Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

"Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004)

The main points are that "Common talk has continuities with and exists along clines [aka gradients] with forms that are valued by societies as art. The values which are attached to the art of common talk will vary according to context, time and place", p.210. He annotates some examples of common talk (domestic, professional, business, internet-mediated (MOOs, etc) and conversations between multilinguists), concluding that "the most frequent forms of linguistic creativity include: speaker displacement of fixedness, particularly of idioms and formulaic phrases; metaphor extension; morphological inventiveness; verbal play, punning and parody through overlapping forms and meanings; 'echoing' by repetition, including echoing by means of allusion and phonological echoes" (p.109) then looks at how people have tried to distinguish literary from non-literary language.

  • "Cook [argues] that what is generally understood to be aesthetically valued literature, at least within certain cultural (usually Western) conceptions of the term, are the texts that ... result in new ways of seeing and thinking about the world" (p.60) (Boden in 1994 used the terms H[istorical]-creativity" and "P[ersonal]-creativity" to distinguish)
  • "It is clear that different reading communities with society assign different values to different examples of creativity with language or recognise the existence of literariness in language for different purposes" (p.66)
  • "it should not be forgotten that whether the reader (or listener) chooses to 'read' or responded to a text (spoken or written) in a literal way - as a poetic text as it were - is one crucial determinant of its literariness" (p.69)

He considers how creativity is identified

  • "Within 'Western' traditions of thought, creativity is closely connected with originality but originality becomes bona fide creativity only when it is made to fit and is recognised, accepted and valued as such both by the community peers of the creative individual and by the guardians of the particular artistic or scientific domain in or with which the creator works", (p.48)
  • "some Eastern conceptions of creativity are less focussed on innovation and originality and on working against established conventions and systems of ideas and much more focussed on the revisioning or re-membering of existing ideas" (p.30)
  • "Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e. original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e. adaptive concerning task constraints" Sternberg, "Handbook of Creativity", CUP, 1999, (p.3)

He espouses the idea that language is deeply metaphorical (Lakoff and Turner), quoting "Although the primary functions of language are often conceived to be social organization and the accumulation and transmission of factual knowledge, with fiction and formal patterning arising as minor if entertaining by-products, this order of origin and dependency can easily be reversed" (Cook, "Language Play, Language Learning", Oxford UP, 2000, p.47).

Some situations offer more scope for creativity, whose value is underestimated in oral situations - "notice how the word creative slips into easy company with the word writer whereas it may be a less familiar guest to the word speaker" (p.56). It has many functions, amongst them "to give pleasure, to establish both harmony and convergence as well as disruption and critique, to express identities and to evoke alternative fictional worlds which are recreational and which recreate the familiar world in new ways" (p.82). It can be performative, competitive, figurative, space-filling, or for fun. "The casual nature of the talk and the constant topic-switching create a sense of surface incoherence. However, closer inspection reveals that there is coherence but that it is largely interpersonal rather than topical. Indeed, how what is said is as significant, if not more so, than what is talked about" (p.105). The author suggests that "Speakers also often wish to give a more affective contour to what they or others are saying. It is hypothesised here that there are three essential expressive options open to them: the expression of intimacy, the expression of intensity and the expression of evaluation" (p.117), all of these features increasing in informal situations. Shifts along these dimensions are significant and often signposted - "proverbs appear at a discourse boundary, as if functioning to close down a conversation by summarising an attitude or by indicating a particular stance towards what has been said or to allow a smooth transition from one topic to another" (p.134).

Before I read the book I would have agreed with all the points made. I'd have liked to see a few examples from literature (Pinter, "Waiting for Godot", parts of The WasteLand") used as comparisons with the extracts of conversation that are quoted. And "common talk" needn't have come only from the sane and sober. But I guess that's rather beyond the scope of this book.

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