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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 2 (session A) - Being creative with words and phrases > Manipulating word classes > Nouny styles

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Session Overview
(Semi) Automatic poetry
Introducing word classes
More on word classes
Manipulating word classes
Changing word class - affixation
Changing word class - functional conversion
New words for old
Word class problems
Word class checklist
Useful Links
Grammar Website

Manipulating word classes

Nouny styles

Piciture of Lucky in Channel 4's adaptation of Waiting for Godot The following passage is an extract from Lucky's speech in Samuel Beckett's More about Samuel Beckett famous play, Waiting for Godot. Lucky is a menial servant/slave who has remained mute up until this speech. Then he produces a long, apparently erudite but rather bizarre and incoherent monologue about the existence of God, the development of humankind and its place in the universe. The extract below comes about half-way through a speech of about 650 words in length. We have highlighted each of the nouns in the passage:

. . . and concurrently simultaneously what is more for reasons unknown in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports such as tennis football running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating camogie skating tennis of all kinds dying flying sports of all sorts autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume and concurrently simultaneously for reasons unknown to shrink and dwindle in spite of the tennis I resume flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham . . .

(Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, pp. 43-4)

Comments about meaning and effect

Although quite a lot of the words which Lucky uses are rather erudite (e.g. 'concurrently', 'simultaneously', 'succedanea' [which means 'substitutes']), something which correlates with the apparently erudite references to scholarly writing elsewhere in the monologue, his speech appears to be very incoherent. This is partly because of a lack of punctuation in the entire speech and the fact that, in spite of locally understandable grammatical structures, the structures flow into one another and are often uncompleted. At this point in the speech Lucky appears to be working towards an overall argument with the structure 'In spite of sports, Y is the case'. But we never get to Y. Instead, we seem to get stuck in various lists to do with sport, periods of the year and places in or near London. It is thus as if Lucky is a highly educated and intelligent person who is trying to construct an important philosophical argument but who is continually frustrated by an inability to control the lexical and grammatical choices needed to embody that argument, rather like someone who has had a stroke resulting in a language disorder.

Analytical comments

The first thing to notice is that of the 105 words in the above extract around 46% of them are nouns. The equivalent figure in Ellegard's norm for written English is 27%. The fact that there are almost twice the number of nouns than normal in the extract is a reflection of the paucity of grammatical structure (and therefore the paucity of overall cognitive sense), something which is seen most clearly in the various lists of sports which occur. The very high density of nouns gives the sense of talk that is not really going anywhere.

The lack of overall grammatical structure and the various lists of nouns also help us to notice (a) the repetitions (e.g. 'of all sorts' 'of all kinds', 'sports', 'tennis', 'flying', 'gliding', 'winter') and (b) the fact that many adjacent words seem to be chosen because of phonemic similarity. For example, the longest noun list has a series of names of sports which all end in '-ing' ('cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating'), and the place names at the end of the extract Feckham Peckham Fulham Clapham') all end in '-ham'. We thus get the sense of someone who wants to give examples but then gets stuck in them because of their internal similarity and can't get out. The matter is made even worse because the lists also contain the occasional 'nonsense' term. For example, there is no sport called 'conating' and there is no place called 'Feckham'.

A "nouny" task

Below is a short extract from James Joyce's More about James Joyce Ulysses which describes an argument which takes place among a number of important personages from various countries who have come as delegates to watch a public execution in Dublin.

What can you say about the nouns in the second sentence of the extract? After you have made your comments, compare them with ours .

An animated altercation (in which all took part) ensued . . . as to whether the eighth or the ninth of March was the correct date of the birth of Ireland's patron saint. In the course of the argument cannonballs, scimitars, boomerangs, blunderbusses, stinkpots, meatchoppers, umbrellas, catapaults, knuckledusters, sandbags, lumps of pig iron were resorted to and blows were freely exchanged. The baby policeman, Constable MacFadden, summoned by special courier from Booterstown, quickly restored order and with lightning promptitude proposed the seventeenth of the month as a solution equally honourable for both contending parties. The readywitted ninefooter's suggestion at once appealed to all and was unanimously accepted.

(James Joyce, Ulysses, p. 295)

Our analysis


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