Language dynamism, stylistics influence and the progression of meaning
Despite the changes in uses of languages, particularly what English has undergone in the last few hundred years, meaning in the context of discussion still remains key to communication. Without meaning, language would be useless.
These were what professor of stylistics at the Department of Languages and General Studies, Covenant University, Prof. Christopher Awonuga, asserted at the 8th Inaugural Lecture held at the University Chapel in Ota, Ogun State, when he delivered a lecture titled ‘What Does This Text Mean? Stylistics and The process of Interpretation.’ In it, Awonuga examined the application of stylistics’ principles to the study of both non-literary and literary texts and centred his discourse on the techniques employed in working out the meaning of texts.
The Chancellor of the university, Bishop David Oyedepo, led other dignitaries to grace the occasion.
Awonuga noted that in every use of language, whether spoken or written form, meaning is crucial.
“In discussing the issue of stylistics and interpretation, therefore, the emphasis is on the ways in which texts, whether non-literary or literary, can be made sense of,” he said.
According to the professor, the word ‘Meaning’ has been a subject of study for centuries mainly by philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and more recently, from the latter part of the 19th century, by linguists. He said in an attempt to answer the question of ‘meaning,’ some scholars have suggested 16 meanings of the lexical item while others give eight sentences as examples in which the word occurs.
Awonuga explained with examples how the different uses of the word ‘mean’ can be paraphrased by other expressions but stated that different uses of the word do not indicate anything important about the meaning of the word ‘meaning”.
He asserted that this observation hints at certain problems in ascertaining the meaning of words. He said, for instance, words do not have a one-to-one relationship with the things they refer to.
Awonuga: “Furthermore, the difficulty in defining the word ‘meaning’ is further compounded by the fact that the English language makes provisions for saying something and meaning something else. This is usually done through the deliberate use of irony, sarcasm, euphemism, and utterances usually treated under speech acts”.
He observed that another of these devices is ‘doublespeak,’ where someone is saying something and actually meaning something else. He said example of this phenomenon could be found in politics. The professor said, for instance, white politicians and other white people, generally in the United State, use language indirectly to insult black people and other minority groups in the country. He explained that what they use is known as racially coded language. In this, he said during the campaign for the White House for Obama’s second term, former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, who was the Republican candidate, once vowed to “keep America American”.
“When Romney positions himself as the keeper of American identity, he is implying that others are un-American,” he said.
Awonuga gave other racially coded words and statements that are used widely by white people, such as ‘Thug,’ ‘Inner-City,’ ‘Ghetto,’ ‘Oreo,’ ‘Uppity,’ ‘You People,’ ‘Shady or Sketchy,’ ‘Illegal,’ ’Politically correct,’ and ‘I am Not a racist.’
The don observed that another area of difficulty in ascertaining meaning in language is changes in the meanings of words and expressions. According to him, “The meanings of many English words had changed and continue to change. For instance, the word ‘gay’ originally meant ‘happy and full of fun.’ Another meaning of the word is ‘brightly coloured.’ But now, these two meanings of the word are regarded as being old-fashioned, and the word ‘gay’ is now used exclusively to talk about homosexuality and homosexual relationships. Thus, we have such expressions as ‘his husband’ and ‘her wife,’ which were unheard of before.”
Accordingly, another difficulty posed by the term ‘meaning’ is that of listeners mishearing what the speaker has said or is saying. He said according to psycholinguistic literature, word recognition is challenging because word boundaries are blurred in speech, as people speak in rapid stream.
Awonuga stated further that meanings also tend to vary across dialects and idiolects, adding, “The same word may have different meanings in British and American English. For instance, in British English, the word ‘bonnet’ may refer to the hood of a car, but in American English, it refers only to a type of ‘hat.’”
He observed that the issue is further complicated by the fact that individual speakers of the same dialect of a language do not always speak alike. He said in other words, there are variations in the ways that individuals use language, noting that in view of the difficulty in defining the word ‘meaning’, linguists now focus on the meanings of individual words.
He said: “Thus, instead of asking, ‘What does the word ‘meaning’ mean, language scholars now ask, what does this particular word mean?”
While giving a brief history of stylistics, the professor noted that the word has its root in rhetoric as postulated and practised by scholars in ancient times, but interest in the subject was rekindled at the beginning of the 20th century by the Swiss linguist, Charles Bally. He said stylistics developed in two directions, namely ‘linguistics stylistics,’ which Bally himself was concerned with, and ‘literary stylistics,’ championed by Karl Vossler. According to him, the subject has continued to grow and is being studied in universities around the world today, including Nigeria.
He also spoke on the domain of stylistics, saying there are different types, namely ‘linguo-stylistics,’ ‘stylistics of decoding,’ ‘functional stylistics,’ ‘comparative stylistics,’ ‘feminist stylistics,’ ‘cognitive stylistics,’ ‘discourse stylistics,’ ‘pedagogical stylistics,’ ‘linguistic or general stylistics,’ ‘literary stylistics’ and so on.
Awonuga further examined linguistic stylistics as that part of linguistics, which concentrates on variation in the use of language. He noted that in linguistic stylistics, scholars carry out the studies of registers such as the language of religion, languages of sports, journalism, politics, religion, science and so on. He explained that each of these registers has its distinctive linguistic characteristics.
He, however, said his work in this area has focused on the language of politics and, more recently, the language of sermons.
He said linguistics stylistics, in connection with dialect, have national varieties of English that is being domesticated in different countries. For example, there is American English, Scottish English, Canadian English, Indian English, South African English, Ghanaian English, Nigerian English and so on, noting that each of these varieties also has its distinguishing linguistics characteristics.
He said: “It is because of the multiplicity of variety, including dialects and idiolects that we no longer speak of English as a homogeneous language. Rather, it is heterogeneous, in the sense that it is made up of many languages. This is why we talk of ‘Englishes’ and not just English”.
The lecturer also attempted to provide a clear picture of what literary stylistics means. He said it has to do with the study of language used in a literary text in an attempt to arrive at the author’s intended meaning in that text. He said the process calls attention to the central place of language in the analysis and interpretation of literary texts. Awonuga noted that what usually happens in literary criticism is that the critic goes from intuition to conclusion when analysing a text. He, however, explained that this is not sufficient for proper analysis and interpretation in a literary text for intuition in such a situation is not reliable.
Awonuga maintained that it was why practitioners of literary stylistics introduce and emphasise the level of linguistics description in the study of literary texts, adding, “The reader initially forms intuitive judgments, as he reads the text. But rather than go on to the conclusion of his interpretation, he subjects his intuitive judgments to the rigour of linguistic description of the language patterns he observes in the text. And as he does this, he forms hypotheses and reaches conclusions before he comes to his final conclusion and ultimate interpretation of the text. This observation shows that the analysis and interpretation of the literary text is a process.”
The professor maintained that the level of linguistic description could not be dispensed with in the study of literary texts, noting that without it one’s effort in interpretation would be shallow and unreliable. He posited that the linguistic description of the language of a text endures one’s analysis and interpretation of the literary text with objectivity, saying this is because it is usually regarded as the scientific study of language.
Second, he said, linguistics also has the property of objectivity, which level of linguistic description gives one’s interpretative effort credibility. Awonuga observed that one implication of this is that to be an efficient practitioner of stylistics, one must first be a competent linguist.
While speaking on the place of text and style in stylistics, the university don said in linguistics, a text is any stretch of language that is meaningful. He said it could be a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter in a book, or an entire book, but that the important thing about it is that it must be meaningful. But he noted that style is basic to the two types of stylistics and one way in which each can be defined is that linguistic stylistics is the study of non-literary style or style outside literature, while literary stylistics has to do with the study of literary style.
He said, “But style is notoriously difficult to define. One reason for this is that the notion is used in many disciplines such as aesthetics, linguistics, stylistics, poetics, music, architecture, arts, fashion, advertising and so on.”
On the nature of literary communication, Awonuga stated that the way in which a creative writer communicates his intended message to the reader is essentially different from the way in which messages are passed to listeners in day-to-day discourse situations.
He said the creative writer has a point of view that he wishes to put across to the reader, but rather than say what he wants to say in a direct manner, he creates a fictional world, which he peoples with characters, who act out his point of view or the story he has created. Awonuga further explained that the reason why the creative writer passes on his intended message to the reader in this indirect manner is that he is not sure about who exactly would read his works.
Awonuga pointed out that a very large number of non-literary texts such as textbooks, academic journals, university handbooks and so on have a clearly specifiable readership, which is predictable in terms of participant roles, subject-matter and so on and handled by register studies.