University of Sussex
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LISTENING TO WRITING: a sociolinguistic enquiry into the creation of meaning and effect in modern American literature, focusing on the work of Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders.

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posted on 2023-06-07, 16:20 authored by Garth Andrew Twa
This thesis proceeds in two modes, utilizing both a critical and a creative lens to think about the use of simple language in formal writing. It examines the production of a register that categorizes insider/outsider status (the mechanics) as well as interrogating the (un)conscious attempts of authors seeking to prise into or remain removed from established cultural identity (the intention). It investigates the use of the vernacular and the informal in American writing in general and how it is ultimately reflected and reworked through an autobiographical channel: an examination of voice, register, and code-switching in my own writing. The first section, ‘Listening to Writing,’ is a forensic analysis of Vonnegut and Saunders, two exemplars of literary informality in American writing. It seeks—employing the work of Sarangi, Milroy, Hunston & Thompson and others to pinpoint, at a microanalytical level, what makes the conversational conversational, and the sociolinguistic work of Austin (performativity), Giles, Coupland, and Gumperz (accommodation and identity), and Auer (code switching)—to investigate the authors’ specific manipulation of pitch and register to create effect. It also appraises the historical and cultural imperative of the American abhorrence of intellectualism and hence the disdain for high-flown language and how that is reflected in not only the literature but also the very social self-positioning of the authors. The second section, ‘My Ice Age,’ is an autobiographical foray into outsider/insider, normal/abnormal categories and boundaries, extending the investigation of voice and register as examined above to explore the complex nature of belonging and alienation, of community and identity, from being a white boy in an Inuit settlement to being from an Inuit settlement in Los Angeles to the complexities of belonging and alienation that arise from being gay. The juxtaposition of two different tones in ‘My Ice Age’ is used to reflect the juxtapositions of geographic and temporal otherness, the distance (formality) and increased vernacular in the Los Angeles sections reflecting a need to fit in, to forge a place for myself both geographically and socially through the use of voice and register. Both the critical and the creative lenses elucidate use of simple language and variations of registers to create sociological bonds/alienation. Simple language—and humour—forges communion with reader. The adoption of the vernacular, therefore, has a purpose beyond mere stylistics, in that it also is used in a social and community building (or razing) way. In other words, the use of informality becomes a performative speech act.


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