LINGUIST List 8.1740

Thu Dec 4 1997

Review: Simpson (1997) Language Through Literature

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

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  1. Dr Judy L Delin, Simpson Book Review

Message 1: Simpson Book Review

Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 11:48:27 GMT
From: Dr Judy L Delin <>
Subject: Simpson Book Review

Paul Simpson (1997) Language Through Literature. Routledge, New York. 
	223 pages. Hardback, $59.95, paperback, $18.95.

Reviewed by Judy Delin <>

 In five main chapters, this book provides a students' introduction to a 
range of elements of linguistic theory that have a useful application in the 
study of English literature. Chapter 1, `Studying language and literature' 
(20 pages) outlines the theoretical basis of the book, suggesting that 
literary texts are on a continuum with non-literary ones, and that there is 
no useful place for the concept of a specifically `literary language'. The 
chapter also contains a useful outline of the notion of `register' as applied 
to literary and non-literary texts. Chapter 2, 'From shapes to words: 
exploring graphology and morphology in poetry', (36 pages) gives an 
introduction to a range of linguistic concepts in phonetics and 
morpohology, including the relationship between phoneme and letter, 
types of morpheme, affixation, and word production rules. It also 
introduces the notion of grapheme, and looks at visually-immediate 
aspects of presenting language on the page such as line breaking and the 
use of white space. Chapter 3, `Words and meanings: an introduction to 
lexical semantics', (37 pages), covers a range of aspects of word meaning 
that would inform vocabulary choice: definitions of `meaning' based on 
connotation and denotation, lexical relations such as synonymy and 
homonymy, and aspects of word meanings arising out of the placement of 
words in use, such as unusual collocations of words. The chapter 
introduces a `cloze' technique for analysis of the expectedness or otherwise 
of vocabulary in literary texts. Chapter 4, `Exploring narrative style: 
patterns of cohesion in a short story', (25 pages) describes a workshop 
exercise of separating sentences in a passage from a Hemingway short 
story and presenting them to students for re-assembling as a text. In 
explaining the possibilities for re-ordering the sentences, it covers a range 
aspects of text cohesion based on Halliday and Hasan's (1976) model of 
text cohesion, including reference relations such as anaphora and 
cataphora and types of clause conjunction. It also introduces Labov's 
(1972) framework for studying naturally-occurring narrative as a 
framework for comparing `real life' (e.g. newspaper report) and literary 
narratives. Chapter 5, `Dialogue and drama: an introduction to discourse 
analysis' (47 pages) presents a simple model for the analysis of discourse 
based on that of Burton (1980), an overview of models for explaining 
conversational relevancy and coherence including Grice's (1975) 
conversational maxims and Sperber and Wilson's (1986) Relevance 
Theory, and an outline of Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness (1978, 
1987). Each chapter contains practical exercises for students, and worked 
examples using extracts from modern English literature, often presented 
on the basis of previous students' responses to workshops on the same 
texts. Some exercises are based on linguistically-informed creative 
writingfor students to try themselves. There is an extensive teachers' 
appendix giving further sources, applications, and suggestions for other 
literary texts for some of the main linguistic ideas. The book contains a 
glossary for use by students which gives brief definitions for linguistic 
terms used throughout, an extensive bibliography, and a useful index. 

The book provides a thorough coverage of some of the most central ideas 
from linguistics that have been usefully been applied to the analysis of 
literary texts, and which students of literature are likely to appreciate as 
part of a linguistic `toolkit' for informed stylistic study. It is a book that 
has long been needed, collecting together relatively recent linguistic ideas 
with the most useful of the older work and presenting them accessibly, 
without the assumption that the reader either has a sophisticated 
command of grammatical terms or that tutors will necessarily want to 
subscribe to either a formal or a functional approach to language study. 
Chapter 1's presenting of the theoratical basis of the book as a whole is a 
useful one, and is required reading for students of literature attempting 
to apply linguistic frameworks for the first time. The author distances 
himself from Leavisite literary criticism, presenting the linguistic 
approach as a democratizing mode of analysis, empowering students and 
novices with usable tools to enable them to say something interesting 
about literary texts without years of experience. Chapter 1 identifies a 
range of linguistic characteristics that might be thought to be exclusively 
`literary' and locates them additionally in a range of non-literary texts, a 
common strategy in stylistics courses but nevertheless one that opens 
students' eyes to an interest in the texts that surround them every day. 
For teachers who feel that their audiences -- students or colleagues -- 
might be sceptical of a linguistic approach to literarature, chapter 1 is 
powerful source of defensive arguments. 

In chapters 2-5, which form the main `meat' of the book in terms of the 
introduction of linguistic concepts and their application to literary texts, 
the balance is of theory and practical application is somewhat uneven. 
While some interesting literary examples have been used, there is in 
general a single large example of a literary application that is fully worked 
through in the book, and few suggestions or examples are given of other 
for students to work through for themselves. Neither is there a great 
diversity of literary texts: what is chosen is exclusively late 20th century, 
and each chapter restricts itself to a single genre. Discourse analysis is 
used for drama dialogue, and not applied to poetry or prose (in which 
direct or reported conversation, or conversational style, renders a 
discourse analytic approach productive). Cohesion analysis is applied to 
prose alone, while morphological analysis is reserved for poetry. While 
each of the worked applications is useful and illuminating, some of the 
power of each approach is lost through the lack of inclusion of other 
sample texts either in the same or other genres. 

For a book that `offers an introduction to English language through the 
medium of literature in English' (p2), the student is required to read a 
great deal of linguistic theory without benefit of literary examples, which 
means that the `pay-off' in terms of literary application may only be after 
30 or so pages often quite demanding new linguistic material. Students 
will require dedication to absorb, for example, perspectives on discourse 
analysis, the Gricean maxims, Relevance Theory, and politeness theory 
before they are given an understanding of what it is all for. Short 
interspersed exercises based on literary extracts giving a hint of the 
literary value of each approach would have leavened the diet considerably. 

The practice of narrating the results of analysis of the same texts in other 
workshops is one that may be of more use to tutors than to students. The 
author explains that this has been done with a view to giving students a 
`voice' in tbe book (p xi), reassuring them about their own intuitions. 
However, one impression that results is that the book is more intended for 
tutors than for students. This is a particularly strong impression in 
chapter 4, which narrates the process of reconstructing a Hemingway 
short story. Although this chapter has the advantage of presenting the 
literary `carrot' first, its chief value might be that of explaining to tutors 
what students are likely to do when faced with this practical task. It may 
be difficult, as a result, for course design teams to decide what parts of the 
book are suitable for tutorial use in an interactive setting, what should be 
read at home as preparation, and what is of most use to the tutor alone, 
despite the presence of the teachers' appendix that contains some further 
suggested activities. The presence of further texts for live tutorial study, 
perhaps with solutions in the teachers' appendix, would again have been 
useful in this regard. 

There is no doubt that this book will be a major contribution to the pool of 
textbooks upon which stylistics teaching can draw, and is, in my view, the 
most attractive currently available. It may fit particularly well into 
programmes in which there is an early and unproblematic language 
element. For students who are more confirmed in their pursuit of 
exclusively literary study before they reach the book, the lack of early and 
simple literary applications in each chapter may be offputting, and tutors 
may have to work harder to produce their own applications in lectures and 
tutorials that will provide the necessary stimulus. What applications there 
are, however, are very useful indeed: the inclusion of the visual medium 
in the study of poetry, the comparison of Labov's narrative categories and 
newspaper reports to the construction of literary narrative, the 
simplification and re-presentation of Burton's (1980) now-inaccesible 
model for discourse analysis, and the simple and uncluttered discussion of 
`core' and `non-core' vocabulary and lexical sets stand out as particular 
high points. There is no doubt that this is an important and much-needed 


Judy Delin is a permanent lecturer in Language and Linguistics in the 
Department of English Studies, University of Stirling, Scotland. She has a 
BA in English Studies from the University of Nottingham and a PhD is 
Cognitive Science (Linguistics specialism) from the University of 
Edinburgh. She has published on a range of topics in pragmatics, 
discourse analysis, and computational linguistics, and has convened and 
taught an Honours course in Language and Literature for 150 students of 
English Studies for the past four years. 
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