A Linguistic Definition of Literature


  • Mills F. Edgerlon Jr.

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      Mills F. Edgerton, Jr. (Ph.D., Princeton) is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Spanish at Bucknell University. He has taught Italian and French, as well as Spanish, at Rutgers and at Princeton, and applied linguistics in both Italian and French at NDEA Institutes. His principal interest is sociolinguistics; he teaches a course in general Romance philology at Bucknell. The author is also American editor of materials for self-instruction in foreign languages (French, Italian, Latin) soon to be introduced into the United States by Nature Method (Charlottenlund, Denmark), and Chairman of the Committee for the Graduate Record Examination in Spanish (Educational Testing Service).


ABSTRACT: Whatever has been called literature is cast in language; the medium itself imposes limitations on the ways in which literature may justifiably be treated by virtue of the intrinsic properties of language. Any given human language is essentially arbitrary and social, not “natural,” and cannot, therefore, be treated as a medium of communication apart from its historical and social matrix. A work of literature has an objective “meaning” which it is theoretically but usually not practically possible to exhibit exhaustively; this meaning must be carefully distinguished from whatever new thought the experience of reading the work may generate in the reader. These premises have important consequences for the teaching of both a language and its literature.