This past semester I took my first ever linguistics class in college and it opened my eyes to this exciting and interesting field of study. Previously I had always made the distinction between linguistics and the study of literature, mostly because I had never explored linguistics in a classroom setting before. However, there is actually a close and valuable connection between these two different branches.
The suggestion that we can use linguistics to help us better understand literature (such as why Holden Caulfield evokes certain emotions in us) made me realize that this specific focus on words has always been something that has interested me. Whenever I’m asked to analyze a text, be it a novel, poem, or other work, I tend to first gravitate towards the language itself. For example, the first English paper I ever wrote in college was about Daniel Defoe’s use of language in Robinson Crusoe to denote the conflict between savagery and civilization on the island. In order to present an image of sophistication to the reader– and perhaps even to stay sane while attempting to survive on the island– Crusoe seems to make a conscious effort to portray himself as a civilized man, as though he were still living in what he considers to be human society. Crusoe constantly describes physical aspects of himself using language with European connotations, thus reproducing himself as more sophisticated and civilized.
Though I didn’t delve into the specific etymology of Crusoe’s vocabulary, I now realize that this paper was edging towards a more linguistic approach to analyzing literature. It is all too easy to become tangled in grand symbolic meanings, representations, and implications while interpreting literature that the actual language of the text is often forgotten. It’s safe to say that writers do not meticulously comb through their lexicons looking for the most etymologically correct or appropriate word to use every single time they write, but that does not mean that language is meaningless beyond what it conveys when it is read as a complete text. To ignore the particular descriptive words and meaning behind names of characters and places would be to discount much of what the writer might have wanted to convey.
After having taken this class, I find myself being much more aware of the specific language being used in texts. Do you think about linguistics when you read? Have you ever taken a linguistics class or learned about the subject in general? Do you think it’s useful or valuable? Let me know in the comments section below!