Academic journal article Style

Style Stands Still

Academic journal article Style

Style Stands Still

Article excerpt

When I began this study, I wondered what a linguist might have to say that would be appropriate and interesting to readers of a journal with a name like Style. In this context, it quickly became obvious to me that my own ordinary understanding of what was meant by style was deficient--deficient enough, anyway, that I decided to perform an act of linguistic research: I looked up style in the dictionary.

And thereby I found my topic--or rather my topics, because there are several senses to which I was led, piecemeal and seriatim. Looking at the very first sense of style in the OED immediately reminded me of a story, which on investigation turned out to be a missing piece of the Conduit Metaphor, pointing to the symbolic nature of writing. Then I noticed that the etymology for style was ambivalent, and I investigated that, opening an evolutionary path from the prehistory of Indo-European to the present, once again discovering surprising correlations with writing and poetics, and a convergence with metaphor and with the story I'd just looked at.

In this essay I propose to tell this story and take a stroll along this path, with my readers looking over my shoulder and, I hope, enjoying the scenery. At the end I will review some of what was observed and discovered on the journey, discuss the ways the observations and discoveries converge, and point to a moral of sorts, about how to equip ourselves on such journeys and what we should not be surprised to find standing just outside our ordinary field of vision.

Introduction: How Many Senses of Style?

Gloucester Know'st thou the way to Douer? Edgar Both style, and gato; Horseway, and foot-path.

--King Lear, 4.1 (2)

Let us begin by displaying the senses given by the OED for the noun style. There are twenty-eight of them, grouped into tire largo classes, of which the first two,

I. Stylus, pin, stalk (11 entries)

II. Writing; manner of writing (hence also of speaking) (7 entries), were already developed in Latin, and came along when the word style (or stile--we discuss below the etymological problems that these variants represent) was borrowed into English.

The third sense,

III. Manner, fashion in general (8 entries), is the most general, and therefore common, in modern English, the one most frequently associated with cultural and artistic matters generally.

The final two minor senses have only one entry each, with specialized (though familiar enough) meanings:

IV. A mode of expressing dates (e.g, old style) relative to calendar reform.

V. Combined, as style manual, style sheet; style analysis--analysis of the characteristic style of an artist, writer, composer, etc.

Of course, these groupings are not definitive, merely convenient; the 28 entries under style in the OED are numbered sequentially, instead of being subcategorized under I through V. But they can serve us as signposts, at least, on the path, and occasionally we may pause to look more closely at the fine print on some roadside attraction.

The very first entry for style is the most familiar one to the scholar:

   An instrument made of metal, bone, etc., having one end
   sharp-pointed for incising letters on a wax tablet, and the other
   flat and broad for smoothing the tablet and erasing what is written:
   = stylus 1. Also applied to similar instruments in later use.

This is the traditional etymological source of style in its literary sense: metonymy from a writing instrument, not unlike the later use of pen. But pens, however archaic they may seem in the twenty-first century, have not yet been as many millennia on the path as have styles. The metonymy of using the instrument of writing to refer to the thing written, and thence to the manner of writing of even the character of the writer, was already well established in Late Latin; but the use of wax tablets (and therefore stiles sensu stricto) for writing was left behind when style arrived in English. …

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