How do we study language?

Unpacking the complex relationship between literature studies and linguistics

Written by Ella Paulin, SciTech Editor
Design by Drea Garcia

On the very first page of the introductory linguistics textbook Making Sense of Language, Third Edition, a revealing dig at English teachers tips us off to the tension between linguistics and the field of literary studies. “Language may not be what you think it is,” it reads. “It is not mostly the perfect, well-formed grammatical sentences that your English teachers have taught you to write.” 

As I trudged up the hill from the elegant, hardwood halls of my English class in the Birks building to the grimy, brick home of the linguistics department at 1085 Dr. Penfield, I prepared to change masks. My teaching assistant’s point about the profound verse in Paradise Lost gradually slipped my mind, replaced by the technicalities of syntax, morphemes, and X-bar theory. I set aside the poetic perspectives of my literature professors and embraced the machinery of linguistic analysis. 

At first glance, one might presume a considerable overlap between linguistics, with its scientific approach to investigating language, and literary studies, centred around the artistic expression of written language. After all, both fields take verbal expression as their medium, and both involve memorizing large amounts of jargon in order to analyze it. 

Yet in practice, these subjects diverge significantly, and it is uncommon for experts in one field to possess extensive knowledge or background in the other. In fact, this separation often leads to a palpable tension between the two disciplines. 

This is not to say that there aren’t connections between linguistics and literary studies. In specific conditions and certain academic environments, the fields do cooperate. 

“The people in English in this department, they’re almost exclusively literary,” Charles Boberg, associate professor in McGill’s Department of Linguistics, explained in an interview with The Tribune. “But there’s other traditions and other places where, like, in the southern US, there’s a lot of linguists in language departments. In the smaller places that don’t have a linguistics program, then anyone with a linguistics interest is going to be in English.”

The field of historical linguistics, which attempts to uncover deeper insights into the evolution and historical contexts of languages, frequently draws from literature as a vital resource.

“There’s a great deal of analysis of literary texts in historical linguistics,” Boberg said. “So much of our knowledge of Middle English is based on Chaucer, and in early modern English, we turn to Shakespeare.”

Historical linguists often rely on literary sources out of necessity, since often no other records remain from past eras. However, linguists specializing in modern languages tend to avoid literature in their research. 

“For people who work on synchronic linguistic analysis, there’s a strong prejudice against working with written language as a whole, not just literature,” Boberg noted. “Spoken language is seen as primary.”

This stance reveals another tension between linguistics and literary studies. While linguists often treat spontaneous spoken language as the most “authentic” form of language use, those in literature generally focus on the carefully-crafted written word. There are literary forms, for example modernist writing and some poetry, that emphasize spontaneity and deprioritize grammatical conventions, but the overall trend here holds. 

The inherent written nature and the artistic embellishments of literature can make it less appealing for linguistics researchers to study. Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that familiarity with linguistic concepts could be useful for someone trying to analyze a text. According to the literature professors I spoke to, they are curious and willing to learn more. 

“If I knew more about linguistics, I think I could become a better writer,” Ollivier Dyens, director of McGill’s Department of French Language and Literature, said in an interview with The Tribune. “Sometimes I tell my students in creative writing, ‘This is a really interesting metaphor, but it doesn’t work, and I don’t know why.’ [...] But if I knew a bit more about linguistics, maybe I could give them at least a hint of a solution.”

Michael Wagner, chair of McGill’s Department of Linguistics, echoed the sentiment in an interview with The Tribune, saying, “It can actually give more clarity when you can linguistically tease things apart and understand how the pieces fit together.”

In addition to the insights that linguistic theories may have for those in the English department, scholars in both often share an interest in analyzing poems. For Wagner, his linguistic work on prosody brings him to poetry. 

“We often look at meter and poetry, or how tunes align with the lyrics in a performed song,” Wagner explained. “From the linguistic point of view, it's very revealing with respect to the underlying linguistic representation of language.”

However, he was quick to note that the way a linguist approaches a poem might not align with how a literary expert would. 

“I think reading this [linguistics research] might be frustrating for somebody who's primarily interested in poems from a different perspective, because all we do with it is test our little theories of what we think the representation of language is in general,” Wagner said. 

One reason for the discrepancy between what the linguist discovers and what the literary scholar wants to read is that the disciplines study the use of language with completely separate methodologies. 

On the linguistics side, the guiding philosophy is one of scientific reductionism: Breaking entities and processes into their parts in order to understand the whole more fully. For example, where a literature professor might use a sentence to make a broader argument about a novel’s thesis, a linguist is more likely to break the sentence down, looking at how the words are used and how they fit together. Despite linguistics being housed within the Faculty of Arts, this approach reveals that most linguists think of themselves as scientists studying language empirically. 

“The kind of work that goes on in our department [...] is much closer to people in the targeted sciences like biology than it is to people in the literary departments or in the language departments,” Boberg said. 

On the literature side, professors echoed this perspective. “It's the old story of the divide between the arts and sciences,” Dyens noted, highlighting the risk of studying from only one of these perspectives. “Reductionism cannot explain the quality of life–the emotional texture of life that we experience. [...] On the other hand, if you never look more scientifically at that qualitative aspect, then it becomes extraordinarily impressionistic, and that has its own dangers because it becomes ‘what I feel like,’ which is not always what it really is.”

One potential pitfall of this approach is literary experts making comments or proposing ideologies about language that lack rigour. According to Dyens, this is a concern throughout the humanities—not just in the divide between linguistics and literature. However, fields that handle language are especially fraught because the general public has a variety of intuitive notions about the nature of language that don’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. When scholars of literature begin to comment on language, they risk incorporating these misconceptions into their work or teaching. 

Among the misconceptions about language, the idea that there is a “correct” way to speak remains particularly pervasive—and detrimental. English teachers in middle and high school, who attempt to teach a “grammatical” use of language, probably enforce this belief most strongly, but it is still very much present among those who study literature at the university level. 

This instruction in grammaticality shapes students’ thinking about language and contributes to the sense that grammar should be feared and avoided at all costs. It’s telling how surprised and relieved people often are when you explain how linguists tell if a sentence is grammatical or not: By checking whether a native speaker of a given language would say it out loud, or if they would judge that it “sounded right.” 

This methodology aligns with linguistics’ overall “descriptive” approach to language: They are concerned with describing language, not prescribing norms for its usage.

“From our point of view, there’s been no concern whatsoever with telling people how to speak in a correct way,” Boberg said. “Linguists have fought a long and hard battle not to be confused with language teachers. And even in this department today, there’s some sensitivity about those things.”

In contrast, the “prescriptive” approach, more common in literary studies, teaches that there are certain correct and incorrect ways to use vocabulary and grammar. To do this, though, teachers have to figure out which dialect, or version, of a language is the “correct” one. This often pushes regional dialects to the side, reminding speakers of these dialects that they do not have a place in the context of intellectual speaking or writing. 

Christopher Rice, a lecturer in McGill’s Department of English, noted that he tries to refrain from using his regional dialect and slang when he’s teaching in class. 

“I do think that I have a little bit of a fraught relationship to it. Because I don’t hear it myself, but I think that some people can very much discern that I’m an East-Coaster,” Rice explained. “And I speak with a lot of slang, but when I’m in class, I do try to be a little bit more formalized with these things, just based on maybe the expectations of my teachers or something like that.”

Much of the field of sociolinguistics, which studies language in the context of social factors, pushes researchers to look at all dialects objectively without assigning a higher value to some than to others. 

“Sociolinguistics, beginning in the 60s, was really kind of a hippie thing,” said Boberg. “It was all about erasing these prejudices about non-standard Englishes being inferior.”

He brought up the example of African American Vernacular English, which became a major area of study for sociolinguists in the 1960s: “[They were] saying, ‘actually, African American English is a fully functioning linguistic system with just as much structural and validity as any other. And the differences between it and the sort of standard English that's taught in classrooms are purely matters of social prejudice.’”

Dyens, from the literature side, agreed, saying, “I think most linguists don't have a hierarchy the way that we do in literature.”

However, despite the prejudice and discrimination that can result from a prescriptive approach to language, both literature professors emphasized that the clear, correct, and precise use of formal, school-room language was invaluable in the context of literature analysis. And, as someone using that formal dialect to write right now, it’s hard to criticize that position. 

“To me, there’s a better way to write than another, and it might not necessarily have to do with, you know, the classical French,” Dyens said. “But it has to do with the desire to make your language as subtle and as rich and as complex as possible.”

“When we look at poetry, when we look at literature, we're really thinking about a highly intentionalized form of language and discourse,” Rice added. “And there, you especially want to be very attentive when it comes to what you're communicating and how you're communicating it.”

Linguists themselves also get caught up in this web of prescriptivity and descriptivity. Even when they produce research arguing for the equality and recognition of regional dialects, they return to the prestigious, formal register when writing articles and teaching classes. 

“Whether we like it or not, control and command of the standard variety of the language in any given place is an advantage professionally,” Boberg said. 

The complex interplay between linguistics and literary studies, between a scientific and an artistic approach to studying language, or between their descriptive and prescriptive perspectives highlights the complexity of language itself. As a tool capable of expressing subtle and beautiful ideas, it earns a place in the center of literary studies. On the other hand, as a highly intricate system of interlocking words and phrases, linguists are able to study language with scientific rigour. 

As I walk back down McTavish to write my Shakespeare essay in the Arts building, I shift gears once again, allowing my emotional reactions to the text to replace my diagrams of syntactic analysis. And yet, I can’t totally separate these two worlds—my impressions will always be coloured by my knowledge of the language changes that have occurred since Shakespeare wrote, and my analysis will always be underpinned by the syntactic and semantic structures at play in his verse. 

These fields, although separate disciplines with distinct goals and methodologies, have tremendous potential to inform and challenge each other. In order to fully appreciate the power of language, we must strike up a greater dialogue between linguistics and literature studies.