LINGUIST List 7.1167

Sun Aug 18 1996

Sum: Operational definition of "style"

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <dizdartam2000.tamu.edu>


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  1. Ebrahim Khodadady, Operational definition of "style"

Message 1: Operational definition of "style"

Date: Sun, 18 Aug 1996 19:03:21 +0800
From: Ebrahim Khodadady <ekhodadaecel.uwa.edu.au>
Subject: Operational definition of "style"

I posted the following question on Linguist List (7.1032): How can
convoluted or stylised texts be operationally defined? The
operationalized definition of stylised texts shows its relevance to
linguistic and cognitive studies when investigative attentions are
focused on the possible positive relationship which is assumed to
exist between the style of a text and its difficulty (Dechant, 1991).

What follows is the responses of Steven Schaufele
<fcoswsprairienet.org> who kindly and patiently answered my incessant
queries (marked >) and thus provided me with a useful background for
the application of "style" in literary analyses. At first I tried to
write a summary but noticed that my rendering of his explanations is
not as explicit as his own sentences, so I decided to post his replies
directly:

Steven Schaufele writes: 

I'm not familiar with the work you're citing, so i can't say with any
certainty what, exactly, the author had in mind. Speaking off the
cuff, i suspect that if you tried to pin down a formal definition of
`convoluted' in this context, it would end up looking a lot like a
definition of `complex', i.e., involving such structural notions as
(excessive) embedding, etc., though it might also involve the
separation of coreferential constituents by long stretches of other
material.

I strongly suspect `stylized' of being a very relative term. What it
usually means to me is a body of text that is clearly restricted to a
very narrowly-defined register of usage. If you happen to be familiar
with that particular register, then the text in question will likely
present no problems to you, but might to someone else. In which case
you might not even be aware of how `stylized' it is. In other words,
to call a text `stylized' is, i think, merely a high-falutin way of
saying `it's written in a dialect/register/style with which i am
unfamiliar/ uncomfortable.' Kind of like my favourite definition of
`bimbo': `a girl who is better looking than the speaker is comfortable
with.'

>As I understand it, you are saying that the more unfamiliar a
>register, the more stylised it becomes. How can we relate the concept
>of a register to a certain written text and then decide that it is
>unfamiliar? I am asking these questions because they are closely
>related to one of my research projects. I am trying to find out to
>what extent the style of a written text affects its being
>comprehended.

Let's see if i can offer an example. Let me refer to the work of two
authors of `speculative fiction' (which is the umbrella term i
normally use to refer to what is usually covered separately by terms
such as `science fiction', `fantasy', etc.), both of whom were active
in the first half of this century (so they were roughly contemporary,
though one was American and the other British, i think): James Branch
Cabell (author of `Jurgen') and E. R. Eddison (author of `The Word
Ourobourous'). Cabell deliberately writes with a fairly `normal'
style -- his protagonists, at least, tend to talk very much the way
educated, upper- middle-class but otherwise ordinary Americans tended
to talk in casual conversation during the period between the Wars.
And the same can be said of his narrative style. To someone who's
used to `Standard American English' of the 20th century, his *style*
comes across as fairly unremarkable, although what he's talking about
is often very remarkable indeed. Eddison, on the other hand, affects
a very `epic/heroic' style -- when reading his stuff, i usually find
it helps to imagine i'm reading a 19th-century translation of some
lost work of Homer. To most of us, Eddison's work would come across
as very `stylised', but not Cabell.

As i said, Cabell and Eddison are roughly contemporaries, and each can
be said deliberately to adopt a certain style for good aesthetic
reasons. So i daresay Eddison's work would have struck even himself
as `stylised'. But I submit that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or
Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, or any other `popular fiction' of 150 or
more years ago would come across as at least somewhat `stylised' to
the average reader, although they would not have seemed to their
authors or their contemporaries. Then there's modern popular
literature written in, e.g., Indian English. Would come across as
almost unbearably `quaint' to the average American reader, i have no
doubt.

My main point was that `stylised' is to a great extent in the eye/ear
of the perceiver. I'm of the opinion that you can't define a piece of
text as `stylised' in an absolute sense; after all, Eddison's
characters, if you could solicit their views, would probably accept
their high-falutin constructions as normal speech patterns. In order
to be able to quantify stylisation, therefore, you would have to set
up a relative scale, and examine how far one
style/register/usage/whatever differs from another.


>To put in other words, you are saying that the way the educated, upper
>middle-class talk is the "normal style". Again what makes the speech
>of this educated class "normal"? Does this normality of style lie in
>their particular way of pronunciation, application of certain
>structures and/or vocabulary?

Please remember what i have said again and again, saying something is
`stylized' is a *relative* thing. There is nothing about `educated,
upper middle-class "talk"' that is intrinsically `normal' -- UNLESS
YOU HAVE ALREADY DECIDED, A PRIORI, TO ASSUME IT IS SO!!!! Saying
that a piece of writing, or whatever, is `stylized' merely means that
it differs in some parameters of language usage from whatever you
choose to regard as `normal'. And those parameters may be phonetic,
grammatical, or lexical, or any combination of the three (though in
the case of written material the first is not likely to be at issue).

>What makes the "style" of ordinary Americans so distinct in a
>particular period of time.

Only that the `style' of `ordinary Americans' (or Brits, for that
matter) may differ in some other time period -- perhaps significantly,
perhaps not.

>What effects can "time" have on the "style" of ordinary Americans to
>render the manner of speech used at a certain period so
>"unremarkable"?

Again, it's all a matter of what one is used to. What is `normal'
changes from era to era partly as a matter of fashion. Hence, it's
important to keep track of when a particular piece of text originates,
as well as where. The style of political rhetoric of 200 years ago
may seem quite odd today, but it presumably wouldn't have to the
people to whom it was addressed.

>All of the cited works are literary. Is "syle" a distictive
>characteristic of literary works only?

I chose to refer to literary examples only because stylistic
differences tend to be more obvious in literary writing. Any
sustained linguistic usage, written or oral, is likely to have a
characteristic style. There are stylistic characteristics of academic
writing and journalistic writing as well.

>I hoped that this series of questions and replies will pave the way
for further discussions on "style" and its operational definition
within an authentic and/or textual context.


Ebrahim Khodadady
Graduate school of Education 
The university of Western Australia
Nedlands, WA 6907
Australia
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