The science of literary language

As I was cycling home from work yesterday, I was listening to Material World on Radio 4. You may scoff, but it was better than what I was doing on the way home on Tuesday .

Anyhow, Material World is Radio 4’s popular science programme, and in this week’s edition they were exploring the idea that the kind of wordplay that is associated with Shakespeare might have effects on the brain that would explain why people find such wordplay interesting and enjoyable (or baffling and boring, I suppose).

You’ll be delighted to know that I’ve ripped the relevant bit for you if you fancy a listen. Here it is.

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4 Responses to The science of literary language

  1. Tonia says:

    this is completely off the track of your bulletin but i was just thinking this morning….

    i’ve got a cold, which really annoyed me. So i sent a text to the person i caught it off saying “i’ve caught your f***ing cold :(” and that sent me off thinking about the difference between using swear words and not. If i’d just said “I’ve caught your cold” then it wouldn’t have sounded threatening but the swear word highlighted the fact that i was annoyed about it and could have been seen as threatening. i was then thinking about why people actually put swear words in the middle of sentences and what effect they have.

    That’s all.

    Also, that link to the science program? MAJOR BORE! at least discussions on five live are interesting – like the debate on whether prisoners should vote that was on this morning.

  2. Mr Heald says:

    I agree with you about Five Live, though I missed the discussion you refer to. And I must confess there was a slightly provocative element to my deciding to post the ‘Material World’ piece, as I recognised that many, probably most, perhaps all of you would find that piece ‘boring’. I think I hinted as much in the post itself, didn’t I? Or was the self-deprecating irony too subtle? However, I think it’s worth pointing you in the direction of text types, concepts and so on that you might not otherwise come across. I think there are good reasons for this in terms of your development as citizens and human beings, but if that seems too abstract, perhaps it would make it more relevant if I point out that writing a script for a Radio 4 information programme has more than once been set as the task for Unit 5 (Editorial Writing).

    I haven’t got time for a detailed exploration of the concept of ‘boredom’ here. Suffice to say that my view is that very often the claim that something is boring turns out not really to refer to anything about the thing itself, but to the experience of the person making the claim. I also feel that frequently, the claim that something is ‘boring’ can be a displacement mechanism often used to deflect attention away from a sense of inadequacy that often arises when something is difficult to comprehend or assimilate fully.

    I hope you don’t think I’m being patronising here, as I am aware of this tendency in myself. For example, I am bored by most opera. However, I have decided that it is frankly a bit stupid to say that I am bored because it is boring. If nothing else, a bit of humility should make me wonder if I am qualified to make a sweeping negative judgement about an art form that has been a significant aspect of our culture for centuries. I think the problem lies with me and my limited understanding, rather than with opera itself.

    So, what was it about the discussion that made you think it was a ‘major bore’? Even if we really do find something boring, it csn be interesting to analyse what we find boring about it. Sometimes, that effort of contemplation can make the sense of boredom evaporate. For an (I think!) interesting exploration of this in a completely different field, you might want to look at this.

    Having doubtless bored you with what I’ve just written, I should point out that I find your point about swearing much more interesting, personally, and I intend to explore the subect of ‘taboo language’ as linguists usually refer to this field, with you at another time.

    I don’t think you intended to sound genuinely threatening, did you?

  3. Tonia says:

    right, i skipped your essay on the word boredom and i’m going to go straight in for the kill on swearing.

    i did indeed say “fucking” and yes i guess i did genuinely want to sound a bit peeved off, because the guy i caught it off is annoying me and i’m mad at him. so a bit of swearing here or there tends to just ensure he knows i’m annoyed, i was hoping that the tone would provoke a response but since then we haven’t spoken, he hasn’t apologised for anything…..and i still have his fucking cold.

    back to boredom briefly. i found it difficult to understand and also extremely hard to concentrate on what they were saying, possibly because they tended to drone and weren’t really excited about what they were talking about unlike five live where everything is interesting and fun because of the way they discuss and involve people.

    So yes, i think boredom does have something to do with not understanding, because if you understand then you can make your own opinions on the subject and maybe if you have knowledge of the subject then you would not be bored, because it interested you. Although, i was still bored stiff, for whatever reason.

  4. Mr Heald says:

    Hmm, I think I’m with you on this, really. I listened to a bit of the Material World piece with the Y12 Combined group, and because that made me listen to it from their perspective I realised how ‘droning’ the contributers (other than the presenter) could sound, and how difficult it might be to follow. However, I didn’t find it boring when I first listened because a) I have had many years of practice at listening to this kind of stuff so taking it in isn’t really a problem, and b) I was already positively disposed towards the subject matter: I expected to find it interesting and was therefore prepared to make the mental investment necessary to concentrate on it.

    Yes, it could have been simplified and made more ‘lively’ and ‘accessible’, but then it would have been a different kind of programme for a different kind of audience: perhaps therefore more suitable for you. As Naomi pointed out in that lesson, what you are prepared to take an interest in and make the effort to understand depends to some degree on the kind of person you want to be (or want to project yourself as). It was suggested that I might not bother with rap music (not entirely true: see my post on seeing Apache Indian at Whitby), for example, in the same way that Radio 4 is likely to be a turn-off for most teenagers. As it happens I discovered Radio 4 in my teens, at precisely the same time that I was into John Peel on Radio 1, and reading the NME. It’s aimed at the ‘educated general listener’ and there’s no reason that shouldn’t be you, too, if you want it to be.

    Bah! I’m really exhausted after this long term, with lots of late nights, so I think I’m losing coherence. I need to go and wrap the kids’ Christmas presents now anyway, so that’s me done for tonight online.

    As for the swearing thing, it deserves a post on its own. At least. So keep an eye out for one coming up.

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