Element 10 – Language and Art: Stylistics

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

 — Jane Taylor (1783-1824)

This well-known text was published in 1806, and most native speakers of English know the first four lines. It is a simple poem written for children. The author, Jane Taylor, used a technique of repeating similar sounds. This technique is called rhyme, and we can see rhyme in these pairs of words: star/are, high/sky, gone/upon, and light/night.

In poetry, writers use rhyme for artistic effect. Rhyming also probably helps us more easily remember poems. Poetry is a part of literature, and though literature and linguistics are very different, we can study literature using linguistics. This is the field of stylistics. With stylistics, we do linguistic analysis of texts, especially literary texts.

The Minister’s Horse

However, if we want to understand literary style, Crystal (1970) says that we first need to understand non-literary style. That is, we cannot appreciate literary style, if we do not understand how it differs from non-literary style. We can understand this basic idea more clearly by looking at a famous little story called: The Minister’s Horse.

One day a man was walking down the street. He was tired. As he walked, he passed a church. He saw the Minister of the church. The Minister was getting on his horse. The man spoke, “Dear Minister. I am very tired from walking. And I still have a long way to go. I was thinking. Maybe you could sell me your horse.”

The Minister said, “Alright, yes, I can sell you my horse.” The man gave the Minister some money and said, “Thank you very much!” “One last thing,” said the Minister. “This horse is special. I use religious language to lead the horse. If you want the horse to go, you must say, Hallelujah!” “I see,” said the man.

The Minister continued. “And if you want the horse to stop, you  must say, Amen.” “That sounds easy enough,” said the man. Then the man got on the horse, and he shouted “Hallelujah!” And sure enough, the horse began to run. Then the man shouted, “Amen!” And the horse stopped. With that, he shouted “Hallelujah” again, and he rode away. He was very happy because he did not have to walk. 

The man rode for the whole day. Finally, he reached some mountains. He went up and up, and then he came to a place where the road was damaged. He looked ahead, and he saw that the road was gone. “Oh no! The road is gone,” he said. “I will fall down a thousand feet to my death.” He cried out to the horse, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” But the horse kept walking towards the end of the road. 

“Oh my goodness,” said the man. And he cried out again, “Stop! God! Church! Please stop!” But instead of stopping, the horse started running, closer and closer to the end of the road. Finally, the man began to pray. “Dear God,” he said. “Please make this horse stop, or I will fall to my death. Amen.” And just in time, the horse stopped right at the end of the road. The man looked around. He took a deep breath. And he felt so thankful to be alive that he shouted “Hallelujah!”

Understanding Non-Literary Style

The above story is a joke, a special kind of text. However, if we want to understand this joke, we need to understand another kind of language. That is, we need to understand religious language. In the joke, for the horse “Hallelujah” means “go.” And “Amen” means stop. However, in a religious setting, we use “Amen” at the end of a prayer. It means “so be it.” And “Hallelujah!” is a joyful word that means “thanks be to God.”

Now when we understand the original meanings of the words, then we can understand the joke. The man says “Amen” at the end of his prayer. And luckily, this makes the horse stop. He had forgotten that “Amen” was the correct word to make the horse stop. And because he is thankful for not falling to his death, he says, “Hallelujah!” But he had forgotten that this word makes the horse go! So after saying, “Hallelujah,” we imagine that the horse moves again, and ironically the man falls to his death.  That’s the joke, and here’s the point. We need to understand religious language in order to understand the joke. In the same way, we need to understand non-literary texts if we are going to understand literature.

Shakespeare: Original Pronunciation (OP)

Though we can look at many areas of stylistics, one of the most interesting has to do with Shakespeare and the idea of original pronunciation (OP). In Shakespeare’s poems, many words do not rhyme in modern English. However, linguist David Crystal and his son Ben have analyzed Shakespeare’s works.  They found that two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets (a special kind of poem) do not work in modern English, but they do work in Shakespearian original pronunciation. Thus, OP fixes many rhymes that do not work in modern English. Moreover, when using OP, we can begin to understand Shakespeare’s many jokes of wordplay (called puns) . Because of these insights from research in stylistics, artists are now doing Shakespeare’s plays in OP, adding fresh meaning and enjoyment to Shakespeare.

Upon hearing this, we may want to ask, “How can you know how people spoke English 400 years ago?” Crystal gives three basic ways we can know this. First, 400 years ago, writers wrote about how English was pronounced. For example, the writer Ben Johnson (1572-1637) says that back then people pronounced the “r” sound after vowels, so that it sounded like a dog growling, “grrrrr.” Second, spelling is a guide to how to pronounce OP. Crystal says that spelling from Shakespeare’s time is a better guide for pronouncing English than modern spelling.

Third, there are many rhymes and word play jokes that do not work in modern English, but they do work in OP. For example, Sonnet 116 is a beautiful poem in which Shakespeare writes about the power and beauty of love. In the last two lines, he says:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

Here we see the two words, “proved” and “loved,” but in modern English these words do not rhyme. However, because of stylistic research of OP, we know that in Shakespeare’s time, these words actually did rhyme. In OP, we pronounce them like this: “pruvved” and “luvved.” With stylistics, we use linguistic tools to analyze texts, especially literary texts. And the work of scholars like David Crystal shows us that stylistics is not simply a dry analysis of literature. It can actually, help us appreciate and enjoy literary art even more.


10-Element – Language and Art – 2020

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.