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A brief history of Stylistics

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Then we'll tell you the story of how Stylistics began...

Stylistics explores how readers interact with the language of (mainly literary) texts in order to explain how we understand, and are affected by texts when we read them.

The development of Stylistics, given that it combines the use of linguistic analysis with what we know about the psychological processes involved in reading, depended (at least in part) on the study of Linguistics and Psychology (both largely twentieth-century phenomena) becoming reasonably established. Stylistics, then, is a sub-discipline which grew up in the second half of the twentieth century: Its beginnings in Anglo-American criticism are usually traced back to the publication of the books listed below. Three of them are collections of articles, some of which had been presented as conference papers or published in journals a little earlier:

  • Fowler, Roger (ed.) (1966) Essays on Style in Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Freeman, Donald C. (ed.) (1971) Linguistics and Literary Style.New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

  • Leech, Geoffrey N, (1969) A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. London: Longman.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (1960) Style in Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Perhaps the most influential article is that by Roman Jakobson in Sebeok (1960: 350-77). It is called 'Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics' because it was a contribution to a conference which Sebeok (1960) published as a collection of papers. It is pretty difficult, so we wouldn't recommend nipping off to read it until you've done a bit more stylistics, but, as we shall see below, Jakobson is an important figure who connects together various strands in the development of Stylistics.

Stylistics can be seen as a logical extension of moves within literary criticism early in the twentieth century to concentrate on studying texts rather than authors. Nineteenth-century literary criticism concentrated on the author, and in Britain the text-based criticism of the two critics I. A. Richards and William Empson, his pupil, rejected that approach in order to concentrate on the literary texts themselves, and how readers were affected by those texts. This approach is often called Practical Criticism, and it is matched by a similar critical movement in the USA, associated with Cleanth Brooks, René Wellek, Austin Warren and others, called New Criticism. New Criticism was based almost exclusively on the description of literary works as independent aesthetic objects, but Practical Criticism tended to pay more attention to the psychological aspects involved in a reader interacting with a work. However, these two critical movements shared two important features: (i) an emphasis on the language of the text rather than its author and (ii) an assumption that what criticism needed was accounts of important works of literature based on the intuitional reading outcomes of trained and aesthetically sensitive critics. These critics did not analyse the language of texts very much, but, rather, paid very close attention to the language of the texts when they read them and then described how they understood them and were affected by them. Nearly a hundred years later, this approach is still very influential in schools and universities in the western world, and gives rise to the kind of critical essay where writers make a claim about what a text means, or how it affects them, and then quote (and perhaps discuss) a textual sample to illustrate the view argued for. This could perhaps be called the 'Claim and Quote' approach to literary criticism.

In general terms, stylisticians believe that the 'Claim and Quote' strategy is inadequate in arguing for a particular view of a text, because, like the slip 'twixt cup and lip, there are often logical gaps between the claim and the quotation intended to support it. In other words, stylisticians think that intuition is not enough and that we should analyse the text in detail and take careful account of what we know about how people read when arguing for particular views of texts. But the Stylistics approach in Western Europe and North America clearly grows out of the earlier critical approaches associated with Practical Criticism and New Criticism. Stylisticians also use the same kind of approach on non-literary texts.

There is another important strand of influence in the development of Stylistics (the one which Roman Jakobson was involved in) which comes from Eastern Europe. In the early years of the twentieth century, the members of the Formalist Linguistic Circle in Moscow (usually called the Russian Formalists), like I. A. Richards, also rejected undue concentration on the author in literary criticism in favour of an approach which favoured the analysis of the language of the text in relation to psychological effects of that linguistic structure. The group contained linguists, literary critics and psychologists, and they (and the Prague Structuralists: see the paragraph below) began to develop what became a very influential aspect of textual study in later Stylistics, called foregrounding theory. This view suggested that some parts of texts had more effect on readers than others in terms of interpretation, because the textual parts were linguistically deviant or specially patterned in some way, thus making them psychologically salient (or 'foregrounded') for readers. The Russian Formalists were, in effect, the first stylisticians. But their work was not understood in the west because of the effects of the Russian Revolution in 1917. After the revolution, formalism fell out of favour and, in any case, academic communication between what became the Soviet Union and Western Europe and North America virtually ceased.

Roman Jakobson became one of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century, and the reason for his considerable influence on Stylistics, in addition to his own academic brilliance, was because he linked various schools of Linguistics together. He left Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution and moved to Prague, where he became a member of the Prague Structuralist circle, who were also very interested in the linguistic structure of texts and how they affected readers. Then, when Czechoslovakia also became communist, he moved to the USA. Rather like a beneficial virus, he carried the approach which later became called Stylistics with him, and helped those who wanted to develop Practical and New Criticism in more precise analytical directions.

The introduction and chapter 2 of J. Douthwaite (2000) Towards a Linguistic Theory of Foregrounding (Edizioni dell'Orso: Turin) has a more detailed history of stylistics and the concept of foregrounding, a concept which is a cornerstone of stylistic analysis.

We've included two additional links for you.
The first, gives you a little background as to why Stylistics is called Stylistics. The second link invites you to think about whether Stylistics is 'Formalist'


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