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Taking the Long View: Exploring Words Across Literature

Words can be thought of as historical artifacts; they carry with them a stamp of time and place, and sometimes it's important to take the long view and think about words outside their immediate context and use a broader perspective. One form that this type of exploration may take is looking at a word's use across different works of literature. This analysis can tell you a lot about the words, but it can also illuminate the books as a whole in interesting ways, providing brief sketches of the common concerns of two authors across decades.

Let's explore what the word lists associated with some thematically similar books can tell us. Has the way we express concepts changed radically, or do certain words capture emotions and outlooks so well that they endure? The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston are both about realization, about fighting against a label of inferiority. This brief vocabulary list of words they share brings this out in startling ways:

This list reads like an austere poem about subjugation and belittling treatment at the hands of a dominant force. It represents how those who are kept down are classified (delirium, treacherous, trifle) and is also a prescription for how they should be treated (pacified, snubbed). An author's creation of mood, and their establishment of style, starts with word choice, so the fact that these eight words on a page can stir so many associations perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. It is truly remarkable, though, when so little can call to mind so much about the complex works of fiction in which they are found.

Take for example the use in both novels of the word snub.  Snub is usually an active, aggressive word, something done in retaliation to a perceived wrong either to oneself or one's friends. It is significant that in both The Awakening and Their Eyes Were Watching God, snubbing is something the characters want to do but cannot:

"I tell you what it is Edna; you can't afford to snub Mrs. Belthrop" — Mr. Pontellier, in The Awakening

"She [Mrs. Turner] felt honored by Janie's acquaintance and she quickly forgave and forgot snubs in order to keep it" – Their Eyes Were Watching God

Considerations of social standing and decorum, and in Mrs. Turner's case, Janie's "Caucasian characteristics" prevent Edna and Mrs. Turner from doing what they would otherwise want to do, slowly chipping away at their agency as human beings as they move through the world. Examining the use of a single word has given us a glimpse into the stifling, frustrating universes of these novels.  Opposed to what these characters cannot do for themselves are the things they must do for others:

"He [Etienne] had been unwilling to go to bed and had made a scene; whereupon she [Madame Ratignole] had taken charge of him and pacified him as well as she could" — The Awakening

"And now you got tuh die tuh find out dat you got tuh pacify somebody besides yo'self if you wants any love and any sympathy in dis world" – Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Whether this last quote is true on a cosmic level or not, it seems true in the world of these novels, be it a simple act of comfort or a statement about the celestial grand design. It is significant also that both attempts to pacify do not seem completely successful. In The Awakening, there is only partial success, and in Their Eyes Were Watching God, it seems to be the central part of a realization that has come too late. Pacify has slightly different meanings in the two sentences above but in both instances, pacifying involves reaching out and interacting with other people, emphasizing a community spirit perhaps unexpected from the word pacify in more common contexts.

As we have seen, this method of analysis treats words as simultaneously unbound from their immediate context and as proxies for the works they come from as a whole. In a sense, this is the duality that occurs when you learn vocabulary from literature. Upon learning the word it is now yours to use everywhere, but it is often the case that you always associate the word with the original context you learned it in. Authors' preoccupations, the themes they explore, and the webs of words they weave transcend the original contexts they are found in and resonate with other works of art. It is this ongoing conversation that helps form a literary tradition, both within a country and around the world.

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Tuesday December 3rd 2013, 4:31 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
If you're interested in endangered languages beyond documentation & preservation to revitalization you might be interested in a new approach that's starting to catch on here on the Northwest Coast known as 'Where Are Your Keys?'

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