Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Poetry and Language

Michael Ferber

People who love poetry are not likely to love these sorts of thing:

 ˌɪntərˈnæʃənəl fəˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəbɪt

VP   ->   t (M) (have + prf) (be + prg) V

*h2ner-seerg  gwhen-ontabs  doruabs

Which is too bad, because there are great riches hidden in these nuggets, just as in good poems.  It took many years of hard work to come up with the International Phonetic Alphabet, the first example, and without it we would have no good way to study the sounds of all the languages in the world and how they change.  The second entry boils down the structure of the English verb phrase, which foreigners rightly find very complicated, into a simple and elegant formula.  The third one is a proposal for something that may have happened deep in the past, in the mother of nearly all European and Central Asian languages, including English, spoken among the Yamnaya people of the Ukrainian steppe about 4000 BCE.

 Of course you can appreciate poetry very well without knowing anything about these things, but, studying linguistics as an avocation while studying poetry as a vocation, I discovered again and again that what I gleaned from linguistics lit up the poems I was reading, made them more interesting, and helped me compare them with each other.  My students, however insightfully they talked about a poem, seemed to know nothing about the language they talked in, and when I pushed them to analyze their mother tongue as if it were new and strange they usually found the effort fascinating.  But I often felt too that a steady dose of poetry would be good for the brains of linguists, who often sounded rather dull, or made English seem duller than it is.

Hence my book Poetry and Language.  It is meant to apply some ideas in linguistics to the peculiar features of poetry—rhyme and other sound effects, meter, onomatopoeia, strange word order, metaphor, style—to see how far they help us understand them.  At the end it considers whether it is possible to translate poetry from one language to another.  The book presumes no knowledge of linguistics, and there are very few formulas and diagrams. I enjoyed writing it, and I hope readers will enjoy reading it, and even enjoy learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is more interesting than you might think.

Poetry and Language by Michael Ferber

Poetry and Language by Michael Ferber

About The Author

Michael Ferber

Michael Ferber is Professor of English and Humanities Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. After a stint in physics and math he majored in Greek and English at Swarthmore ...

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