The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Literary language

A literary language is a register of a language that is used in writing, and which often differs in lexicon and syntax from the language used in speech.

English has such a register. Consider this sentence:

Few people would speak such a sentence aloud, unless they were reading from a prepared text.

Now think about this:

There are hardly any real life situations where somebody's going to open their mouth, and the first thing that comes out is "Consider this sentence".

The second sentence attempts to mimic more closely the usage of a particular form of spoken English as it contrasts with written English.

Comparing the two, it is apparent that literary English differs from spoken English in a number of particulars.

  • It is "formal;" which is to say, it is an acrolect. Contractions and similar spoken forms are avoided or are written out in full.
  • It uses a different lexicon. The verb consider appears more often in writing than it does in casual speech; the noun phrase such a sentence is again something that is much likelier to be written than spoken impromptu. By contrast, a phrase like there are hardly any is far likelier to be heard spoken aloud than written down; in writing, one is drawn instead to there are no. . . Who actually uses one as an epicene pronoun in real life, anyways?
  • It has a simplified syntax. This observation seems counterintuitive at first. Written documents may well contain complex sentences that contain multiple subordinate clauses and similar grammatical features. However, their basic structure tends to break down into simple subjects and predicates. Pronouns tend not to proliferate in writing as they do in speech; the methods of voice inflection and other disambiguating devices that clarify their referents are not available in writing. Long emphatic negating phrases like there aren't hardly any seldom occur in literary English, because while they seem more colloquial, they are syntactically complex. They too can be disambiguated in speech much easier than in writing.

Likewise, native readers and writers of English are often unaware that the complexities of English spelling make written English a somewhat artificial construct. The traditional spelling of English, at least for inherited words, preserves a late Middle English phonology that is no one's speech dialect; the artificial preservation of this much earlier form of the language in writing might make much of what we write intelligible to Chaucer, even if we could not understand his speech.

Other languages have similar traditions of literary language. The longer a literary tradition a language has, the likelier there is to be disconnection between speech and writing. In Greek, up until the middle of the twentieth century Greek writers wrote in a style that they called the katharevousa, a style based on ancient Greek; and even when the katharevousa came to be relatively neglected as a norm, Greek writing still preserves old diphthongs and other graphemes which have been merged in spoken (or demotic) Greek. Likewise, written French continues to mark noun and verb forms that no longer affect the pronunciation. Through the centuries of a widely differing gulf between vulgar Latin and ultimately the Romance languages, Latin continued to be written, attempting to imitate the model of classical Latin; when you spelled your local Romance language correctly and used proper grammar, classical Latin was what came out, and that was what you put on paper. The fact that classical Latin was unintelligible to the populace, and should no longer be used in homilies, was not acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Tours in 814.

In Javanese, Malay, and Japanese, special literary or formal words and grammatical constructions substitute for vernacular expressions in literary style. There are a number of explicit grades of formality in these languages, and moving from one to another is marked much more strongly in the grammar than it is in English. In Javanese, there are alphabet characters derived from the alphabets used to write Sanskrit, no longer in ordinary use, that are used in literary words as a mark of respect. Literary Chinese tends to a density of expression that is much greater than spoken Chinese. Literary Arabic, based on the standard of the Qur'an, continues to function as a lingua franca throughout the Arab world despite the often strongly differing varieties of local Arabic vernaculars.

See also

Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:55:27
Last updated: 08-17-2005 10:08:52