (bio) and Anja Müller-Wood (bio)


That there is a "natural" conjunction between literature and linguistics is a truism regularly voiced by scholars in either discipline: after all, both fields deal with the raw material of human communication and expression, language. Given that linguists and literary scholars often depict the foundational nexus of their fields as self-explanatory and natural, it is surprising that they do not explore and exploit it more often and/or more systematically. To the contrary: both in research and teaching contexts, reciprocal prejudices keep the disciplinary siblings of linguistics and literary studies apart: while one is seen to be empirical and descriptive, the other is considered interpretive and analytical.

For practitioners of either discipline, such distinctions may be conducive to a disciplinary self-affirmation that is as justified as it is desirable. Far be it from us to propose the destruction of disciplinary identity, as overeager [End Page 85] champions of interdisciplinarity tend to do. Interdisciplinary cooperation cannot (and should not) render disciplinary identity obsolete. We know from experience that interdisciplinary cooperation may have the surprising, counterintuitive effect of sharpening and refining the disciplinary contours of the cooperating fields. In other words, interdisciplinary work may make us even more aware of the boundaries of our fields and our place within them.

At the same time, however, interdisciplinarity may also broaden our self-image, widen our horizons and open up scope for self-critique. Linguistic methodology can provide literary studies with new empirical rigor, grounding intuitive insights in quantitative evidence. In so doing, it can also revive methods of traditional philology which—though currently unfashionable—are basic to teaching and research. Moreover, since the evidence gleaned through linguistic analysis may challenge prior, intuitive interpretations, they potentially challenge and reformulate critical views. Linguistics helps us to "trust the text" (Sinclair 1992), in other words, to interpret the text, rather than impose interpretations upon it. In short, linguistics is a timely reply to literary scholarship that seems to have given up on the text in favor of a vague notion of culture, which, rather than seeing texts as aesthetically meaningful artifacts in themselves, treats them as largely interchangeable products of a discursive system.

Equally, there are benefits for linguists, some of whom see literary language above all as a deviant version of ordinary speech, different from everyday language use. This radical distinction between literary and ordinary language, however, clearly oversimplifies matters. Literary language not only constitutes a large part of our everyday language use, it is (and always has been) an influential shaper of our knowledge and hence, our worldview (consider, for example, the use of metaphor in advertising, popular music as well as academic writing). Linguistics—the study of language—cannot comfortably ignore literary language by claiming that is it exceptional or deviant, at best relegating its analysis to the field of stylistics. The reciprocal influencing of the literary and the everyday puts literary language squarely within the purview of the linguists.

However, to call for the more emphatic interaction between linguists and literary scholars is not to propose a naïve positivism. If literature and linguistics are mutually illuminating, they also mutually illuminate their limitations. While some cultural theorists would endorse the idea that "a quantitative approach is too mechanical, too insensitive to variation, to be illuminating by itself" (Burke 2004, 22), most linguists (in particular corpus linguists) would argue that a qualitative approach can only be successful if it places individual phenomena in their larger context of language use. Variation can only be [End Page 86] explained in quantitative terms as it presupposes a norm; the degree or direction of variation is only significant in comparison to normative expectations.

Although the application of linguistic empirical tools to literature may not lead to ultimate truths, it can nevertheless bring precision to otherwise often impressionistic treatments of texts. What is more, the conjunction of literature and linguistics bears upon the way we understand cultural analysis in more general terms. The representative corpora investigated by linguists, for instance, provide repositories of actual language use that document the linguistic condition of a culture at a given point in time. They...


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pp. 85-90
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