In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literature and Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Theories
  • Reference Sources
  • General Anthologies
  • Sound Patterning
  • The Syntax of Poetry
  • Pragmatics-Based Approaches to Literature
  • Narrative
  • Oral Literature
  • Parallelism
  • Sign Language Literature
  • Music and Language
  • Literature, Linguistics, and Cognition
  • Stylistics
  • Speech Play and Neologism
  • Ethnopoetics of Native American Literatures

Linguistics Literature and Linguistics
Nigel Fabb
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0105


Literature is the artistic use of language, also called “verbal art,” to make clear that there are both oral and written literatures (and signed literature). The general discipline can be called “literary linguistics.” The field is eclectic, and the books and articles cited in this article are a mixture of descriptive, literary critical, and theoretical, alongside work by psychologists. The aspects of literature of most interest to linguists have included the ways in which language cues the structuring of texts (particularly narratives), the indirect meanings (such as irony or metaphor) characteristic of verbal art, and the types of repetition seen in parallelism and in rhyme and alliteration. The most intensive theoretical work has been devoted to poetic meter, the counting-and-rhythmic patterns seen in many kinds of verse. While most of the theoretical work deals with English or other literatures in European languages, literary linguists have also sought to emphasize the “endless forms most beautiful,” namely, the variety and complexity of verbal art found in the world’s cultures.

General Overviews and Theories

The modern study of the language of literature begins with Russian formalism that appeared in the early twentieth century and as described in Erlich 1965, with Jakobson 1960 and Jakobson 1987 providing continuity from that period up to recent times. This connects also with the structuralist tradition in literary studies as described in Culler 2005. The study of universals in the language of literature is discussed in Hogan 1997, while the history of a specific but large tradition is exemplified in Watkins 1995. Banti and Giannattasio 2004 and Fabb 1997 summarize a range of linguistic approaches to different kinds of literature.

  • Banti, George, and Francesco Giannattasio. 2004. Poetry. In A companion to linguistic anthropology. Edited by Alessandro Duranti, 290–320. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A compact, illustrated overview of a large number of poetic traditions that emphasizes, in particular, the role of music in shaping poetry (and placing relatively little emphasis on the line or other forms of segmentation).

  • Culler, Jonathan. 2005. Structuralist poetics: Structuralism, linguistics and the study of literature. London: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1973. Draws on Parisian structuralism, Russian formalism, and American linguistic theory; a very influential book on literary theory. A source of the notion of “literary competence.”

  • Erlich, Victor. 1965. Russian formalism: History, doctrine. 2d ed. The Hague: Mouton.

    Historical account of the precursor to modern linguistic approaches to literary texts.

  • Fabb, Nigel. 1997. Linguistics and literature: Language in the verbal arts of the world. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Overview, with exercises, of published work on metrics, sound patterning, parallelism, narrative, performance, and metaphor interpretation, with examples drawn from more than one hundred literatures.

  • Hogan, Patrick Colm. 1997. Literary universals. Poetics Today 18.2: 223–249.

    DOI: 10.2307/1773433

    Discusses the problem of identifying universals in verbal art, with specific discussion of sound patterning and the length of lines.

  • Jakobson, Roman. 1960. Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics. In Style in language. Edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, 350–377. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Foundational article of modern literary linguistics, wide-ranging in data, arguing that the poetic function is performed by texts that draw attention to their own form, and that parallelism is the fundamental formal practice (incorporating meter and sound patterning). Reprinted in Jakobson 1987.

  • Jakobson, Roman. 1987. Language in literature. Edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Collects many of Jakobson’s seminal papers on literature and linguistics, spanning a long career that began during the period of Russian formalism (see Erlich 1965).

  • Watkins, C. 1995. How to kill a dragon: Aspects of Indo-European poetics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Wide-ranging and richly illustrated account of the development of motifs and forms in Indo-European literatures.

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