Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

Journal | Volume | Article


What linguistics does for literature

Adriana Stan

Translated by Vlad Melnic, Diana Melnic

pp. 6

11 The theoretical tenets of linguistics and its corresponding methodologies have functioned as a source of inspiration or a model directly extrapolated to other sciences in the majority of European structuralisms. Interwar schools of literary theory such as Russian formalism or Czech structuralism relied on (unexclusive) linguistic arguments in the study of literature in order to purify the latter from the more volatile parameters of historicism or impressionism. French structuralism, on the other hand, took the same argument to the extreme and decreed linguistics to be the “pioneer science” not only in literature (which was not, in fact, its first application), but also in the humanities, from anthropology and sociology to philosophy and psychoanalysis. Of all the theories circulated in linguistics over the years, structuralism may have retained its vast potential for transdisciplinary migration to this day, likely due to its abstract theoretical framework, which could be naturalized in various fields of research.

2Both of the situations mentioned above, however, seem unlikely in the case of Romania: the first, because socialist realism, which still occupied a tutelary position in literature at the time of the ascension of linguistic structuralism, was followed by a form of neo-impressionistic criticism built upon anti-scientific attitudes; the second, because a political climate that imposed, even only declaratively, a single method of interpretation did not facilitate multidisciplinary thought in any of its historical periods. Indeed, as we shall see, the implication of linguistics in the revision of Romanian literary criticism was met with an inauspicious fate and a premature resolution. Post-war Romanian linguistics did not interfere decisively in the well-defined institutional field of literary criticism. It nevertheless found a significant extension in literature, if only because it proposed an applied, analytical formula, rather than a purely theoretical one.

3Thus, as early as the 1950s, certain directions in linguistic research began to focus on literature. One of the latter arrived by way of the history of literary language, which was instituted in Romania after a Soviet model. In its initial programme, its field of study was meant to exceed literature and include all standard aspects of the “grammatical structure, phonetic system, and lexical system of the language of a people” Iordan 1954 55 pub-229562 . Yet for all its egalitarian rhetoric, the regime authorized, from the very beginning, the “cultivation of language” according to certain norms derived from “high language; in contradiction to the [declared] appreciation for popular language […]: while identifying with the masses, the elite, in fact, enforces rules on the latter” Zafiu 2009 47 pub-229564 . The issue of Romanian literary language naturally brought up the contribution of writers: since the establishment of linguistic norms in the 19th century was not officially recorded in the scientific treatises of the time, the process of stabilization of these norms could be at least partially reconstructed based on the writing of the “great classics” of Romanian literature. This explains why fiction became a privileged subject matter for the study of the history of literary language in the second half of the 1950s See Rosetti & Cazacu 1961 pub-229565 , as initiated in research teams that brought together linguists (Boris Cazacu, Ladislau Gàldi, Ion Coteanu, Paula Diaconescu, Liviu Onu, Al. Rosetti, Al. Niculescu) and literary specialists (Ștefan Munteanu, Luiza Seche, Gh. Bulgăr, G.I. Tohăneanu). A decade later, the notion of “literary language” was explicitly associated with the “writer’s language”, and not the “people’s language” Bojin 1968 194 pub-229566 . Although, after the 19th century, Romanian writers’ influence on linguistic norms was no longer as strong, their contribution continued to be overestimated by academic research in the field: “Writers are the factors that are most efficient, most competent in the enrichment and standardization of literary language. […] Literary works can serve as a model for the press, education, and scientists” Bulgăr 1971 9, 20 pub-229598 .

4During the same period of time, stylistics developed on a similar trajectory. Prior to the Second World War, Romanian studies in stylistics shared a primarily aesthetic aim, whether as part of the framework of literary criticism (for D. Caracostea or G. Ibrăileanu), of “the aesthetic evolution of the language” (for Ovid Densusianu), or as subordinate to matters of general aesthetics or philosophy of culture (for Lucian Blaga or Tudor Vianu). The anti-intellectual climate following 1948, however, imposed, for a time, a form of “linguistic stylistics” meant to study “the means of expression of the entire speaking collective […], and not only the idiosyncrasies employed for artistic effect” Iordan 1944 12 pub-229567 . Nevertheless, as early as these years, it became obvious that even professional linguists were more comfortable researching fiction.2 For in the circumstances of the prevalence of dogmatic language, other “functional styles” became difficult to approach and, ultimately, pointless to analyse. For instance, what we refer to as journalistic discourse today was not always acknowledged as a style in and of itself, for the easily intuited reason that “to characterize the press implicitly means to talk about political language” Zafiu 2007 64 pub-229569 . As such, studies in stylistics focused almost exclusively on literary language, while “research regarding the other functional styles were infinitely more scarce” Guțu-Romalo 1978 142 pub-229570 or, at the very least, in obvious “disproportion” Iordan 1975 6 pub-229571 .

5By approximately 1960, stylistics and the history of literary language became the most prolific areas of Romanian linguistics, with a generous yield of “text analysis”. Through these channels, the strain of structuralism that had been circulated in local linguistics since the latter half of the 1950s extended to academic literary studies, though not in literary criticism proper. It is noteworthy, however, that this phenomenon emerged prior to the contact with the French structuralism of the ‘60s, which arrived in Romania primarily through the lens of “new criticism”. In fact, the French movement did not feature a linguistic theory of its own, but rather derived its chief tenets from pre-Second World War linguistics. Linguistic structuralism was, in this respect, the creation of Swiss, Russian, and Danish theoreticians from the first half of the 20th century. It was these primary sources – and not their speculative re-workings in French Theory – that served as the foundation for the resurgence of structuralism in post-war linguistics in Romania, as well as in USSR or Poland, with their new ideological and institutional contexts. In the latter cases, the extension of structuralism from linguistics to literary studies occurred independently from the suggestions of the Paris nouvelle critique. Towards the end of the 1960s, the French model would play a greater role in Romania than in the other, aforementioned countries; still, even here, it would only confirm and prolong an existing paradigm, and perhaps introduce new themes for ideological and critical debate; anyway, the movement had already existed in linguistics prior to the publicity wave of French Theory.

6From an institutional and ideological point of view, the conditions for a linguistic approach to literature were created in Romania as early as the late 1950s. At the time, socialist realism was still reigning, so the academic movement would not yet materialize in a public debate about literary criticism; within specialized circles, however, it attracted an increasingly large number of young researchers. For linguists, literary texts were objects of study that proved to be less risky than other forms of discourse, while for literary specialists, linguistic methods of analysis represented an alternative to the official content-centred form of criticism. Significant for this turn of events was, for instance, the fact that the Circle for World Literature, coordinated between 1957 and 1958 by Edgar Papu (prior to his arrest), brought together young critics Virgil Nemoianu and Mihai Zamfir, as well as the linguists Toma Pavel, Sanda Golopenția, Alexandra Roceric, Mihaela Mancaș, and Liliana Ionescu; the Circle of Poetry and Stylistics, born three years later from the ashes of the former included other linguists and several folklorists in addition to the initial members.

7Established in 1962, the journal Cahiers de linguistique théorique et appliquée featured, in its first issue,3 four linguistic applications on literary texts, which would become exemplary for the practice of “text analysis”. Maintaining proportions and bearing in mind that the latter were practical exercises that concealed theorization, we might observe in this issue a veritable manifesto, comparable (though not equivalent) in relevance to what the notorious issue of Communications (1966) represented for French structuralism, particularly since the Romanian journal was vouched for by Roman Jakobson. Here, the young linguist Toma Pavel authored a coherent structuralist study based on a theoretical hypothesis that was considered to be applicable to “poetic language” in its entirety. Pavel cited as sources Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, Trubetzkoy’s Principles of Phonology, as well as Em. Vasiliu’s 1960 article on “The Neutralization of Phonemic Contrasts” in support of the idea that the linguistic mechanism of the metaphor generally functions through the “suspension of the possibility of permutation of invariants”. The researcher then aimed to verify this abstract framework against examples chosen from the work of Eminescu, Arghezi, Beniuc, Baudelaire and Apollinaire. Later a critic of the “linguistic illusion”, Pavel was, at the time, absolutely enthralled by it. He considered that literary analysis could avoid “substantialist”, “connotative”, and “aesthetic” interpretations since “the tendency of poetic language [is] to formalize the substantial domains of current language”. His was, therefore, a typically structuralist thesis on literature, derived directly from linguistics and, more specifically, from glossematics and Prague school phonology, in the absence of any French mediation.

8Of course, one might argue that these examples were not representative on the scale of a cultural moment still ideologically centred around 1960, nor in what concerns the evolution of Romanian criticism in the following years. However, although well-founded, the objection is not necessarily relevant. Even though linguistic analyses of literary texts were restricted to certain publishing channels and a specialized audience, they constituted a highly productive phenomenon that became increasingly significant as an academic paradigm over the following decades. Most linguistic journals (Limbă și literatură, Studii și cercetări de lingvistică, Limba română, Cahiers roumains de linguistique théorique et apliquée, Revue roumaine de linguistique, Cahiers de linguistique) featured dedicated columns for linguistic text analyses; numerous studies on the “language and style” of Romanian writers and several individual or collective volumes of “literary and stylistic analyses” were published during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The most prolific text interpreters were the scholars of stylistics Gh. Bulgăr, Ștefan Munteanu and G.I. Tohăneanu, who, put together, authored hundreds of contributions.4 On the other hand, linguists such as Boris Cazacu, Ion Coteanu, and Paula Diaconescu also specialized in literary text analysis and frequently offered methodological guides in this respect Diaconescu 1974 639-648 pub-229577 In addition to academic journals, linguistic text analyses could be found in literary periodicals (particularly in the province), where they contrasted bizarrely with reviews and essays written in an entirely different language (Ateneu, Luceafărul, Steaua, Argeș, Viața românească, Cronica, Convorbiri literare, and especially Orizont).

9Whether this trend for text analysis had any impact on criticism is, in what concerns us, a fairly rhetorical question. At the time of the cultural liberalization, Romanian academic research and literary periodicals were not two alternatives of the same field of criticism, but rather two different continents separated by an entire ocean. Stylistic linguistics, which had been gradually developed since the final period of socialist realism, did not exist for the neo-impressionistic critics gaining in popularity after 1964: “For whom are these studies of cryptic stylistics written? Literary criticism refuses or ignores them. The readers who feel the need for guidance do not understand them. They continue to circulate in an impenetrable and very limited manner, condemning themselves to isolation” Andriescu 1966 11 pub-229579 .

10Yet shallow as the echo of stylistic linguistics may have been in Romanian criticism, its impact in academia and teaching was substantial. In university courses and, shortly afterwards, in lessons of language and literature, text analysis successfully replaced the history (or the ideologized sociology) of literature, but also the social fields of investigation of the practice of language. “Stylistics”, it was argued in one didactic manual, “should be included in the teaching of grammar and literature. After each chapter of grammar should follow the enumeration of the stylistic functions of the described phenomenon” Szabó 1973 63-64 pub-229581 . The examples provided for analyses of grammar were often selected from literary texts See Nicolescu 1981 pub-229582 . Influential Romanian linguists such as Ion Coteanu or Boris Cazacu supported the “desired contiguity between the methods of studying language and literature through permanent contact with literary texts”. Coteanu’s course on contemporary Romanian language at Philology in Bucharest was seconded by a seminar exclusively dedicated to fiction, which aimed to “verify linguistic competence against literary texts, while leaving aside information pertaining to history and criticism” Tabarcea 1977 69 pub-229584 . A student between 1977 and 1981, Rodica Zafiu recalls: “All those pertaining to my generation were enhanced with a twofold sensibility. That is, men of letters were given an education in linguistics during university, while linguists remained open to literature […]. There was a time when we were rather bored with literature. We had analysed every single word of so much poetry that we began to want to discuss texts other than literary works” Zafiu 2001 pub-229586 . Disseminated through academic and didactic channels, “text analysis” became an excessive practice during the ‘70s.

11The landscape offered by these studies and collections that, today, lie forgotten in library storage or, perhaps, on the shelves of professors pertaining to senior generations, is formless, bland, and depressing. The trend of linguistic stylistics inspired a stereotypical, yet voluminous production, which was then extended through a snowball effect, rather than by means of an authentic impetus for innovation. Numerous such studies transmit traditional, even obsolete ideas (concerning the “genius” or the “ineffable”) through overspecialized linguistic terms that sometimes seem to have been randomly deployed on texts. The hodgepodge can be observed in an exponential (though not exemplary) volume such as Syntactic and Stylistic Analyses. Here, the linguist Sorin Stati, who lists several formal models of Romanian syntax, and the scholar of stylistics Gh. Bulgăr, who illustrates these models in literary texts, shake hands, but do not agree with one another in spirit. Theoretically, the linguistic objectivism of the former does not fit with the latter’s belief in the “genius” of writers. The two views come together like oil and water in analyses where an accumulation of convoluted terms disguises an acute lack of critical ideas; from this, we find nothing more than the fact that, for example, “text analysis is making obvious the verbal mechanisms by means of which the text supports its chief values” Stati & Bulgăr 1970 161 pub-229587 . Even in the absence of ideas, jargon works in and for itself, which results in truly absurd conclusions, such as identifying, in a poem, the “model for semantic homogenization and the neutralization of the oppositions represented in a square” Tabarcea 1978 279 pub-229589 .

12The critical force of the movement was thus inversely proportional to its productivity and its influence as an academic and didactic doctrine. All European forms of formalism and structuralism have demonstrated that linguistics permeated literary studies in order to revise certain basic assumptions about the nature, functions, and norms of the overall literary mechanism. Even Russian formalists designed their case studies only to illustrate certain more general principles of the literary system. The case of post-war Romania, on the other hand, indicates that, here, “text analysis” remained a dead end beyond which no one was interested to formulate more systematic hypotheses about literature. It would be unusual to ask this of linguists in a programmatic manner; but it did not seem that men of letters contaminated with the terminology of their fellow colleagues wanted more than to count words or put together the rhyme scheme of a poem, either. Certainly, one must be indulgent to catalogue such practices as literary “structuralism” since, after all, picking up a calliper or a power drill does not make one an engineer. The placid and risk-free practice of “text analysis” besieged the field of linguistic structuralism like weeds that feed off one another. In post-war Romania, this led to a wide, but levelled field of analysis. Certain attempts at theorization occurred, from time to time, but did so in complete isolation, as they lacked both the environment and the echo that could have led to their systematic development. The linguist Ion Coteanu, for instance, described the “grammar of poetic language” in terms borrowed from Jakobson, such as “ambiguity, concentration, and double signification”, but went no further than these general remarks. His linguistic aims did not require him to (re)construct a theory of literature, but were, instead, served well by the analysis of separate texts: even as he referred to Jauss’ theories, Coteanu was attached to the idea that “the structural unity of the text” remained the stable point of reference for the “linguistics and criticism of today” Coteanu 1986 7-35 pub-229591 . The majority of such studies, “dedicated, at the level of intention, to poetic language, in fact prove to be commentaries on poetry, just as the exegesis of poetry breaks down into empty considerations about language” Dascălu 1986 9 pub-229593 .

13Thus, a certain inappetence for theoretical generalizations could be observed in the area of Romanian literary studies most inclined to theory, even outside of criticism in the periodicals of the time. Yet it is impossible not to notice the fact that the views of the two parties actually coincided, which became obvious once criticism regained its strength following the period of cultural liberalization. The “particular structure” of poetic language discussed by scholars of stylistics in technical and pedantic terms was, in fact, the same as that “autonomy of the aesthetic” argued for by literary critics in a veiled, but practical language. In this respect, the fact that the two points of view had different sources, as well as different histories, mattered less than their shared conclusions. Furthermore, it was equally insignificant that the argumentations of the two parties were employed to divergent effects and with distinct persuasive power: ultimately, both were working towards reconfirming the unique perimeter of literature.

14As such, one ought to wonder what, more specifically, linguistics could do for literature. Gérard Genette and Jonathan Culler outlined two main directions in what concerns the input from one discipline to another: first, the “direct application of the techniques of linguistic description” in the “analysis of the acts of language” Culler 2002 6-7 pub-229592 of a text or corpus; secondly, the ability to sketch a bird’s-eye view of “literature, works, genres, etc., which, beyond superficial linguistic considerations, makes use of structural models borrowed from modern linguistics” Genette 1967 253 pub-229595 . If the first operation takes place at the level of the text, the second follows a more abstract line of argumentation, since it does not aim to decode the meaning of specific texts, but rather to trace in them the “action of the conventions of a superordinate system” Culler 2002 121 pub-229592 . Toma Pavel argued for a similar distinction when he observed that linguistics could be used “heuristically”, “in combination with other conceptual instruments” (as was the case in stylistics, New Criticism, and formalism), or “speculatively”, in support of certain “radical epistemological positions” (as those concerning the “death of the Author” or “the end of man or of history”) Pavel 1993 12-15 pub-229596 . Structuralism obviously opted for the latter. For this reason, its theoreticians insisted on the distinction between the “science of literature”, which targeted overall textual perspectives that were often purely hypothetical and removed from any context, and literary criticism and history, which focused, by any means available, on particular or historically localized items. Thus, the real innovation that structural linguistics could bring to literary studies did not have to do with the sophistication of certain analytical tools; instead, it rested in the possibility to formulate more general hypotheses about the manner of existence and behaviour of literary artefacts. Not only have assumptions derived from linguistics led to a view of literature as a system regulated by internal norms, but they have also made possible the revision of certain basic matters about historicity, significance, and aesthetic value. This occurred specifically in the more balanced terms of Prague School structuralism, so long as the latter could associate itself with an influential and still profitable form of Marxist linguistics. Yet the speculation achieved major proportions in French structuralism, which ultimately trivialized the issues of subjectivity and value, whether in art or any other field of culture.

15Although linguistics can be a decisive catalyst in the reconceptualization of the literary object of study, its implications can be thoroughly traced only in a multidisciplinary framework of thought, which employs, in some way, matters of sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. Obviously, the Romanian intellectual environment could not benefit from such a space during the communist regime, when the humanities were cut off from their natural speculative circuit. Linguistics did not intersect them, just as it avoided the ideological minefield of quotidian discourse. Instead, it focused on the study of literature in what was rather a speculative obstruction than the desire to truly reform critical thought. Linguists found in fiction a safe field of application, whereas men of letters found in linguistics an equally harmless language, which, to them, seemed “scientific”, neutral, and apolitical. In the Romanian case, the equivalent of the notorious linguistic turn in Western literary studies was nothing more than a circumstantial cohabitation resulting from a common ideological enemy. This was a defensive phenomenon, rather than a theoretically offensive one, manifested in a practical and analytical manner, rather than speculatively or theoretically. It is, after all, no accident that under the armour of linguistic terminology, one may still observe the persistence of a neoromantic view of literature at the time. All countries of the Eastern Bloc came to know this resurgence of formalism in the wake of linguistics, a discipline that enjoyed a special status according to the policy for mass culturalization of the time and that was, beginning with the 1950s, more protected from ideological struggle. The fusion of literary studies and linguistics took place in Romania under the aegis of conservation, rather than that of theoretical revolution, and it proceeded similarly to the reinforcement of existing fortifications. In 1960s France, the linguistic revolution obliterated the fundamentals of the literary object of study, even at an academic level. There, the avant-gardist force of linguistics resulted from its marginal status (as a discipline without the academic prestige of literary history or that of philosophy in the humanities), but also from its problematic extension. Linguistic structuralism was disseminated in France not (only) by linguists proper, but also and especially by ethnologists, men of letters, philosophers, and psychoanalysts, which brought together a heavier speculative baggage as compared to the initial theories of Saussure or Hjelmslev. Furthermore, Greimas, Barthes, Althusser, Todorov, and Lacan were all formed by College de France or École Pratique des Hautes Études, so that their theoretical front also implied an ideological war against the central university institution, as well as against the inertia of the traditional disciplines proposed by the latter.

16In East-European countries, beginning with the 1950s, linguistics enjoyed a more stable academic status, and thus a lesser predisposition for speculation. Against other humanistic sciences, linguistics was the most modern academic discipline in Romania for the entire duration of the communist regime. Already at the time of socialist realism, it featured theoretical reference points similar to those at the fundament of French structuralism. Yet the theories of Saussure, Jakobson, or Hjelmslev played out in different scenarios on the two sides of the continent, depending on the local ideological and institutional contexts. French theoreticians employed linguistic concepts in order to reshape the objects of study and the aims of literary science and other humanities. Romanian “formalists” refrained from going further than the application of the same concepts in “text analysis”, which offered limited support and no opportunity to problematize.

17Stylistics, poetics, and the history of literary language remained the most popular areas of post-war Romanian linguistics,5 in an inversely proportional rapport with the situation in France. In Romania, linguistics did not deconstruct the literary work, but rather consolidated its fundaments; by electing fiction as the preferred matter of investigation, linguistics reconfirmed the centrality of literature in the fabric of Romanian post-war culture. The strain of structuralism disseminated through the practice of “text analysis” did not question the articulation of the literary work from the distant vantage point of theory, but rather exalted its minutiae in what became a very close reading. Unlike the case in France, the use of linguistic instruments had a conservative effect, meant to protect and justify the specific nature of the literary establishment. In spite of the parade of scientific terms, “text analyses” displayed an insignificant exegetic value and, at times, appeared to worship the literary pantheon even more than criticism itself.


  • 1 Modified translations of the chapter „Ce face lingvistica pentru literatură” Stan 2017 49-60 pub-229337 .
  • 2 ”Literary texts are one of the main sources of research for linguistics”, points out Mioara Avram Avram 1978 137 pub-229568 .
  • 3 See the articles from Cahiers de linguistique théorique et appliquée 1.1 (1962): Jakobson 1962 Analyse du poème Revedere pub-102139 , Mancaș 1962 La synesthésie dans la création artistique de M. Eminescu, T. Arghezi et M. Sadoveanu pub-229572 , Nasta 1962 Considérations sur le caractèrs distinctifs du mètre grec pub-229573 , Pavel 1962 Notes pour une description structurale de la métaphore poétique pub-229574 .
  • 4 An extensive list of contributions in Berca & Bercea 1986 pub-229575 .
  • 5 The 1967 International Congress of Linguistics, and the 1968 Congress of Linguistics and Romance Philology, both of which took place in Bucharest, hosted separate panels for Stylistics and Poetics, with a great number of attendants See Graur 1969 pub-229597 .


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Publication details

Published in:

Apostolescu Iulian (2021) Romanian Structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 3.

Pages: 6

Full citation:

Stan Adriana (2021) „What linguistics does for literature“. Acta Structuralica 3, 6.