How great writing happens - Genius, or the careful choice of language? Many people have an image of writing and writers, particularly poets, which assumes that they are geniuses, from whom great writing flows in an almost magical and unanalysable way. A good example of this stereotype is an advertisement which Heineken, the Dutch lager makers, put out a few years ago as part of a themed advertising campaign. Heineken ran a series of ads where a person or part of a person was lifeless, but became reinvigorated when he or she concerned drank a can of Heineken. The slogan ‘Heineken Refreshes the Parts Other Beers Cannot Reach!’ was displayed.
Later in the series of ads they had one where the famous Lake District poet, Wordsworth, who lived about 30 miles north of Lancaster, is trying to compose his famous poem about daffodils, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. He is pictured sitting by the side of a lake trying, again and again, to write the poem, but always failing to get started. Then he drinks a can of Heineken which he has brought with him and the poem just pours out of the end of his pen:
I wander’d lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden Daffodils . . . . . . and so on.
Unlike the rest of us, who usually have to work rather hard at our writing, apparently all Wordsworth had to do was drink the right brand of lager! And the slogan?
Heineken Refreshes the Poets Other Beers Cannot Reach!
The pun is obvious enough. This humorous representation is not that far from the stereotype of poetic genius handed down to us by the nineteenth century Romantics and which today still dominates our image of how great writers compose. We only have to think of the story of Coleridge, who, we are told, woke from a sleep (probably opium-induced) and began feverishly to write his poem ‘Kubla Khan’. Unfortunately, so the story goes, he was then interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, and, unfortunately, by the time the visitor had gone, the poem had gone too! Opium refreshes the poets other drugs cannot meet?
If great writing really is like the image of it portrayed in the ‘Kubla Khan’ story and the Heineken ad, there would be no real point in trying to understand how it is produced and how it affects us. Magic (and also the states induced by alcohol and other drugs) is, by definition, un-analysable. But the reality of the writing process is actually rather different. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that poets work rather hard at their poems, struggling through successive drafts to achieve the complex of meanings and effects they are striving for. Indeed, many variant drafts of poems by famous poets like William Blake, W. B. Yeats and others are collected in what are usually referred to as the variorum editions of poems. You will be able to see this drafting process at work elsewhere in this session when you look in detail at Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, a poem about young men dying in war. But for the moment, let’s look at a line from a poem by John, called ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. The beautiful Madeline is going to sleep:
Blissfully havened from both joy and pain.
The last line of the relevant stanza, which rhymes with the one just quoted, is different, with respect to one word, in the first and the final version of the poem. Which one do you think is Keats's final choice? Try to work out why the choice you prefer is best, and then submit your guess. You will then be given an analysis of why we think Keats changed his mind from one word to another:
‘Levels’ of Language On this topic we explore some of the different aspect of language. These are often referred to as 'language levels'.
If we want to look carefully at language and how it works we have to notice that there are various different aspects of language structure which need separate consideration. These are often referred to by linguists as the different levels of language. If we just think of a single sentence for the moment, we would need at least the following levels:
e.g. Lexis ('word meaning')
e.g. Semantics ('sentence meaning')
The Sounds/Letters Level: Phonology (speech) and Graphology (writing) Spoken language physically consists of distinctive speech sounds (phonemes) strung together to make up words. Phonemes are sounds which distinguish one word from another (e.g. /bet/ vs. /pet/ or /bit/) and linguists indicate phonemic transcriptions of speech by enclosing the transcription in slash brackets (/). This level of language is often called the phonemic or phonological level. Written English does not have sounds (although we can to some degree ‘hear’ the sounds behind the writing in our imagination). Instead it has a set of alphabetical symbols which we conventionally associate with the (phonemes) of English, sometimes in a one-to-one fashion, or sometimes in spelling combinations (for example, the two-letter combination ‘sh-’ is used to represent one phoneme /S/, as at the beginning of the word ‘shin’ (/Sin/). The written equivalent to the phonemic or phonological level in speech is usually called graphology.
Let us look at a simple sentence to illustrate phonology and graphology:
1. Girls like cats.
In graphological terms, substituting the letter ‘h’ for the ‘c’ at the beginning of the written word ‘cats’ above changes the spelling from; ‘cats’ to ‘hats’, and its spoken equivalent would change from /kats/ to /hats/. In both cases, not only would the sound or letter change, but also the whole word and so the meaning of the sentence as a consequence:
2. Girls like hats.
At the end of the words ‘cats’ and ‘hats’ there is no graphological difference between the spelling symbol and the phonemic transcription symbol used to represent the sound. But it is not difficult to find differences, and this is not surprising once you know that there are 26 letters in English but more than 50 phonemes. This explains why the alphabet needs to use combinations of letters like ‘sh-’ to represent some sounds. Phonemic transcriptions, although they use equivalent alphabetical letters where they can, have to resort to other symbols in order to have a different transcription symbol for each phoneme. For example ‘girls’ has 5 letters but only 4 sounds /gÎùlz/, and although the plural at the end of each word is indicated by the letter ‘s’, the plural marker is pronounced as /z/ in /gÎùlz/ and /s/ in /kats/.
The Grammatical Level
A second linguistic level we can distinguish is that of grammar (by which we mean, the form, positioning and grouping of the elements that go to make up sentences). Most of English grammar is controlled by the order in which words and phrases come in the sentence. This aspect of grammar is usually called syntax, and English is pretty extreme in its extensive use of syntax, compared with most of the world’s languages. And if you change the grammar you also change the meaning. So note that sentence (3) below uses exactly the same words as sentence (2) but the different syntax results in radically different meanings:
1. Girls like cats. 3. Cats like girls.
In (1) ‘girls’ is the subject and ‘cats’ the object, and in (3) ‘cats’ is the subject and ‘girls’ the object.
Grammatical relations in languages can also be controlled by adding grammar-indicating elements onto the words themselves. Most of the world’s languages use morphology more extensively than English to indicate grammatical relations. This is often referred to informally as ‘adding endings to words’, because, although some languages put such grammatical markers at the beginning, or even in the middle, of words, most put them at the end. This sort of grammatical structuring is usually called morphology. Morphology accounts for the building blocks of meaning inside words.
Although English is a very syntactic language, it does have some morphology. So, in the above examples, the adding of the ‘-s’ ending indicates plural. Hence the one-word item ‘cats’ is composed of two morphemes, CAT + PLURAL, and the first of these morphemes has 3 phonemes /kat/ and the second morpheme has one, /s/.
The Sounds/Letters Level: Phonology (speech) and Graphology (writing) In our brief look at the phonological and grammatical levels of language we have already mentioned another linguistic level, the level of meaning. One aspect of meaning is word-meaning (lexis). Changing the ‘c’ or /k/ in ‘cats’ or /kats/ to ‘h’ or /h/ changes the word and hence the meaning, in this case dramatically. The different words refer to completely different referents:
But note that, in lexical terms, it is also possible to change the word without changing the referent, in which case other aspects of meaning get changed (e.g. the connotations and associations we have for the different words). If, for example, we change ‘cats’ to ‘moggies’, the referent stays the same but the feline connotations are much more offhand and down-market. Change ‘cat’ to ‘feline quadrupeds’ and you get an odd clash between the scientific connotations of the phrase and the emotional characteristic of the verb ‘like’ of which it is the grammatical object.
When we changed the syntax in sentence (1) to produce sentence (3) we also changed the meaning of the sentence in dramatic fashion. This sort of sentence meaning is included in the aspect of meaning usually called semantics.
The linguistic levels we have briefly explored so far explain what is needed when we consider a single decontextualised sentence. But of course sentences don’t just occur on their own. They turn up next to other sentences in texts and talk, and, especially in talk, they occur within a situational context. This fact brings into play some other aspects of linguistic organisation, a couple of which we need to mention here.
The Meaning Level Again: Pragmatics In addition to word meaning (lexis) and sentence meaning (semantics) there is another important aspect of meaning, which is usually called pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of meaning in context. We can use the same sentence in different contexts to have very different pragmatic significances.
[Assume that the context is an article about the similarities and differences between boys and girls.]
The favourite animal for boys is the dog. Girls like cats.
Here the meaning of the second sentence is the same as in (1), but additionally it also has to be interpreted as an example of a difference between boys and girls.
Now, imagine a conversation between two teenage boys:
A. Cats are stupid. What use is a cat?
B. Girls like cats.
Here the additional meaning for the second sentence will probably be something like ‘you could increase your chances of getting a girl to like you by saying that you like cats’.
The Meaning Level Again: Intertextual Relations Another, more general, aspect of context which affects meaning is the fact that when we talk or write we do so remembering previous texts and speech. Thus we can say something which we know our hearers or readers will connect to another piece of text or talk. Imagine two people talking about whether their new cat should be called Tiddles or Toddles. After some discussion, one of them says ‘What’s in a name?’
Although the sentence appears to be a question, it is really an opinion masquerading as a question. To realise this, you need to know that it alludes to a speech in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
(William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 43-7)
If the speaker and the hearer know the intertextual relation (in this case a clear example of allusion) between their conversation and Juliet’s, it is clear that the speaker is expressing the opinion that it doesn’t really matter what name the cat has. This is because Juliet points out in her speech that she loves Romeo whatever he is called, and in her situation, where their families are at war, deciding that names don’t matter has rather more force than in a conversation about the naming of cats.
Language levels - just a metaphor From what is explained on the 'Levels of Language' page we can see that we need at least the following levels of language to be able to explain how language works:
Lexis ('word meaning')
Semantics ('sentence meaning')
Pragmatics ('meaning in context')
Syntax and Morphology
But you should note that this specification of levels is by no means the complete levels story. Once sentences are put together in texts and spoken discourse we will need to consider other aspects of linguistic organisation (e.g. text-structure in writing and turn-taking in conversation). Moreover, it is important to realise that the notion of linguistic levels is really only a metaphor for what might be better thought of as different aspects of language. This is because the levels metaphor sometimes leads students into unreasonable assumptions, for example (i) that the sounds of language are somehow more basic than other aspects because this level is normally put at the bottom of a levels diagram, or (ii) that meaning is somehow more important because it usually comes at the top.
Levels of language & advertising slogans We are now going to have a look at the way in which advertising slogans exploit the different ‘levels’ of language for effect.
Note that advertisers want to catch our attention and have us remember their advertisements, as part of a strategy to get us to buy what they are advertising. They often do this by being unusual, breaking out of the normal patterns of language (and, as we shall see in the next couple of sessions, they share this tendency with poets and other innovative users of language).
Advert for Perrier Water Apart from the label on the Perrier water bottle, this advertisement only has one word, ‘Aphreaudisiac’. This word is graphologically deviant because of its strange spelling. There is a word in English that has roughly the same pronunciation as the word here: ‘aphrodisiac’. An aphrodisiac, of course, is something which turns you on ‘sexually’. So, ‘Aphreaudisiac’ has that meaning, but also a bit more. The ‘o’ in the middle of the standard word is replaced by ‘eau’, the word for water in French. This may well change your perception of its pronunciation so that it sounds more French.
Given that the French are associated more often with ‘l’amour’ than most other nations in the western world, the graphological deviation is nicely appropriate. But there have been a whole string of advertisements for bottled water by Perrier (a French company, of course) and so the deviant spelling also associates the idea of an aphrodisiac with Perrier water. This theme is also related to the picture of the oyster. Oysters are themselves a well-known aphrodisiac, and where we would expect the pearl to be in the middle of the oyster we see a small bottle of Perrier water, with its distinctive shape. Thus Perrier water is associated in the advertisement not just with aphrodisia, but with beauty, high-value and exclusivity. The one-word deviant spelling, when linked to the picture, is thus the basis for a careful and quite complex bit of associative engineering.
Some texts for you to analyse
ONLINE TASK More on Intertextuality Allusion, parodies and pastiches are all forms of intertextual connections affecting meaning, and parodies and pastiches usually involve fairly complex links, acting at more than one linguistic level, between the two texts. Below is a well-known nursery rhyme (first published in 1806 in Rhymes for the Nursery) and a pastiche of it by Lewis Carroll, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. We have highlighted the changes from the first to the second version.
Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!
(Ann Taylor 1782-1866)
(Jane Taylor 1783-1824)
Twinkle twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly!
Like a teatray in the sky.
(Lewis Carroll 1832-98)
In pastiche and parody the similarities are as important as the differences. The similarities establish the connection between the two texts. The differences produce the humorous effects.
The similarities involve:
the grammatical structure: it is almost identical, apart from the changes in lines 2 and 3,
the lexis: it is identical apart from the words marked,
the sound structure: because the words are repeated, it is trivial to note that the sounds stay the same too, but note that the rhyme scheme stays the same (AABB) even though the actual rhyme used in lines 1 and 2 changes, and
the graphology: both poems use exclamation marks at line ends (though Carroll uses more and varies their position from line to line).
The humour comes from changing ‘star’ and ‘diamond’ to ‘bat’ (which forces the grammar and sound changes at the end of line 2) and ‘teatray’. Bats, although we might also wonder at them, are connotatively very different from stars. Many people don’t like bats, and so the cosy relationship between parent and child in the original is subverted. We also get a resultant semantic oddity because:
we don’t normally associate bats with twinkling (though they do change direction rapidly, which is an effect not unlike twinkling in some respects), and
comparing bats with teatrays seems ludicrous (even though they may both seem like flat objects when seen from a distance against the light), whereas the comparison between stars and diamonds seems appropriate.
Nursery rhymes, with their obvious patterns, appear to be used by adults to help young children derive pleasure from language patterning and language play, and they are effectively our first introduction to poetry. The sort of pastiche which Carroll produces is clearly related to the sorts of jokes young children make up themselves (‘Baa, baa green sheep, Have you any grass?’) and helps to teach children (and us) about how intertextuality and humour works.
Note: The examples of intertextuality we have talked about all involve some later piece of writing being connected to an earlier text which it refers back to. Sometimes, though, for particular readers the relationship might be the other way round (for example if you happen to come across the Lewis Carroll lines first and the ones by the Taylor sisters second).
What would the consequences be, do you think? Does this sort of intertextuality have the same sort of status as the kind we have been referring to?
Levels of language & pop group names On this page you will explore how different language levels are manipulated in the names of some well-known pop groups. After you have written down your thoughts, you can see what we think.
We have already seen, when we looked at advertising slogans, how, even with very short texts, a number of different linguistic levels can be manipulated simultaneously in the service of meaning and effect. Pop group names are even shorter, but we can often see the same sort of manipulation there. Below are some pop group names for you to consider. Write down how you think the relevant linguistic levels are being manipulated for each name, and to what effect, and then compare your description with ours. If you think we’ve got something wrong, don’t forget to email us and let us know!
Of course, by definition, the writers of stylistics web pages are fuddy duddies and cannot keep up with what is trendy with the young. The pop group names we explore below are chosen because they are pretty well known. If you have more interesting or more up-to-date examples to share with us, email them to us with your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org after you have done the tasks below and we will add them to the site.
And a final word of warning. Because some pop group names appear to have been deliberately chosen to reflect an image they want to create, that doesn’t mean that they all have. We know a local Lancaster group called Bluey, whose name happens to be the name of the drummer’s teddy bear.
We hope that, if nothing else, you might think more carefully in future about why new pop groups choose the names they do, and what effects they might be trying to create with their names.
We have included some further reading If you are interested in learning more about the linguistics of pop.
ONLINE TASK Style, meaning & choice in poems Below is a poem by Stephen Crane , but with a choice of three possible alternatives in four places in the poem. Preferably working with some other students, your task is: to work out, in each of the four places, which choice that you think Crane actually made, and to work out why you think your choice is preferable, taking into account the effects at different linguistic levels that one choice or another has in relation to the rest of the poem.
It is important that you work carefully at what you think the best choices are, and why, as you will then get more out of comparing our view with yours, and so learn more.
The above task is adapted from Faulstich's cloze-version presentation of Crane's poem as reported in an article by Willie van Peer (see below for reference details).
Faulstich, W (1976) 'Die relevanz der cloze-procedure als methods wissenschaftlicher text-untersuchung', in Lili. Aeitschrift fur Literatur- wisssenschaft und Linguistik, 6, 81-95. van Peer, W (1988) 'How to do things with texts: Towards a pragmatic foundation for the teaching of texts', in Short, M (ed) Reading, Analysing and Teaching Literature, 267-297.
Anthem for the doomed youth On this page we will explore the different meanings and effects created as Wilfred Owen moved from an earlier draft of his famous poem to the final draft. You can analyse the effects of the changes at different linguistic levels and then compare your analysis with ours.
In the final version of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen achieves an effect whereby the persona in the poem is apparently walking with us through a battlefield considering how the young men being killed at that moment will be laid to rest and remembered. This introduces a series of ironic and poignant comparisons between war, death and burial on the battlefield, and the rites of a peacetime funeral service.
We have included two versions of the WW1 poem, an early draft and the final version (see below). An audio version of the final poem is also available.
Beginning with the title, we'd like you to look at each line of the poem in turn, and determine which aspects of language you think are being exploited in the changes from the earlier draft to the later one (we've highlighted these changes for you). Type your comments in the box provided and then submit your answer. You will then be able to compare your comments with ours. Do not attempt to provide a full stylistic analysis of the poem. Concentrate only on the parts which change from one version to the other. You can, however, comment on the rest of the poem when you feel it may help you to better understand the changes that were made to the final draft.
Anthem for Dead Youth
What passing bells for you who die in herds?
- Only monstrous anger of the guns!
- Only the stuttering rifles' rattled words
Can patter out your hasty orisons
No chants for you, nor balms, nor wreaths, nor bells,