Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

After one of our contributors kind of ripped on the world of 'humanities' scholarship (here), maybe it's time for a Big Tent Moment.

But first, a story. This blog remains a little shack out in the woods, where an occasional visitor might wander by, and stop for a drink of water or stronger stuff, but few come here by design. Still, peddlers and traveling salesmen will show up anywhere, and I get a surprising number of offers for links and guest posts and whatnot. I do read and consider all of them, but have gotten pretty selective about even when to respond to such emails. (That just reflects a lack of time.)

A while back, Oxford University Press started sending occasional emails to me, offering books for review. I was, of course, stunned and alarmed that such a serious operation would consider anything on this blog as potentially useful for them in any way whatsoever. After pondering the offer for an undue amount of time, I decided that it might be interesting to post about some books that I might not otherwise read and certainly wouldn't write a word about. So, I said yes to a couple, and had a minion get them sent.

The first to arrive was, I think, a mistake: The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick. (You can read a lot about the book here.) I keep two books from this series on my desk — The Oxford Dictionary of Science (which I use constantly) and The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (which I use rarely).

Well, I figured, that is not something to blog about. At most maybe a big snark attack post in a weak moment. Alas, it's actually a pretty interesting read. Yeah, 'trauma theory' and 'docusoap' are potential joke fodder. And I'm not much wiser about 'phonocentrism' OR 'logocentrism', but that may reflect the simple fact that they are basically bullshit. Still, the page on 'cultural studies' was useful. (I'll keep this volume around and post on this stuff eventually, I hope.)

Striking is how much linguistics is in there … lots of basic terms from 'syntax' and 'phonology' to 'metathesis' and 'illocutionary act'. The definitions aren't written for linguists, but they seem to get things basically close enough to get a student started. And we get reminders that linguists and literary folks have some common ground — 'slave narrative' is a significant subject for both. The definition of 'rune' is aimed at a lit audience, with a focus on 'magic', and philological eyebrows will go up at the simple statement that the alphabet is "thought to have been used since the 2nd. century CE". (From discussion with somebody who knows much more about this than I do, this may reflect the view on wikipedia and elsewhere, with the dating of the Negau helmet inscription to then, which is apparently pretty controversial.)

Speaking of philology, eventually, I came to p. 255, where, just below entries for 'phenomenology' and 'philistine', there's an entry for 'philology'. That entry never quite says directly that this is now often seen as the study of earlier texts, but instead says that since the early 20th century:
'philology' has tended to refer to the 19th-century tradition of historical and comparative linguistic studies.
I know a lot of historical and comparative linguists, and a fair number of philologists, and suspect they will all disagree with equal vehemence at that characterization. I would have just gone with the old definition that it's "the art of reading slowly", attributed to Nietzsche and various others.

Over time, members of Team Verb will probably post more from this volume (one contributor has expressed interest, in fact) and I've got a super cool volume from OUP that I can't wait to write about: Michael Adams' new book Slang. Yes, it's the Michael Adams of truthiness AND Slayer Slang fame.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

Philology began as the study of modern languages and the reconstruction of ancient ones with a view to better understanding of the literature, customs, folklore, and origins of the peoples who used those languages. Modern linguistics, document analysis, literary analysis, mediaeval studies, and some kinds of anthropology are all fragments of this original research program.

Alas, nobody, or almost nobody, still has the conspectus needed to even understand the original intention, never mind do productive work in it. Tom Shippey is a rare exception: when he tells us that English hammer and Russian kamen' 'stone' are reflexes of the IE root h2ak^ 'sharp', we see other human beings in the depths of time making their tools from stone in a way that is completely independent of all archaeological evidence. Similarly, when the Old Norse saga Heidrek the Wise speaks in one of its poetic fragments of Harvath-fells, it is a knowledge of sound change that tells us these are the cliffs of the Carpathians, where evidently the speakers of proto-Germanic once lives. These are simple examples of the philology that was.