Robin J. Sowards‘ “Why Everyone Should Study Linguistics” first appeared in issue 68 (Spring 2007) of the minnesota review. Sowards teaches English at Duquesne University. His research interests include British poetry of the Long 19th century, literary theory, German Idealism, linguistics, and Noam Chomsky.
All literary critics already do some kind of linguistics. When we make even the most off-hand assertions about the meaning of a literary text, we commit ourselves de facto to assumptions about the nature of language and about specific aspects of linguistic structure. It’s no surprise that intricate observations about the linguistic nuances of literary works depend on a theory of language. If we start talking about count nouns, subordinate clauses, or the indicative mood, we are drawing on a technical terminology that only has content by virtue of a specific theory of language (a theory, for example, in which some groups of words count as “clauses” and other groups of words don’t). But one need not be a formalist for one’s claims to depend on linguistics. Even a mere paraphrase would be unintelligible without unstated linguistic premises, and if its claims were to be justified explicitly these premises would necessarily step into the light. For example, say we are considering the first line of Shakespeare’s first sonnet, “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” We might plausibly gloss this line as saying “We want the most beautiful things to reproduce.” But in asserting this as a paraphrase, we must assume that there is some systematic relationship between the sentence we started with and the sentence we offered as a gloss on it. We would want to say, for example, that “we” remains essentially unchanged between the original and the paraphrase, but to do so we must assume some notion of grammatical subject that explains in what sense “we” remains the same when it is obviously in a different spot. Even the most innocently general summary of what a text says—even the publisher’s blurb on the back of a novel—would, if it had to get down to brass tacks and really make all of its claims and assumptions explicit, turn out to depend on premises of this kind. Linguistics is our inevitable hidden premise, just like one cannot infer “I am” from “I think” without assuming that “Everything that thinks, exists” (which is why Descartes goes to such trouble to deny that the cogito is an inference ). The only way one could avoid any implicit dependence on claims about language would be not to talk about the text at all, and a work of literary criticism that did not talk about the text at all could hardly meet even the most minimal standards for evidence.
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