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  • Language and literary structure: The linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative
  • Kristin Hanson
Language and literary structure: The linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative. By Nigel Fabb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 Pp. 240. ISBN 0521796989. $37.99.

1. Introduction

It is impossible not to be grateful to Nigel Fabb for his Language and literary structure (2002), and not to appreciate the intellectual urgency with which it must have grown out of his similarly titled Linguistics and literature (1997).

The generative approach to poetics summarized in the earlier book takes as axiomatic that some aspects of literary form are rule governed in the same sense that some aspects of language are. The paradigm case is meter: as Halle and Keyser (1966) originally observed, a poet composing in a given meter has intuitions as to what is possible within the form, in the same way that a speaker has intuitions about what is grammatical in his or her language. Hence, a meter is similarly the knowledge of the rules, articulated or not, that govern those intuitions and generate the variety of surface rhythms manifest in the lines of individual poems in the meter. On this view, moreover, as Kiparsky (1987), Hayes (1988), Hanson and Kiparsky (1996), and others have suggested, the question arises as to whether there can be a general theory of meter, constraining the form of such rules and accounting for the variety of them found across languages. The problems of describing and theorizing the rules defining meters thus become challenging and interesting in their own right, in ways quite distinct from the kinds of questions about meter that literary criticism and theory have traditionally taken up, such as the contributions to the meanings of poems of the metrical structures of particular lines, or the historical development and cultural significance of particular meters. Fabb 1997 is the first and only textbook I know of that has attempted to make the generative approach to meter available to students, summarizing it, and putting it together with crosslinguistic discussions of rhyme, alliteration, syntactic parallelism, and narrative structure to support courses exploring the linguistic rules defining these literary forms.

The suggestion that literary forms might be rule governed has, however, been resisted by just about every student, scholar, and even general reader of literature I have ever seen encounter it for the first time, not only out of the superficial confusion of rules with prescriptions with which linguists in every subfield contend, but also out of profound skepticism about the ontological independence of literary forms from conscious thoughts we have about them. Literary scholars’ most common goal is the interpretation of literary works; and as Kiparsky (1987) notes, the interest in linguistic study of literature that grew throughout the twentieth century alongside interest in linguistics turned to hostility precisely when it was argued to have failed to yield any securer path from form to interpretation than the ones critics had always followed, and that this failure came because ascriptions of literary forms to texts are themselves always already interpretations (Fish 1980).

Kiparsky’s (1987) diagnosis of the problem in this reasoning goes a long way toward curing it. He appeals to Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) heterogeneous theory of linguistic communication, and their claim that even in the most ordinary cases, while grammar offers a rule-governed path from an utterance through its phonology and syntax to its semantic representation(s), the path from there to an interpretation of the utterance—an [End Page 370] understanding of what is meant by it in the more colloquial sense of what the speaker intended to communicate—is an entirely different matter. The hearer must put the semantic representation together with a host of additional assumptions drawn from the context of the utterance, and deduce new thoughts from this combination, including hypotheses as to what the speaker intended to communicate. This process of interpretation is principled, in that the assumptions are selected with the aim of optimizing the relevance of the utterance, or getting it to yield the most new information for the least effort; and it involves rules, specifically those of logical deduction. But the process is not deterministic...


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