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Winter 2003

Pragmatics and stylistics, by Vicent Salvador

Consideration of linguistic variation is inherent to pragmatics, especially where such variation relates to contextual factors, an area where it frequently converges with work on stylistics. This article reviews certain relevant contributions made from the perspective of style analysis (literary studies, sociolinguistics, and systemic functionalism) and outlines certain approaches to a stylistics of language, centred on Buhler's threefold division into symptom, signal and symbol. Lastly, illustrations of this approach are given, touching too on the ideological dimension, with reference to questions of analysis.


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1. Preamble

2. Literary studies

3. Social and functional variation

4. Symptoms, signs and symbols

5. Some objects for the application of stylistics

6. Conclusions

7. Bibliography


1. Preamble

It is certainly not an easy task to define the limits of stylistics with respect to neighbouring disciplines such as rhetoric, microsociolinguistics or pragmatics. The label "stylistics" is related to very specific writers and schools, such as Charles Bally and subsequently, in connection with idealist stylistics, Leo Spitzer, Dámaso Alonso and Amado Alonso. In different order of things, the discipline can also be linked with the work on functional language variation, where the term "style" overlaps with that of "register", and is closer to the latter epistemological area. Recently, certain linguists have put this disciplinary label back in circulation as a branch of the old rhetoric, and currently Bally is looking for the foundations of a stylistics of language, beyond individual speech acts, and not limited to the ambit of literary creation (Adam 1997).

What is more, we note the closeness to some of the subdivisions within pragmatic linguistics -such as speech act theory, the study of politeness or metaphor and irony from the point of view of relevance theory- to the interest scholars are now showing in style, within the contribution made by pragmatics. These are all factors that, taken together, have ushered in a new and explicit label for this area of the discipline: "pragmastylistics". So, in view of the topic's complexity and the possible points of connection with pragmatics, it would be worthwhile now revisiting certain epistemological areas where stylistics has taken root, to then go on to examine the different dimensions of style.

2. Literary studies

As is well known, the study of style has its origins in Rhetoric, and in particular in elocutio or the study and improvement of expression, which steadily gained ground over the course of time with the weakening of some of the classic components of Rhetoric. Indeed, as interest focused increasingly on written texts, memoria and actio-pronuntiatio were relegated to second place, and inventio, shifted, especially from the 16th century onward, to a large extent from rhetoric (the art of bene dicere) to logic (the art of vere dicere). The other important component, dispositio, was eventually to be given a boost, centuries later, with the advent of narratology and text linguistics. Yet for many years, scarcely any points of contact were found with a linguistics which took the sentence as the upper limit of its interest. In contrast, stylistics, focusing as it did primarily on the study of microstructures, was able to seek an analytical methodology for the linguistic study of such issues as adjectivisation, the discourse use of verbs and word order at sentence level. (It should be made clear that stylistics does not need to limit itself to microstructures, and here we are adopting a broader perspective. Yet there is no doubt that microstructures have traditionally been the favourite area of application). On the other hand, the word "style", has in ordinary every day discourse, a better image than "rhetoric", which is also a factor contributing to the currency of the same term (style) for the discipline. This, to the detriment of rhetoric, with whose content it preserves nevertheless a close relationship (Enkvist 1985).

In any case, style and style considerations preserve a close relationship with elocutio, and the contemporary study of style originated the old rhetoric and went on to be increasingly linked to the area of literary studies. And conceptualisation in terms of rhetorical figures (one of the objects of study within the discipline, as aesthetic resource and stylistic elaboration, often seemingly as mere ornament) further favoured this trend to wards the literary. It is clear, too, that these figures, metaphor and irony above all, are often studied in the context of legal argumentation (Perelman, for instance) or in relation to the pragmatics of relevance (Sperber and Wilson), or indeed within the ambit cognitive semantics (G. Lakoff). This is true certainly in the case of Bally, the pioneer of modern stylistics. He emphasises expressivity of ordinary language (López García 2000). Despite that, his main area of application has been in the analysis of literary texts. In this way the study of style distanced itself from ordinary speech and style was even seen, at times, as a transgression, of the ordinary everyday patterns of speech.

It is important to note that the idea of choice, of selection of meaningful options involving a range of variants, is ever present. An author's style in a work can be viewed as determined by a series of options that the text manifests and which are selected from a given range of possibilities which the language offers. And when translating, for example, these can be seen to vary considerably when having to "move house" from one linguistic system to another (Marco 2002). It is for that reason that, between stylistics concerned with individual discourse acts and stylistics of the language, the bridges are many and much frequented. To give just one instance of this: when Spitzer carried out his masterly analysis of Racine's style as a strategy of "muted" expression, he looks at the series of options chosen by the dramatist. In showing the value of each of these choices he gradually and cumulatively sketches out the main outlines of a stylistics of the French language, continually referring as he does to the corresponding repertoire of variants for each of the variables in question.

3. Social and functional variation

Since that the realisation of linguistic units is diverse rather than uniform, choice from among the possibilities offered, in each case, by the language, becomes meaningful in one way or another. It could be the speaker's identification with a social group defined by age, sociocultural level or geographical location (dialectal variation), or it could represent the speaker's attempts to suit the utterance to the communicative context such as the precept, interpretation or the construction (functional variation). Including more than the world of literature, but without excluding it either, stylistics has to take into account the value of this last type of optionality in all kind of discourse, to the extent that situational variation is both individual and collective (Garrido Medina 1997).

In effect, as with dialectal variation, there is here a correlation between linguistic variation and social variation, between language and society, since the constraints that govern stylistic modulation of texts constitute a socially elaborated construct, by virtue of conventions that have been progressively consolidated and transformed over the course of the history of the language. Thus, for example, the first historic uses of the periphrastic perfective tense (inflected simple past) in Catalan was as an expressive literary usage, an individual choice, in narrative genres such as the medieval chronicles. Effectively, this was a resource to achieve vivid dramatisation, and involved using the historic present of the verb to go as auxiliary. Thus va dir used in stead of the simple form digué (both meaning "he said"). In time, this usage spread beyond the framework of the chronicles and a purely individual choice, to become a structurally integrated grammatical feature of the language.

It became, therefore, an extensively found and structurally conventionalised variant, gramaticalised, in short; from a sociolinguistic perspective it is a marker in Labov's sense, since the alternating of the two variants influenced by dialectal factors (present-day geographical distribution in the Catalan-speaking territories) and at the same time responding to stylistic factors (not just in Labov's simplified sense as degree of attention accorded to one's own discourse, but as a multidimensional range of factors: oral or written context, informal or solemn, even a certain archaic association in the case of the simple past) (Salvador 2001). But what needs to be noted here is that the effect of creative style, whose historical origins can be pinpointed, later become stabilised as a structure of the Catalan linguistic system, the periphrastic perfective. Its use can no longer be creative, since it has taken on the value of an option of grammatical choice more or less regulated by convention.

Now, these patterns that are regulated by social convention do not determine linguistic variants in the strong sense, seen as a subcode of the language. They have to be seen dynamically, as a component of the functional concept of register, which has become common place in studies on variation theory, especially with respect to oral / written dimension, which today finds methodological support in the technologies of linguistic corpora (Biber et al. 1998; Payrató and Alturo eds. 2002).

But the theoretically most potent characterisation of the notion of register surely is to be found in systemic functionalism, where the concept is defined in terms of meaning potential, a configuration of semantic resources which members of a linguistic and cultural community associate with a situation type (type of context). In the Firthian tradition of British (and Australian) linguistics, language and socio-communicative activity form an indissoluble whole, such that linguistics cannot relinquish the systematic study of contextual parameters which help to modulate the discourse.

Thus, for Halliday and his disciples, the notion of register establishes a model of the context based on the interaction of three factors: the field, the tenor and the mode, which refer respectively to sytems of social activity, power relations and solidarity among the participants and, thirdly, the semiotic distance which is formed, based on the medium of communication selected. Each of these three factors, in turn, relate to three types of meaning linking linguistic organisation to social organisation: the ideational meaning that "naturalises" conceptive reality by means of an institutionalised social activity; the interpersonal meaning which gives material shape to social relations; and the textual meaning which gives a semiotic dimension to communication and organises it sequentially. Also, on a more comprehensive level of context modelling, one would need to situate the notion of genre, relative to the system of institutionalised, teleological (goal-oriented) social processes by means of which social activity is organised in each cultural framework (Martin 1992, 2001).

We can say, therefore, that the theoretical construct "genre" allows us to explain the adoption of postures or roles (both on the part of speakers as listeners) in the communicative interaction and, therefore, also in the way in which registers suitable to each instance are selected. Similarly, at a lower level, the construct "register" corresponds to the mechanisms that guide selection of the aptest or most efficient lexico-grammatical options within the stylistic repertoire of the language.

Of course, this theorising seeks to account for contextual models of an interpretive order that could exist as mental representations and determine many of the properties of the production and reception of discourse in a given linguistic-cultural setting. Among these properties of discourse, stylistic choices occupy a particularly important place. From this perspective, style should be considered as a combination of formal properties of discourse which derive from contextual models (Van Dijk 2001).

There are a series of corollaries to this approach, if we avoid an a-historical, individualist and ideologically decaffeinated view of style as a merely "expressive" manifestation of a an individual personality. In fact, from the point of view of "critical" discourse analysis, these contextual models guiding stylistic choice of speakers are subjective interpretations of contexts and their typology, and are clearly subjected to ideological control. In this sense, then, style becomes one of the more obvious manifestations of one’s ideologies, and a determining factor in its social reproduction (Van Dijk 1998). But let us go on to examine the functioning of these properties of discourse which make up style from the angle of its meaning as an option among the range of possibilities offered by the language.

4. Symptoms, signs and symbols

Taking the function of language in terms of Buhler’s model as a our point of departure, we refer to symptom when the sign relates to its producer or source; we speak of signal where semiotic activity has to do with the effect on the receiver; and we speak of symbol when such relates to the external referent denoted by the sign. It is from this triple perspective that we are able to enhance our understanding of at least some of the oscillation in this area of study.

In fact, a good part of the work done on stylistics has placed emphasis on the first of these functions, that of style as symptom, referring back to the origin of the discourse, the subject or originator. The index value of the sign here can refer to the personality (or indeed the unconscious) of a literary author or of any other source. Thus, there has often been a tendency in literary studies to take style markers of reiterated occurrence as evidence in the identification of text authorship. In forensic linguistics too, scholars have searched for recurrent style markers capable of furnishing practical markers of plagiarism ("The plagiarism machine") or of identifying authors of anonymous writings with legal consequences or criminal implications. Behind this approach lies a key notion in stylistics: that of personal choice. But it is obvious that choice in context cannot be defined other than by reference to a framework of possible options, and a repertoire of variation that establishes the universe of practicable alternatives.

As regards the second function, that of signal, it should be recalled that stylistics inherited its focus on the persuasive dimension from the old discipline of rhetoric, or at least the emphasis on the effect achieved (if not sought) on the audience. In more contemporary terms, we should say that style "proposes" a point of view for the receivers of the discourse, or more exactly, this point of view is imposed since it acts as an (often imperceptible, certainly unavoidable) filter, since style is an essential component of textual semiosis. Put another way, it is by means of stylistic options chosen in the course of a discourse, that we are made to see things from a pre-set point of view. This imposition, previous to its eventual pervasive effect, possesses a cognitive dimension, shaping the perception of the listener-receptor as a necessary condition for subsequent persuasion. This takes us on to the third of the three pragmatic types mentioned above, in that the cognitive bias associated with the adoption of a point of view has to do with the semantic content of the discourse.

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