Linguistic Analysis of Dahl and Blyton

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When looking at the critical and theoretical work that has been written on the subject of children’s literature, one finds that there is a surprising dearth in the amount of material written on the importance of linguistics. The challenge was not to select which linguistic theory would best apply, but rather to find any theory that would have significance to the interpretation of children’s literature. In order to complete this analysis, therefore, I found it most constructive to work with two texts.

The first, Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style by Richard Ohmann, is a text which gives a comprehensive overview of the ways in which linguistics can be used to determine the way style is constructed in a literary text. The second, The Reader in the Book by Aidan Chambers, is a text on literary criticism in children’s literature which discusses the importance of style in the critique of a piece of children’s literature.

It is by examining the arguments of the latter that one is able to effectively apply the theories of the former in order to analyse the linguistic differences between the two children’s texts, and determine the implications of such differences. Before selecting the Ohmann text, I looked at another linguistic approach to style, Nominal and Verbal Style by Rulon Wells. This piece discussed the common preference for a verbal style in English prose, over a nominal one, and the syntactical consequences of each style.

Wells argued that because a predominant use of nouns would necessitate other syntactical elements, and the same would apply to a predominant use of verbs, then the choice of nominality over verbality or vice versa would inevitably mean other stylistic variations. While this argument would be interesting applied to literature generally, I rejected it in favour of Ohmann’s theories which, being more comprehensive in their linguistic application, would better suit an analysis of children’s literature. Ohmann, in Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style, picks up, as it were, where Wells leaves off.

Ohmann points to the slippery way in which critics have been accustomed to trying to determine exactly what constitutes the style which Chambers indicates is so important. While critics have been inclined to look at such differences as those caused by time period, syntactical and grammatical usage, the usage of tropes, etc. , he points out that these remain unsatisfactory without an underlying and unifying linguistic theory. He indicates generative grammar- concerned with the transformational rules of grammar- as the solution.

By looking at the methods in which transformation grammar can create stylistic variations without altering actual meaning, Ohmann shows how it can be used to show the linguistic causes of stylistic variations between writers. The result of using Ohmann’s theory in conjunction with Chambers’ guidelines for criticism (discussed in the analysis below) is that one can show how linguistic variations in text can account for the changing reception of a children’s book, or how they can be related to the changing conditions in which a children’s book was written. This is what the following analysis will attempt. Analysis

Aidan Chambers’ The Reader in the Book presents arguments which make clear the need for linguistic analysis of children’s literature, and is therefore supremely useful to this analysis. Chambers argues that, firstly, in order to properly critique children’s literature, one must take into account the child as the supposed reader of the text; that children, as inexperienced readers, do not know how to accommodate a text, and so any piece written for them must effectively draw them in and accommodate itself to their needs and expectations; that the style of a piece is the manner in which an author uses language to accomplish this.

Chambers argues that for a text to be successful with a child, the style must be specifically suited to children. This in turn leads one to the importance of a linguistic approach to the text: in order to fully understand the usage of language. This section of analysis will look at the first two pages of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, 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 three rules that make transformational grammar useful in analysis of style.

The first rule Ohmann discusses is that in most cases, the transformation of a sentence is optional. This means that the writing of a sentence in a particular way is not required but a matter of stylistic choice. Secondly, Ohmann states that by transforming a sentence, the meaning remains intact because the composite segments of the sentence remain intact, and thirdly, he describes how this can help the analyst understand the relationship between the complex and simple sentences used.

Compare, first, the opening few sentences of each: Once upon a time there were three children, Joe, Beth and Frannie. They lived with their mother and father in a little cottage deep in the country. And: Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. Although the works are separated by nearly thirty years, there is surprising grammatical and syntactical similarity between the two extracts. Both begin with the basic structural pattern of NOUN PHRASE plus VERB PHRASE, and avoid complex sentences.

In both cases, these openings could be transformed from a collection of two simple sentences to a longer complex sentence, neither could be simplified further without detracting from the meaning conveyed. Thus, the use of the simple sentence has been a deliberate stylistic choice for both writers. The sentences are short and simple and to the point. They have a rhythm as engaging as verse, and they convey meaning in simple, compact packages.

The reason for this is self-evident: the writing was aimed at young children whose attention would be better caught by an undemanding linguistic style. Writing for adults, no doubt the authors would have employed more complex structures. There is, however, a clear difference between the two selections; namely, that Blyton has used more signifiers: the cottage is little, the country is deep, and the story takes place once upon a time. Dahl has not done this; his writing is plain and to the point.

In terms of the information conveyed, very little is added by Blyton’s signifiers, however, in terms of the style, there is a difference. Blyton is employing a style common to oral story-tellers which is lyrical, but also slightly patronizing. By adding such details she guides the reader’s imagination along the path she wishes it to take, and although her grammar attempts to place her on the same level as her child reader, the patronizing quality of her authoritative voice separates her from the child reader.

Dahl, in comparison, has stuck to the facts, and while his style is just as easy and engaging, it is also more trusting of his reader to ascertain his meaning without pointers. His piece goes on to say: They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of them were about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet.

The sentence structure makes a definite statement of fact, while the use of the personal pronoun in the second sentence invites the reader to sympathise with those facts. Dahl could have supplied the same information in a different way, for example: One could not meet men meaner and nastier than they were. Contracting the two sentences into one concise sentence also spoils the attractive staccato rhythm of the original, which through repetition served to underline the given facts without being redundant.

This transformation, however, while conveying the same content, nevertheless changes the style, making it both more uncertain and formal, and less authoritative. A similar process can be tried on Blyton’s language. For example: Then they looked out of the window. It looked on to a dark, thick wood, whose trees waved in the wind, not far from the bottom of the garden. Unlike Dahl, Blyton’s statements of fact include her descriptors which guide the reader, almost like a person using sign language to augment their speech. It lends a patronizing air to the authoritative voice she shares with Dahl.

The same information could have been conveyed thus: Then they looked out of the window. There was a deep forest not far beyond the garden, whose trees waved in the wind. By transforming the sentence to resemble Dahl’s, the patronizing air is lost, and by making the forest rather than the window the subject of the second sentence, a feeling of detachment is imparted to the wood which would give greater scope to the child-reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, it would loose the style of a spoken fairy-tale that Blyton has written into it.

The difference in style, between the two writers, as indicated by the linguistically analysis of the two short passages above, seems to be predominantly in the attitudes they take towards their readers, themselves, and their subject matter. Enid Blyton, writing in the post-war era when the attitude towards children contained more of the Victorian ethos of separateness than the modern-day urge to relate and understand, adopted a tone which was authoritative but patronizing. She talks down to her readers and guides them where she would have them go.

While a child of the forties may have found this natural- Blyton’s books were extremely popular- a modern reader would be slightly put off, and this may account for why Enid Blyton is less popular nowadays. Dahl, by contrast, although using a voice of authorial authority, nevertheless speaks to his reader as an equal- and moreover, as though he were at the level of the child, rather than the child being at the level of an adult- evident in the plain and to-the-point style created by the grammatical structures he employs.

Thus, his writing appeals to children throughout the years, and is still popular with both parents and children thirty years after first appearing in print. Conclusion In order to determine whether Ohmann’s theories are tenable, it might now be useful to refer back to the guidelines usually applied to stylistics, which Ohmann claims such transformational grammaticism should clarify. Ohmann names twelve key approaches, but I will concentrate on the three which are concerned with grammar and syntax.

The first is the study of the writer’s tone- that is, the attitude the author takes towards himself, his subject matter, his audience, etc. As we have already seen, the grammatical and syntactical choices of the writers in question have indeed led to differences in tone. The attitudes the writers take, particularly in relation to his/her readers, has led to them making specific stylistic decisions, manifest in the grammar and syntax of their writing. The second is the analysis of sound, and particularly of rhythm.

As shown above, both writers have adopted a style of prose which composes of short, simple sentences which lend a staccato and rhythmic nature to the writing. Thus, the sentence structures they have chosen can be shown to contribute to the sound which makes their style suited to their childish readers. The final approach is the statistical study of grammatical features.

By indicating the optional transitions of a sentence or phrase (i. e. the addition or deletion of an adjective, the compounding of clauses, the replacement of proper nouns with pronouns, etc. , generative grammaticism can indicate where certain grammatical features have been favoured over others, thus contributing to the overall style of the piece. Blyton’s heavier use of adjectives than Dahl was the example of this above. It seems, then, that an application of Ohmann’s theory can put a linguistic approach to stylistics on firmer ground. In applying his theory to children’s literature, we saw that certain grammatical decisions led to styles of writing which helped determine their reception by their child audiences.

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