The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


David Herman

The study of language and of literature was once united under the umbrella discipline of philology, and before that within the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In the early years of the twentieth century, however, literary research and language studies began to bifurcate into separate, autonomous areas of inquiry—to the detriment, arguably, of scholarship on the novel, among other literary modes and genres. In response, analysts working in a variety of traditions have sought to bring about a rapprochement between frameworks for literary and linguistic study, giving rise to important metatheoretical debates. At issue is the extent to which the sciences of language can or should inform research on prose fiction and, conversely, how the distinctive properties of discourse in the novel might bear on any general account of the structures and functions of language itself.

In lieu of explicitly addressing these issues, the Russian formalists used a “theoretical synecdoche, ’substituting’ language—the material of verbal art—for art itself, and linguistics—the science of language—for literary studies” (P. Steiner, 1984, Russian Formalism, 138) (see FORMALISM). Some forty years later, the structuralist narratologists repeated this trope but drew on Ferdinand de Saussure's (1857—1913) work to lend the synecdoche hermeneutic authority as well as quasi-scientific status (see STRUCTURALISM). Employing linguistic theory as a model, metaphor, or analogy, the early narratologists viewed linguistics as the “pilot-science” on which a systematic account of fictional and other narratives might be based. The goal was thus to identify a narrative code that underlies particular narrative texts, in parallel with the way, for Saussure, langue (the system of language) makes it possible to produce and interpret parole (individual utterances). By contrast, analysts working in the Anglo-American tradition of stylistic research (Fowler; Leech and Short; Toolan) have sought to apply various types of linguistic analysis directly to narrative texts, viewing the language of fiction as just that—as a species of language in use. From this perspective, analysis of the discourse of novels can be viewed as part of the broader domain of research on style in language, “style” sometimes being defined as patterns of variation in the language of individual speakers (e.g., shifts from more colloquial to more formal ways of speaking), in contrast with dialectal variation across different groups of speakers (Herman, 2002, 196—98).

Although the exact status and function of linguistic models in the context of literary research continue to be debated, at a more practical level analysts have demonstrated how linguistics affords productive heuristic tools for study of fictional narratives. Revealing the relevance of concepts that postdate Saussurean structuralism and its strict separation of the linguistic system from aspects of language in use, including ideas from discourse analysis, corpus and cognitive linguistics, sociolinguistics, and other domains within contemporary language research, the study of prose fiction has proven to be one of the most fruitful areas of intersection between linguistics and literary theory.

Linguistics and the Novel: Some Heuristic Tools

Frameworks for linguistic inquiry can illuminate key aspects of the structure and interpretation of novels. Linguistic concepts can be used to explore referential dimensions of novelistic discourse, or the process by which novels evoke fictional worlds. Likewise, those worlds are presented via perspectives or vantage points encoded in the patterning of discourse cues, whose format also suggests distinctive “mind-styles” of characters construing the situations and events in a given storyworld. Equally worthy of investigation is the manner in which characters' utterances, because of their structure and distribution, are saturated with sociointeractional meanings in fictional “scenes of talk.”

Deictic Shift Theory and Narrative Worldmaking

Whereas structuralist narratologists failed to come to terms with the referential properties of narrative, partly because of the exclusion of the referent in favor of signifier and signified in Saussure's bipartite model of the linguistic sign, a central question for recent narrative theory is how interpreters of stories reconstruct narrative worlds—e.g., how readers of novels use textual cues to build up representations of unfolding storyworlds. Approaches to studying language structures and processes at discourse level (vs. the level of individual words, phrases, or clauses) can illuminate how the patterning of textual cues affords resources for world creation.

One relevant framework is deictic shift theory, which seeks to illuminate the cognitive reorientation required to take up imaginary residence in a storyworld. This theory holds that a “location within the world of the narrative serves as the center from which [sentences with deictic expressions such as ’here’ and ’now’] are interpreted” (Segal, 15), and that to access this location readers must shift “from the environmental situation in which the text is encountered, to a locus within a mental model representing the world of the discourse” (ibid.). The theory also suggests that over longer, more sustained experiences of narrative worlds, interpreters may need to make successive adjustments in their position relative to the situations and events being recounted—on pain of misconstruing what is going on in the story, i.e., not reading properly the blueprint for world building included in the narrative's verbal texture. An initial deictic shift provides access to the storyworld of a novel like Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (2007), whose first sentence prompts readers to reorient themselves around the deictic center of Florence Ponting's and Edward Mayhew's hotel room on the first night of their honeymoon on Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast in England in mid-July 1962: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible” (3). Subsequent discourse cues trigger further shifts, prompting readers to flashback to earlier events that took place in other locations (e.g., “Their wedding, at St. Mary's, Oxford, had gone well” [3]), to move back and forth between Edward's and Florence's vantage points on what is happening, and then, after advancing forward several hours on their disastrous wedding night, to telescope rapidly into the more distant future, some forty years later.

Cognitive Linguistics and Narrative Perspective

cognitive linguists, whose general project is to examine how language structure and use reflect more general cognitive abilities of embodied human minds, have developed ideas that can throw light on the nature and functions of narrative perspective. From a cognitive-linguistic standpoint, perspective can be interpreted as a reflex of the mind or minds conceptualizing scenes represented in narrative texts. This approach affords a unified, systematic treatment of perspective-marking features of novelistic discourse. The basic idea behind what cognitive linguists call “conceptualization” or “construal” is that one and the same situation or event can be linguistically encoded in different ways—ways that reflect different possibilities for mentally construing the world. I can say “Florence delivered the apology,” but also “The apology was delivered by Florence,” with my choice of the active or passive voice corresponding to different conceptualizations of the scene. These construals select a different element of the scene as the focal participant: the passive voice selects Florence; the active voice selects the apology. More generally, cognitive linguists such as Ronald W. Langacker and Leonard Talmy suggest that a range of cognitive abilities support the processes of conceptualization that surface in linguistic choices of this kind. Drawing on this general framework, theorists can explore how fictional narratives may represent scenes that are either statically (synoptically) or dynamically (sequentially) scanned by the perceptual agents construing them. Scenes will have a relatively wide or narrow scope, focal participants and backgrounded elements, and an orientation within a horizontal/vertical dimensional grid. Scenes are also “sighted” from particular temporal and spatial directions, and viewpoints on scenes can be distal, medial, or proximal, i.e., range from being far away to being up close. Each such distance increment, further, may carry a default expectation about the degree of granularity (or level of detail) of the construal. Closer perspectives on scenes generally yield finer-grained (= more granular, more detailed) representations; more distant perspectives generally yield coarser-grained (= less granular, less detailed) representations. Students of the novel can investigate how these parameters for construal are realized textually—and in turn how particular kinds of textual cues guide readers' efforts to parse novelistic discourse into scenes that are variably structured, paced, and distributed over the course of a given text.

Corpus Linguistics and Mind-Style

Related to issues of perspective is the notion of “mind-style,” a term coined by Fowler to designate the process whereby “[c]umulatively, consistent structural options [such as choices in vocabulary and the use of transitive versus intransitive verbs], agreeing in cutting the presented world to one pattern or another, give rise to an impression of a world-view” associated with a character or narrator (quoted in Leech and Short, 151). Fowler based his account in part on Halliday's analysis of the use of intransitive verbs in William Golding's novel The Inheritors (1955) to suggest the Neanderthal population's inability to grasp the full complexity of causal processes (1971, “Linguistic Function and Literary Style,” in Literary Style, ed. S. Chatman). Subsequent scholarship has further developed the notion of mind-style by examining the range of linguistic features that can be used to connote a worldview or way of construing situations, processes, and events in storyworlds (cf. Shen). Another strategy for extending the concept is to use corpus-linguistic techniques to examine the extent to which the distribution of specific textual features accounts for readers' intuitions about mind-styles.

Focusing on a large and principled collection of naturally occurring texts as the basis for analysis, corpus-linguistic methods allow researchers to identify and analyze complex “association patterns,” or “the systematic ways in which linguistic features are used in association with other linguistic and non-linguistic features” (Biber, Conrad, and Reppen, 5). In a study that drew on these methods to analyze how verbs of motion (“walk,” “run,” “leave”) were distributed across eight narrative subgenres, including oral Holocaust testimony, slave narratives, ghost stories, and novels, Herman found that nineteenth- and twentieth-century psychological fictions had the lowest overall frequencies for motion-verb usage. Yet these same two genres also featured the two highest rankings for the number of different motion verbs. In other words, although psychological fictions disprefer motion events as such, favoring states and ongoing processes instead, when they do portray such events narratives that foreground characters' psychological experiences are likely to draw on a richer repertoire of verbs than would other narrative genres. A larger array of verbs is needed to encode how the events are being processed by the minds through whose conscious activity the events are being filtered. More generally, beyond allowing analysts to explore correlations between mind-styles and genres, corpus-linguistic methods have broad relevance for the study of spatial, temporal, and other structures of novelistic discourse.

Discourse Analysis, Sociolinguistics, and Scenes of Talk

The fictional representation of discourse practices—i.e., the staging of “scenes of talk” within fictional texts—constitutes another fruitful area for the use of linguistics to investigate novelistic discourse (Herman, 2002, 171—207). On the one hand, ideas from linguistic pragmatics and discourse analysis can be used to examine the interactional profile of utterances embedded within a surrounding frame of narration. Utterances represented in novels typically involve coordinated interchanges between two or more participants, with fictional dialogues fufilling a metacommunicative role by reflexively commenting on the contexts and processes that affect (and sometimes derail) everyday communicative practices. On the other hand, sociolinguistic theories of language variation provide new ways to explore the verbal texture of represented discourse. The format of represented utterances, including speech styles that partly reflect and partly create social identities, is inextricably linked to participants' sense of self and other, reinforcing patterns of cooperation and conflict encoded at other levels of narrative structure as well.

Key questions in this area thus include: how do participants in fictional dialogues seek to convey more than they literally say, and how do novelists represent this process in ways that prompt reflection on the factors that can inhibit communication—e.g., differing background assumptions, contrasting cultural experiences, or asymmetric power relations? And how do novelists use characters' speech styles to explore interconnections between language practices and understandings of gender roles or social status, among other aspects of identity?

SEE ALSO: Cognitive Theory, Speech Act Theory.


1. Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen (1998), Corpus Linguistics.

2. Fowler, R. and D. Herman (2003), “Linguistics and Literature,” in Oxford International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 2nd ed., vol. 2, ed. W. Frawley.

3. Herman, D. (2002), Story Logic.

4. Herman, D. (2005), “Quantitative Methods in Narratology,” in Narratology beyond Literary Criticism, ed. J. C. Meister et al.

5. Langacker, R.W. (1987), Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1.

6. Leech, G. and M. Short (2007), Style in Fiction, 2nd ed.

7. Segal, E.M. (1995), “Narrative Comprehension and the Role of Deictic Shift Theory,” in Deixis in Narrative, ed. J. F. Duchan, G. A. Bruder, and L. E. Hewitt.

8. Shen, D. (2005), “Mind-Style,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, ed. D. Herman, M. Jahn, and M.-L. Ryan.

9. Talmy, L. (2000), Toward a Cognitive Semantics, vols. 1 and 2.

10. Toolan, M. (2001), Narrative, 2nd ed.