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LinguisticAnalysis of Dahl and Blyton
When looking at thecritical and theoretical work that has been written on the subject ofchildren's literature, one finds that there is a surprising dearth in theamount of material written on the importance of linguistics. The challenge wasnot to select which linguistic theory would best apply, but rather to find anytheory that would have significance to the interpretation of children'sliterature. In order to complete this analysis, therefore, I found it mostconstructive to work with two texts. The first, Generative Grammars and theConcept of Literary Styleby Richard Ohmann, is a text which gives a comprehensive overview of the waysin which linguistics can be used to determine the way style is constructed in aliterary text. The second, The Reader in the Bookby Aidan Chambers, is a text on literary criticism in children's literaturewhich discusses the importance of style in the critique of a piece ofchildren's literature. It is by examining the arguments of the latter that oneis able to effectively apply the theories of the former in order to analyse thelinguistic differences between the two children's texts, and determine theimplications of such differences.
Before selecting theOhmann text, I looked at another linguistic approach to style, Nominal andVerbal Styleby Rulon Wells. This piece discussed the common preference for a verbal stylein English prose, over a nominal one, and the syntactical consequences of eachstyle. Wells argued that because a predominant use of nouns would necessitateother syntactical elements, and the same would apply to a predominant use ofverbs, then the choice of nominality over verbality or vice versa wouldinevitably mean other stylistic variations. While this argument would beinteresting applied to literature generally, I rejected it in favour ofOhmann's theories which, being more comprehensive in their linguisticapplication, would better suit an analysis of children's literature.
Ohmann, in GenerativeGrammars and the Concept of Literary Style,picks up, as it were, where Wells leaves off. Ohmann points to the slipperyway in which critics have been accustomed to trying to determine exactly whatconstitutes the style which Chambers indicates is so important. Whilecritics have been inclined to look at such differences as those caused by timeperiod, syntactical and grammatical usage, the usage of tropes, etc., he pointsout that these remain unsatisfactory without an underlying and unifyinglinguistic theory. He indicates generative grammar- concerned with thetransformational rules of grammar- as the solution. By looking at the methodsin which transformation grammar can create stylistic variations withoutaltering actual meaning, Ohmann shows how it can be used to show the linguisticcauses of stylistic variations between writers.
The result of usingOhmann's theory in conjunction with Chambers' guidelines for criticism (discussedin the analysis below) is that one can show how linguistic variations in textcan account for the changing reception of a children's book, or how they can berelated to the changing conditions in which a children's book was written. Thisis what the following analysis will attempt.
Aidan Chambers' TheReader in the Bookpresents arguments which make clear the need for linguistic analysis ofchildren's literature, and is therefore supremely useful to this analysis. Chambersargues that, firstly, in order to properly critique children's literature, onemust take into account the child as the supposed reader of the text; thatchildren, as inexperienced readers, do not know how to accommodate a text, andso any piece written for them must effectively draw them in and accommodateitself to their needs and expectations; that the style of a piece is the mannerin which an author uses language to accomplish this. Chambers argues that fora text to be successful with a child, the style must be specifically suited tochildren. This in turn leads one to the importance of a linguistic approach tothe text: in order to fully understand the usage of language.
This section ofanalysis will look at the first two pages of Enid Blyton's The Magic FarawayTree,first published in Great Britain in 1943, and Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox,first published in Great Britain in 1970. Ohmann talks primarily of threerules that make transformational grammar useful in analysis of style. Thefirst rule Ohmann discusses is that in most cases, the transformation of asentence is optional. This means that the writing of a sentence in aparticular way is not required but a matter of stylistic choice. Secondly,Ohmann states that by transforming a sentence, the meaning remains intactbecause the composite segments of the sentence remain intact, and thirdly, hedescribes how this can help the analyst understand the relationship between thecomplex and simple sentences used. Compare, first, the opening few sentencesof each:
Once upon atime there were three children, Joe, Beth and Frannie. They lived with theirmother and father in a little cottage deep in the country.
Down in thevalley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well.
Although the works are separated bynearly thirty years, there is surprising grammatical and syntactical similaritybetween the two extracts. Both begin with the basic structural pattern of NOUNPHRASE plus VERB PHRASE, and avoid complex sentences. In both cases, theseopenings could be transformed from a collection of two simple sentences to alonger complex sentence, neither could be simplified further without detractingfrom the meaning conveyed. Thus, the use of the simple sentence has been adeliberate stylistic choice for both writers. The sentences are short andsimple and to the point. They have a rhythm as engaging as verse, and theyconvey meaning in simple, compact packages. The reason for this isself-evident: the writing was aimed at young children whose attention would bebetter caught by an undemanding linguistic style. Writing for adults, no doubtthe authors would have employed more complex structures.
There is,however, a clear difference between the two selections; namely, that Blyton hasused more signifiers: the cottage is little, the country is deep,and the story takes place once upon a time. Dahl has not done this; hiswriting is plain and to the point. In terms of the information conveyed, verylittle is added by Blyton's signifiers, however, in terms of the style, thereis a difference. Blyton is employing a style common to oral story-tellerswhich is lyrical, but also slightly patronizing. By adding such details sheguides the reader's imagination along the path she wishes it to take, andalthough her grammar attempts to place her on the same level as her childreader, the patronizing quality of her authoritative voice separates her fromthe child reader. Dahl, in comparison, has stuck to the facts, and while hisstyle is just as easy and engaging, it is also more trusting of his reader toascertain his meaning without pointers. His piece goes on to say:
They wererich men. They were also nasty men. All three of them were about as nasty andmean as any men you could meet.
Dahl is speaking directly to hisreader, and the grammatical structure of his sentences with their simple NOUNplus VERB plus NOUN/ADJECTIVE provides him with an authoritative and yetconspiratorial voice. The sentence structure makes a definite statement offact, while the use of the personal pronoun in the second sentence invites thereader to sympathise with those facts. Dahl could have supplied the sameinformation in a different way, for example: One could not meet men meanerand nastier than they were. Contracting the two sentences into one concisesentence also spoils the attractive staccato rhythm of the original, whichthrough repetition served to underline the given facts without beingredundant. This transformation, however, while conveying the same content,nevertheless changes the style, making it both more uncertain and formal, andless authoritative. A similar process can be tried on Blyton's language. Forexample:
Then theylooked out of the window. It looked on to a dark, thick wood, whose treeswaved in the wind, not far from the bottom of the garden.
Unlike Dahl, Blyton's statements offact include her descriptors which guide the reader, almost like a person usingsign language to augment their speech. It lends a patronizing air to theauthoritative voice she shares with Dahl. The same information could have beenconveyed thus: Then they looked out of the window. There was a deep forestnot far beyond the garden, whose trees waved in the wind. By transforming thesentence to resemble Dahl's, the patronizing air is lost, and by making theforest rather than the window the subject of the second sentence, a feeling ofdetachment is imparted to the wood which would give greater scope to thechild-reader's imagination. Nevertheless, it would loose the style of a spokenfairy-tale that Blyton has written into it.
The difference instyle, between the two writers, as indicated by the linguistically analysis ofthe two short passages above, seems to be predominantly in the attitudes theytake towards their readers, themselves, and their subject matter. Enid Blyton,writing in the post-war era when the attitude towards children contained moreof the Victorian ethos of separateness than the modern-day urge to relate andunderstand,adopted a tone which was authoritative but patronizing. She talks down to herreaders and guides them where she would have them go. While a child of the fortiesmay have found this natural- Blyton's books were extremely popular- a modernreader would be slightly put off, and this may account for why Enid Blyton isless popular nowadays. Dahl, by contrast, although using a voice of authorialauthority, nevertheless speaks to his reader as an equal- and moreover, asthough he were at the level of the child, rather than the child being at thelevel of an adult- evident in the plain and to-the-point style created by thegrammatical structures he employs. Thus, his writing appeals to childrenthroughout the years, and is still popular with both parents and childrenthirty years after first appearing in print.
In order to determinewhether Ohmann's theories are tenable, it might now be useful to refer back tothe guidelines usually applied to stylistics, which Ohmann claims suchtransformational grammaticism should clarify. Ohmann names twelve keyapproaches, but I will concentrate on the three which are concerned withgrammar and syntax. The first is the study of the writer's tone- that is, theattitude the author takes towards himself, his subject matter, his audience,etc. As we have already seen, the grammatical and syntactical choices of thewriters in question have indeed led to differences in tone. The attitudes thewriters take, particularly in relation to his/her readers, has led to themmaking specific stylistic decisions, manifest in the grammar and syntax oftheir writing. The second is the analysis of sound, and particularly ofrhythm. As shown above, both writers have adopted a style of prose whichcomposes of short, simple sentences which lend a staccato and rhythmic natureto the writing. Thus, the sentence structures they have chosen can be shown tocontribute to the sound which makes their style suited to their childish readers.The final approach is the statistical study of grammatical features. Byindicating the optional transitions of a sentence or phrase (i.e. the additionor deletion of an adjective, the compounding of clauses, the replacement ofproper nouns with pronouns, etc.), generative grammaticism can indicate wherecertain grammatical features have been favoured over others, thus contributingto the overall style of the piece. Blyton's heavier use of adjectives thanDahl was the example of this above. It seems, then, that an application ofOhmann's theory can put a linguistic approach to stylistics on firmer ground.In applying his theory to children's literature, we saw that certaingrammatical decisions led to styles of writing which helped determine their receptionby their child audiences.
Blyton, Enid. The Magic Faraway Tree and The Folk of theFaraway Tree. London: Egmont, 2001.
Chambers, Aidan. The Reader in the Book. From: Children'sLiterature: The Development of Criticism. Peter Hunt (ed.). London:Routledge, 1990. pp. 91-114.
Dahl, Roald. Fantastic Mr. Fox. London: Puffin Books (PenguinGroup), 1974.
Ohmann, Richard. Generative Grammars and the Concept of LiteraryStyle. From: Linguistics and Literary Style. Donald C. Freeman(ed.). London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970. pp. 57-72.
Reynolds, Kimberley. Children's Literature in the 1890' and the1990's. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1994.
Wells, Rulon. Nominal and Verbal Style. From: Linguisticsand Literary Style. Donald C. Freeman (ed.). London: Holt, Rinehart andWinston, Inc., 1970. pp.297-306.
Other Useful Sources:
Chatman, Seymour, (ed.). Literary Style: A Symposium. London:Oxford University Press, 1971.
Fabb, Nigel, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant, and Colin MacCabe (eds.). TheLinguistics of Writing: Arguments Between Language and Literature.Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987.
Tambling, Jeremy. What is Literary Language? Milton Keynes: OpenUniversity Press, 1988.