13 December 2009

Literary texts important to linguists

Linguists usually base their research on what literary critics, following William Wordsworth, call "the real language of men (and women)." Some linguists, however, use literary texts (though artificial or human-made) for their research. This is a very recent example:

"Motion events in Chinese novels: Evidence for an equipollently-framed language," by Liang Chen and Jiansheng Guo (Journal of Pragmatics, Sept. 2009):

"Motion events typically involve an entity moving along a path in a certain manner. Research on language typology has identified three types of languages based on the characteristic expression of manner and path information. In satellite-framed languages, the main verb expresses information about manner of movement and a subordinate satellite element (e.g., a verb particle) to the verb conveys the path of movement. In verb-framed languages, the main verb expresses the core information of the path of movement, and the manner information is expressed in a subordinate structure (e.g., a gerundive). Both manner and path, however, are expressed by equivalent grammatical forms in equipollently-framed languages. In this paper, we explore the place of Mandarin Chinese in motion event typology through an examination of motion event descriptions in Chinese novels. We find that Chinese writers do not pattern their narrative descriptions of motion events as do writers of satellite-framed languages, nor as writers of verb-framed languages. Rather, Chinese writers follow unique habitual patterns of language use that lead to the contention that Chinese is an equipollently-framed language."

Writers have a lot of influence not only on readers and on other writers, but on scientific scholarship (in this case, on the science of linguistics). This is one reason creative writers have to be very careful about what they write and also one reason literary critics have to help scholars in other disciplines to understand what is really going on in a literary text.

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