A language frequently employed by the literate. It is generally regarded as more refined. In many cultures, for example the Roman Empire and India, the literary language remained mostly unchanged where the vernacular changed quite rapidly.

What is literary language?

Many critics and poets have tried to nail this down. It's a slippery eel, it really is. It's been defined as "the familiar made strange" (Attridge), which is a nice way to put it. I got out a dictionary, the OED 2nd Ed. and looked up 'literary' to be pointed to literature. According to, I think, Paul Valery, poetry is a "prolonged hesitation between sound and meaning" - and Jakobson latches on to this to back up his claim that literary language is not significative. But we'll come back to why he's doing that. Most telling, perhaps, was a Concise edition that gave as the 3rd definition of literary: "Of or pertaining to words chiefly used in literary works or compositions." In other words, no-one can really say.

Books and books and books have been written on this, in the guise of 'poetic diction' or code/register and so on. The field must be a major part of the literary theoretical industry at the mainstream end. I'm afraid I'm not going to do a literature review, because investigations into literary language tend toward being a dumping ground for people's agendas, and latterly, their anti-theoretical agendas in particular. Before we go there, and before we take a shortcut, let's insert some autobiography. Bear with me here.

Unwarranted personal blurb

I've just finished my degree. It was unlike a lot of UK universities' courses in English literature, as far as I can gather, in a lot of ways. One of these was the lack of a reading list. We were told to write on a given author, and then just left to it. This is amazing, and exciting, and liberating and stimulating, and a lot of the things that tertiary education is meant to be, I guess. But it also meant I had no guidance, and that it's perfectly possible to finish the course with the methodological sophistication (or lack of it) that you started with. A lot of people do this. Which, I guess, is fine, in a way.

I was lucky to meet some people who persuaded me that actually, it was worth looking into some theory before I went to university, and I did, and I found it very difficult. Please don't, really just don't get one of those primer/starter/for idiots/from scratch/etc Literary Theory guides. They're confusing. They're alienating. When you finish school, reading about deconstruction and phenomelogy and hermenuetics and so on will alienate, irritate and confuse. Narratology might be ok, if you start in the right place, but otherwise, just don't. Read some of Aristotle's Poetics. And maybe chapter 10 of The Republic. If these books, which have informed our cultural aesthetic assumptions to the nth degree, don't get you excited, or interested, or wanting to be wide-eyed or say 'but, wait!', stop there. You're not going to enjoy theory.

To cut a long preach short, so I got into theory at uni. Aside from jonesing for Alexander Pope, for whom I harbour still deep and embittered love, this question, 'What is literary language?' went round my head a lot in my last year. Because language is so protean and adaptable and gushes everywhere. Almost everything can be written down. And almost everything can effect you, sometimes. So when is it literary? When is it not? How do we decide where to delimit these institutions ('literature', 'canon', 'criticism' etc etc) that are so central to us?

Basics and a few examples.

Ok. So, what are the obvious things to say about literary language? One of the term's top google hits says that it 'differs in register and syntax from ordinary langauge'. This is the basic idea that people try and try to articulate. There's something about it that is alien. Everyone would agree, I think, that these are two extracts which exhibit 'literariness':

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.(Kubla Khan, 12-25)

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd.(PL, i.209-220)

Coleridge and Milton; cornerstones of the Western Canon. More problematic, though, are things like this example, from a famous novel of the last twenty years. I'm going to give you a single sentence from the end of a chapter in three chunks. See if, and how, your opinion of the sentence's literariness changes. Consider;

1. "I've never really cooked anything before."
2. "I'm crying too hard and I'm not sure whether I'm doing it right because I've never really cooked anything before."
(sic) 3. "Maggots already crawl over the human flesh and granite worktop and I'm trying to make sausages from her thigh and stomach but I can't see it because I'm crying too hard and I'm not sure whether I'm doing it right because I've never really cooked anything before."

Where's the 'familiar made strange' in here? Where is the alien syntax? And yet - would you deny that this is, in some way, moving, arresting writing - even literary writing?

Roman Jakobson - linguistics, aphasia and 'scientific' self-validation

This seems as good a time as any to introduce one of our three major players: Roman Jakobson. Jakobson's Language in Literature is, for me, one of the last great structuralist linguistic assays. Jakobson was a member of the Prague school of linguistics, but I've been digressive enough. Language in Literature is an extraordinary book, published in about 1962, which sets out how literary language works. So. Things will get wavy here because I no longer have access to the books to provide accurate quotations. Take it on faith; and don't plagiarise this. In Language in Literature, Jakobson says that "Modern logic has recently discovered a distinction between poetic language (or literary language) and object language (or metalinguistic language)." This established, Jakobson sets out the two poles of literariness - metonymy and metaphor. 'Poetry' occurs when in metaphor "the principle of equivalence is projected from the axis of selection to the axis of combination". Finally, in his essay chapter 'Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances' Jakobson says that aphasia - crudely, cognitive anomalies - is what drives these mistakes, these 'disorders' as he calls them. A similarity disoder makes a metaphor, a contiguity disorder makes a metonymy.

Let's stop a second. We galloped off a bit. It's exciting, authoritative stuff. But let's actually read Jakobson, and not just swallow him down. Let's look at the words Jakobson is using. 'disturbance' - 'aphasia' - 'disorder' - 'axis'; Jakobson talks like a scientist. Why? Because by appropriating vestiges of science and scientific discourse, he provides himself with a patina of, what's that term? 'Object language'. Here's the rub. Because of 'modern logic' and 'object language', Jakobson can attempt to separate things out like a forensic scientist, trying to track down the 'disturbance' that is literature, all the while wearing clean white surgical gloves and mask - he validates himself and his tools as investigative. He insures himself. Clever bugger. Enough of this.

Paul de Man: literary theory, misinterpretation and negative definition

Let's turn quickly to our second big daddy, a literary theorist called Paul de Man. Literary theorists and linguists, by the way, very rarely agree. They approach things different ends up. We'll see why. De Man wrote a great book called Blindness and Insight. In its first chapter, a clear fifteen years after Jakobson and whilst dismissing Levi-Strauss and his versions of anthropology, de Man in a wonderfully deft throwaway says that Levi-Strauss has to erase himself from his anthropological study for it to cohere "just as linguists had to posit a metalanguage without speaker in order to remain rational". This is exactly what we've just seen with Jakobson, right? In Appendix B to the book, called, I think, What is literary language?, de Man does a quick literature review of a few writers who have tried to answer this question: Miles, Riffaterre, Chapman, and Stanley Fish. What he observes is this: each seamlessly demolishes other people's working definitions of literariness with sublime ease, irony and grace. But when it comes to proposing their own alternatives, they all fall down into contrived examples, implausibilities, etc etc. De Man realises that these four smart guys all know what literariness isn't, and can demonstrate logically why other people's definitions are bollocks. But they can't say what it is. They misconstrue, misinterpret, skew things around, and so on. This gets him thinking. (Because he's awesome.)

To speed up a little. De Man and Jakobson are at odds. De Man does a good job of demonstrating how and why Jakobson is wrong, but this is actually kind of irrelevant. What is comes down to is that both believe that the appreciation of literary language happens because of a mistake. Remember Jakobson's aphasia? Harold Bloom's word for this is misprision, but both the guys we've been looking at would utterly scorn to be associated with such a definition. (Jakobson has a vested interest in the term 'aphasia', and de Man just says 'misinterpretation': he has his own beefs with Bloom, which come in Appendix A). So, at least in part, aestheticism - which is kind of what we're dealing with here - arises from necessary error. I think that's an interesting idea in itself.

Past all this crap about oppositional thought-experiments, which is what Jakobson and to a lesser extent de Man are engaged in, everything is actually ok. People get it. We know what's literary, and what's not. Usually, at least.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: language games, polysemy and the sublime

Enter third big guy. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein theorised that everything (linguistically, at least) was ok, and that people understood, more or less, what was going on, and what was literary and what was not was pretty clear. The theory rests upon the learning of 'language games'. When a kid is asked 'How old are you?' and they put up three fingers, they're playing a game. They don't know what the fingers stand for, or what a year is, or that they are three years old, but that in the game called 'How old are you?' the answer is 'Three fingers'.

Wittgenstein isn't a positivist, though, and permits polysemy as a linguistic function. (Viz "The language games are rather set up as 'objects of comparison' which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities.") So what does Wittegenstein have to do with all this? Well. Stanley Fish says that literature is what disturbs our sense of self-sufficiency, personal or linguistic. And I disagree - watch out for the tangent here - I think that Literature is what disturbs our sense of which language-game is being played, and alerts us to the possibility of a parallel game to the one we thought we were playing.

So, this suddenly apprehended multiplicity of function works us into questions of literariness, questions of the slippage between the 'ordinary' and the 'aesthetic'. One field that really fucking excels here is, of course, advertising: "Labour isn't working".

The slipperiness of this function, of how we perceive ourselves slipping from one language game into another is massive. We think a sentence has one sense; we realise it has two - how? James Noggle says that 'this gesture is a function of the sublime'. Sublimity, though, can be shortcut out of a challenge.* We expect sentences to be linear, and to have one sense. But we suddenly perceive in a clause or sentence or paragraph or story more than one sense, we can't nail it down so well anymore. The problem is, we can think of an extra meaning for just about anything. This goes some way towards explaining the impossibility of positive and the ease of negative identification pointed out by de Man and the fact that the appreciation of 'literariness' itself relies upon what de Man calls 'error' (instead of 'mistake'). That the appreciation of art is a disturbance in the brain.


So where have we got to? What do you reckon? Someone once asked Jacques Derrida, "What is literature?" He responded, I think, "Well, we know what literature isn't." I think he's right - and his answer can point the way of the nihilism a lot of people think is inherent in 'post-modernism'.
What, then, is literary language? It's not, say, 'Silk Cut'. But it might just be 'Smoking Kills'.

*Sublimity notes to be added. I need to read Hegel first.

Edited 21/03/2007: fixed typos, removed some facetiousnesses.

References and further reading:
S. T. Coleridge, Kubla Khan
John Milton, Paradise Lost
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 2nd Edition, New York: Routledge, 1981
Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1988
This is post-Finals recall. I haven't plagiarised anything published or any of my own essays. But these were, I think, my major sources in thinking about this.

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