As an addition to the toolkit of philology, the study of style offers certain advantages.There is what you say, the content of your message; and there is how you say it. The latter is what we call style. Stylistics has many aspects, but in perhaps its purest form, it consists of the study not of content words, the message carriers, but of function words or connectives, the words which articulate the content words, but do not themselves carry content. It is this top end of the lexicon, the high-frequency connectives or particles, with which we are here concerned.Mary McCarthy once said, of her enemy Lillian Hellman,
Every word she writes is a lie, including "and" and "the."
This is a witty remark, and the wit consists in the fact that "and" and "the" are precisely the sort of high-frequency connectives and function words we have just been talking about. These words articulate the message, but they do not carry the message. They thus cannot lie, for the same reason that they cannot tell the truth. They operate below the level at which statements of any kind are made, and where judgements of "true" or "false" can be made about those statements.
In the chemistry lab, some people are better than others at pouring A into B, and those who pour B, containing water, into A, containing sulfuric acid, will be learning lab technique the hard way. Similarly, judgements of style are a literary skill which not everyone has in equal degree. The charge of subjectivity, impressionism, personal bias, or whatnot, is perpetually leveled against those who practice history, or judge literary quality, and some of those attacks are well founded. Who should one follow? The virtue of a test of style like the one which the Project has recently introduced, the BIRD test, is that its results are exactly the same for all. The interpretation of a stylistic result lies with the human investigator, but the result itself is objective. By whomever calculated, it presents the same data to the human investigator for interpretation.
Some results so far obtained suggest that the test results are meaningful; that they are at least to some extent seeing what human investigators have seen, over the centuries. Sample confirmations would include:
- Iliad 10, the Doloneia, was suspected already in antiquity as an intrusion. The BIRD test reports that it is so unlike the preceding Iliad 9 (the Embassy to Achilles) as to preclude its coming from the same author, or even the same school of rhapsodes. It is indeed intrusive. The Ancients were right.
- Origen had early suspected that Revelation was wrongly associated with the rest of the Johannine group (the Gospel and three Epistles). The BIRD results show that not only is this true, but that Revelation resembles nothing at all in the NT canon, probably because it is written in an archaizing, Scriptural style. Origen was right.
In literature, as in music, there are intangibles that are easier felt than stated. The trouble is that some people feel them better than others, and what then? With the test here mentioned, we believe that we are adding a small measure of objective specificity to one of those intangibles. Leaving, no doubt, much to be argued about, to the heart's content of those whose hearts are content in that way, but with just one thing made a little more manageable, for those who are trying to get somewhere with this subject, and for whom a thinning of the cloud may have its attractions.
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