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The Voice of the Child in American Literature

The Voice of the Child in American Literature

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The Voice of the Child in American Literature
    Book Description:

    We as adults are reflected in our children, those in our literature as well as those in our familes, and so it is natural to want to examine their presence among us. Children and child speech are important literary elements which merit careful critical analysis. Surprisingly, comprehensive studies of the child in American fiction have not been previously attempted and fictional child speech, even that of individual characters has been almost totally ignored. Nevertheless, the language of fictional children warrants attention for several reasons. First, language and language acquisition are primary issues for children much as sexual development is primary issues for adolescents. Second, because vast linguistic efforts have been directed toward language acquisition research, a broad base of concrete information exists with which to explore the topic. And, third, language is a key which opens many doors. An understanding of fictional children's language leads to discoveries about various critical questions, sociological and psychological as well as textual and stylistic.

    This study examines the presentation of children and child language in American fiction by applying general linguistic principles as well as specific findings from child language acquisition research to children's speech in literary texts. It clarifies, sorts, and assesses the representations of child speech in American fiction. It tests on fictional discourse linguistic concepts heretofore applied exclusively to naturally occurring child language. The aim is not to evaluate the degree of realism in writers' presentations of child language, for that would be a simplistic and reductive enterprise. Rather, the overall object is to analyze fictional child language using linguistic methods.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6349-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. ii-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    In a well-known section of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman uses the voice of a child to raise some of the central issues in his poem. Whitman’s presentation of this speaking child typifies the ways in which children and child language often appear in American literature:

    A child said,What is the grass?fetching

    it to me with full hands;

    How could I answer the child? I do

    not know what it is any more than he.

    [Leaves of Grasslines 98-100]

    Here the child asks the primary question of the poem, penetrating with deadly accuracy to the heart of...

  6. 2. Basic Structures in Child Speech: Sounds, Word Forms, and Syntax
    (pp. 8-18)

    Children often pronounce and form words differently than adults, saying, for example, “free” rather than “three” or “bringed” rather than “brought.” These expressions appear in child speech for various reasons. Sometimes they occur in identifiable stages as a child begins to learn a particular form. The child who says “bringed,” for instance, has learned to add an -edending to verbs referring to past action and is applying that knowledge to all verbs. Sometimes these childish utterances relate to the degree of difficulty associated with making a particular sound; sound combinations such as “free” or “tree,” for example, may be...

  7. 3. Case Grammar: Role Structures of Child Speech
    (pp. 19-41)

    Most models of language are based on syntax, that is, on grammatical structures. Without linguistic structures that all speakers of a language understand (either at a conscious or an unconscious level), communication between people would be impossible. If, for example, English somehow existed as a language with words but without commonly held syntactic structures, a speaker would have difficulty using words to express even the simplest ideas. To complicate matters even further, a sentence can be syntactically acceptable even if it is not meaningful, as Noam Chomsky has shown with the famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” However, as...

  8. 4. Functions of Child Speech
    (pp. 42-63)

    Sidestepping the controversial relationship between meaning and structure, some linguists contend that a functional basis for language must be present before either semantics or syntax comes into the picture. M.A.K. Halliday defines speech functions as the “uses of language,” adding that the functionalist approach is concerned with “how people use language and … how language varies according to its use” (Explorations in the Functions of Language37).¹ In her bookLanguage and Context: The Acquisition of Pragmatics, Elizabeth Bates expresses the attitude of those who view pragmatics as the foundation for language: “Recent psycholinguistic research … has suggested that syntax...

  9. 5. Parent-Child Discourse
    (pp. 64-94)

    Generalizing about parent-child language is risky because new studies constantly question the motivations, assumptions, methodologies, and interpretations of earlier work. Most language specialists would, however, agree with Catherine Snow that parent-to-child speech is universally simple, well-formed, redundant, and semantically concrete (“Conversations with Children”). Most linguists would, furthermore, concur that these features of adult-to-child speech are mirrored in the language of children. That is, as Catherine Snow has shown in her exploration of patterning (“Saying It Again”), children imitate adult speech, although imitation alone cannot account for children’s development of language. Elza Stella-Prorok (“Mother-Child Language in the Natural Environment”) has demonstrated...

  10. 6. Children’s Narratives
    (pp. 95-113)

    Although storytelling is an ancient art, narratology is a relatively new area of academic inquiry.¹ In his bookNarratology: The Form and Function of Narrative, Gerald Prince identifies the formal study of narratives as an emerging field important to many disciplines, including psychology, anthropology, history, aesthetics, literary criticism, and linguistics. Prince defines narrative as “the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (4). William Labov defines narrative as “one method of recapitulating past experience by matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence...

  11. 7. Gender and Fictional Children’s Language
    (pp. 114-135)

    The origins of sex-linked differences in language can be found both in biology and in culture, though neither factor is completely understood with respect to language or to any other human behavior. Biologically, some aspects of brain function may be different for males and for females. A physiological connection between language and gender is suggested, for example, by the fact that males are more prone to dyslexia, a condition characterized by reading difficulties caused by the brain’s reversal of letters. Biological distinctions related to hormone levels may also affect language; for instance, the presence of testosterone in the amniotic fluid...

  12. 8. Conclusion: “That Evening Sun”
    (pp. 136-148)

    This study has looked at how American writers portray the language of their child characters and has investigated this subject by applying linguistic principles drawn from child language acquisition research to the direct discourse of selected fictional children. Though not every young character in American literature nor every linguistic principle relevant to language acquisition has been exhaustively discussed, the consideration has been reasonably comprehensive in its use of linguistics and in its selection of literature. The speech of all major child characters in such classic fiction asThe Scarlet LetterorAdventures of Huckleberry Finnhas been reviewed. Many lesser-known...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 149-153)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 154-176)
  15. Index
    (pp. 177-185)