Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ordinary Language and Literary Language

Ordinary language and literary language


Language is a means of communication. It is God’s specific gift to mankind. Without language human civilization would have remained impossibility. Language is unique and also ubiquitous in nature. It is present everywhere in our thoughts and dreams, prayers and meditations, relation and communication and also in our rituals. Language can be divided into two groups- ordinary language and literary language.

Ordinary language is the day to day usage of language by common people. Literary language is the language used by the poets, writers and scholars. A common person can understand the ordinary language very well, but it is quite difficult to convey the proper meaning of the literary language. A person should concentrate on structure as well as on the implied meaning of word and sentence in order to retrieve the proper meaning of the literary language. We can say literary language is a deviant type of language, because a writer uses various devices of diction in order to make the language quite different from the common use of language.

Man’s greatest possession and the fact that differentiate him from all other created being is language. So language plays a vital role in communication. The communication of meaning thus becomes a very important part of a language. We can hardly think of human existence without use of language. Our language is inextricably bound up with our humanity. To be human is to use language, and to talk is to be a person. As biologist and author Lewis Thomas remarks in The Lives of a cell (1974, p.89).

“The gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from the rest of life. Language is, like nest-building or hive-making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.” Thus language becomes an inseperapable part of human existence.

Meaning of Language:

The English word ‘language’ seems to have been derived from the Latin word, ‘Lingua’ which implies ‘tongue’. French term, ‘langue’ and ‘parole’ also bear the impression on language. Language is the entire complex of phenomena associated with human vocal and auditory communication of emotions and ideas. It includes the first cries of the baby, the most rudimentary forms of human speech and all connections with physiology, psychology, History etc. It appertains to individual and society.

Definitions of Language:

A language is considered to be a system of communicating with other people using sounds, symbols and words in expressing a meaning, idea or thought. This language can be used in many forms, primarily through oral and written communications as well as using expressions through body language.

Language is defined as means of communication and social control. Some definitions of language are given below.

“A language I a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group operates and interacts”.

- Block and Trager.

“Language is a set of human habits, the purpose of which is to give expression to thoughts and feelings”

- I.J. Jesperson

“Language maybe defined, “as an arbitrary system of vocal symbols by means of which human beings, a member of a social group and participants, in culture, interact and communicate”.

- Ecyclopaedia Britannia

There are two types of language that is Ordinary language and literary language. Ordinary language is the uses of language in day to day communication and conversation. Such as in advertisement, instructions etc. Literary language is used in the literature and it has special diction such as poetry, drama, fiction etc.

Differences between Ordinary Language and Literary Language.

Language with its different varieties is the subject matter of socio-linguistics. Language can vary not only individual to individual but also from literariness to ordinariness. The following difference can be listed between the ordinary language and literary language.

  1. Obscurity or Vagueness :-

Literary language has the feature of obscurity and vagueness as well as abstract thoughts and expressions are bound in literary language. Such vagueness and abstractions generally not found in ordinary language. Ordinary language bears the feature of clarity and explicitness. Literary language is especially a poetic language. It is very difficult to understand.

e.g. “My vegetable love could grow vaster than empires and slower”

- Andrew Marvell’s Poem. (‘To His Coy Mistress)

Lend me your ears”- ‘Julius Caesar’ – By Shakespeare

But ordinary language is plain and clear. The above kinds of speeches are hardly used. Ordinary language is very easy to understand.

  1. Terseness and Rhythm :-

Literary language is marked with brevity as it generally uses terse expressions. It means that more information is given in a small context. Sometimes literary language abounds with latent thoughts.

e.g. “Woods are lovely dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.”

By- Robert Frost.

Another example can be from Shakespeare’s Play ‘ As you like it’. This song is so mellifluous and terse and rhythmic.

“Under the green wood tree”

On the other hand ordinary language doesn’t follow the terseness. In ordinary language precision and brevity is not maintained for all the times. Circumlocutions, twiddling, babblings talks can be found in ordinary language.

  1. Ambiguity :-

Ambiguity is the remarkable feature of literary language. Possibility of multiple meanings can be found in literary language. On the other hand, lucidity and directness are the striking feature of ordinary language. In it ideas and thoughts are conveyed in a straightforward way. .The thoughts and ideas are expressed in complicated manner in literary language which is not easily understandable. It always possesses some deeper meaning than what it appears at the surface or at denotative level.

e.g. “The child is the father of man”

-‘The prelude’ - By Wordsworth.

The above line has multiple interpretations such as:-

1) There are many things which can be learned by children.

2) Children are always closer to God than men etc.

Some critics uses the term “multiple meaning” and ‘Plurisignation’. The term ‘freudened’ is the fusion of ‘frightened’ and ‘ Freud’.

Thus the literary language bears the note of ambiguity. On the other hand, generally ordinary language doesn’t bear any note of ambiguous expression.

4. Deviant Language :-

Literary language is described as deviant use of language. Because various devices of diction are used by writer in order to make the language different from the ordinary use of language. But the ordinary language has no deviation; it is as the way people use in their normal communication. Because ordinary language is used by the ordinary people. And the use of ordinary language is a spontaneous process and automatic. In literary language deviations are made for two main reason- searches for novelty and to remove the restrictions of normal language. The deviation of literary language can be at different level like phonological, morphological etc. The following is an example of syntactic or linguistic deviation.

e.g. ‘A grief ago’

The above is special and deviant paradigm.

The normal paradigm would be:

A minute or day or year or month ago.

Here is another example of syntactic deviation which also considered as inversion.

e.g. Much have I traveled in the realms of gold.

Aux S MV O

Thus deviations of different kinds make the literary language different from the ordinary language.

5. Creativity and Novelty:-

Literary language has a high degree of creativity and novelty. The term creativity refers to the artistic originality of idea or innovativeness. It is much associated with poetry, literary prose etc. Each literary piece is another’s own creation and it bears extra-ordinary characteristics. But ordinary language is devoid of such creativity and novelty. No deliberate attempt is made to bring the novelty in ordinary language.

E.g. The word ‘Tenderlicious’ was used for the first time in Cadbury chocolate advertisement. This word is the product of creativity as it is the blending of two words ‘tender’ and ‘Delicious’.

Butterlicious = Butter + Delicious (Advertisement of Amul)

The ‘Toddler shop” instead of ‘Baby shop’ or Kid’s shop or children’s shop. The word ‘Toddler’ indicates the verb ‘toddle’ which means the working of baby or newly born child.

Such creativity and novelty is not found in ordinary language.

G.M. Hopkins in his poem he has depicted the ‘Sea’ with three adjectives.

1) Unchilding 2) unflattering 3) Widow-making.

In this way Hopkins has shown the novelty or newness by giving such novel and bizarre attributes to the ‘sea’.

6. Metre and Rhyme:-

In poetic language sometimes we have various types of metre. It means that in poetic language there is deliberate use of metre. But in ordinary language there is no use of metre.

E.g., “Tiger, tiger burning bright”

Here we have Trochee.

In literary language rhymes get much importance. Poetic language is mainly based on rhymes to have the poetic effect.

E.g. “Oh, from this time forth

My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”

In ordinary discourse or speech the speaker doesn’t intend for rhymes or rhyme scheme.

7) Indeterminacy:-

Indeterminacy is a special characteristic of literary language, especially of poetic language. Because of indeterminacy language of literature cannot be regarded as erroneous but it is considered as a graceful feature of literary language.

E.g. ‘My vegetable love could grow

Vaster than empires and more slow”

The above lines are from Marvell’s poem. Here Marvell wants to indicate that his love is evergreen and grows as fast as vegetable grows.

The meaning of given literary work depends on the reader because its interpretations changes from reader to reader. Another example is cited as follows

e.g. The Child is the father of man – ‘Prelude’

The principle of defeated expectancy works to a great extent in literature. The writer deliberately deviates the norms and rules and puzzles the readers. Thus sometimes indeterminacy can be a planned activity.

Example. ‘Et tu brute” (Julius Caesar)- By Shakepeare

“Petal on the wet black bough” – Ezra Pound

Here the word ‘Petal’ is used as a verb and not as noun or adjectives and so the meaning changes. The meaning of ‘petal’ here is to be comfortable to relax.

8. Esthetic Function:-

Literary language has esthetic function. It is the heightened form of expression. Ordinary language on the other has informative function. Literary language always appeals to your mind better. It gives us a sense of joy when we understand it.

9.Complexity :-

Literary language is syntactically complex language in order to heighten the

effect of that work of art. But ordinary language is some what free from such


E.g. “Colorless green ideas sheep furiously”- Chomsky.

10. Multiple Interpretations:-

In literary language, multiple interpretations of a sentence are possible. The

Interpretations may vary by different reader. It depends on the angle of the reader, his point of view and understanding. But in ordinary language we can not find such interpretations.

E.g. If the boy can’t drink the milk boil it.

The above sentence may have different meaning and interpretations.

11. New Lexical Items :-

In literary language new lexical items are used. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, He uses a new lexical item – ‘Pandemonium’

Where the root was –Demon, but he added

Pan- means – all

ium- means-place

Thus the meaning stands as – the place of all demons. This is completely a new addition and in ordinary language such coinage of words is not done. When we used the word pandemonium it is an unusual use of language.

“Doff thy name” (Do off)

- Romeo and Juliet – by By Shakespeare

Doff means remove; this is another use of new lexical items in literary language.

The lexical deviation is another important feature of literary language. Such new lexical items are not used in ordinary language. And it is also not acceptable in ordinary language.

12. Pattern :-

There can be various patterns in literary language. In every artistic activity objects there are patterns. But ordinary language follows only suitable and prevalent patterns. Patterns can be at phonological level or in sound.

e.g. “Water, water every where and not any drop to drink”.

“The Ancient Mariner” -By S.T. Coleridge

In the above line the words ‘drop and drink’ have ‘d’as initial sound and it is repeated. This is what usually found in poetry. In the poem ‘Essay of Criticism’ By Pope.

‘To err is human

To forgive is divine”.

In these lines the patter of two clauses with same structure is used that is infinitive +V+ Adj. This is called parallelism - means partial repetition of another pattern, it is also an example of free repetition.

E.g. “water water everywhere”

From “Ancient Mariner”- By S.T.Coleridge

In free repetition the whole word is repeated like the word ‘water’s is repeated in the above line.

But in ordinary language we cannot find such type of repetition and we cannot find such


Some grammatical features or patterns of sentences which have become outdated have also been used in both Ordinary and literary language.

e.g. ‘I know not’, ‘saw you anything’.

Poet enjoys the freedom of arranging syntactic elements in an irregular order which is technically called ‘Hyperbation’. For example ‘ cities fair’ where the adjective ‘fair’ qualifying the noun ‘cities fair’ is repeated after the noun. It is generally placed before the noun so that it becomes ‘fair cities’ in ordinary language. Jumbled clause structures have become so much part and parcel of verse literature that such a construction often goes unnoticed. We hardly find such odd structure in prose or in ordinary language.

e.g. 1) A train – band caption Eke was he.


2) Though wedded we have been.


The above lines are from Cowpor’s poem. Here he makes use of deviation of the order SVC. (Subject + verb+ complement). This makes the sentence different. This example of violent disorganization. The poet has experimented with language to achieve special effects. These experiments are certain departures from norms laid down in the grammar of everyday language.

13. Archaism :-

In literary language or in old poems, plays, we have archaic words. But in ordinary languages we don’t usually use archaic words.

E. g. ‘Thou hast thy own music’ - ‘Ode to Autumn’ by Keats

‘I kissed thee ere I killed thee’ - ‘Othello’ by Shakespeare.

There are other archaic words used by different literary writers, they are words like – behold, damsel, festoon, ere, off, hither, art, quoth, yonder, clad etc. But there are a few archaic words which are used both in ordinary and literary language.

e.g. ‘hereinafter’ – Legal English (Lawyers)

‘Thou’ - word in Religious English uses.

14. Figurative Nature:-

The language of literature has its own distinguishing characteristics. The most important feature of literary or poetic language is its use of various types of figures of speech. In ordinary language generally it is not possible to use figures of speech. For example, literary language has the uses of figures of speech like irony and metaphor etc. yet it has its roots in ordinary use of language.

e.g. a) “He saw sea of men” (Metaphor)

b) The bad news was a dagger to his heart (Metaphor)

c) “Drink to me the only thine eyes” – Ben Johnson (Hyperbole)

d) He has many mouths to feed (Synecdoche) etc.

Thus ordinary language and literary language differ in use of figures of speech also.

15. Unique Utterances:-

Unique utterance is a noticeable feature of literary language. The creative writer employs such words or phrases which we hardly come across.


In Lawrence’s Poem “We Die Together”

“I know the unloving factory-hand

Living dead millions is unliving me

Living dead me”.

In these lines, the utterances like ‘unloving factory hand’, ‘living dead millions’, ‘living dead me’ are really praise worthy because we hardly come across such odd combinations

Therefore there are various characteristics and features that make literary language different from the ordinary language. But all literary language has its roots in ordinary language. It can not completely detach itself from the ordinary language. Ordinary language is the source of the literary language.

Why Does Literary Language differ from Ordinary Language?

The difference between both is more delicate and less easily noticeable. If we look back over the span of English literature since Chaucer, we find that some freedom of language have been traditionally permitted in verse. Customarily poets have freely broken the rules of grammar used for ordering words in sentence. Simply speaking, writer violates the norms of literature which are laid for writing. He goes away from these norms. This is why the language used by writers becomes different from its normal use. All these writers are gifted figures. On the other hand, the norms and rules which are laid for writing are normally followed by the users of ordinary language can be called normal language.

Literary language is a deviant use of language. The deviation is the violation of linguistic norms. The deviation may be found at various linguistic levels like phonology, syntax, semantic, graphology and lexis too.

Some of the instances of how and why writers go away from conventionally laid norms in terms of deviation can be given as follows:

1. Phonological Deviation:-

This is a deviation related to sound patterns. Phonological deviation is achieved through the use of alliteration, rhyme, consonance, assonance and onomatopoeia.


e.g. a) In Robert Burn’s Poem

“My love is like a red red rose”.

b) In Coleridge’s Poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

“The Furrow followed free”

c) In Shakespeare’s Play ‘Macbeth’

“Such a Foul and fair day I have not seen”

The above examples are the fine uses of “Alliteration”. In the example 1, /l/ and /r/ are repeated in order to heighten the desired effect.

In example 2 & 3, sound /f/ is repeated.

Alliteration gives a special effect to literary language.

Rhyme :-

There are various types of rhyme. For example, Rich Rhyme, Masculine Rhyme, Feminine Rhyme, Triple rhyme, Para rhyme etc.

  1. In Milton’s poem, ‘L Allegro’ ( Masculine Rhyme is Present)

“Come, and trip it as you go

On the light fantastic toe

  1. In Dary Hine’s poem ‘A Present’ ( Rich Rhyme)

“Spring is late and I am going blind

In his dark room my neighbour draws the blind”

  1. In A.E. House man’s Poem ( Feminine Rhyme)

“With rue my hart laden

For many a rose-lift maiden.”

  1. Triple Rhyme :

Eluding / Deluding, Revision/ Division’ etc.

This kind of rhyme is used to create comic effect.

  1. In Wilfred Owens’s Poem, ‘ Strange Meeting’ ( Para Rhyme)

Add by his smile, I knew that sullen hall

By his dead smile, I knew that we stood in hell.

  1. Eye Rhyme :–

These are words which look as though they should rhyme from their spelling but are actually pronounced differently like ‘love’ / ‘move’, ‘though’ / ‘bough’.

Patterns of Sound.

Related to rhyme are other elements of repetition of similar or related sounds. These are consonance, assonance and onomatoepia.

Consonance :

Here linked word have their final consonantal sounds in common in ‘put- bet’, ‘will- hall’ etc.

Assonance :

This is the repetition of vowel sounds. It is also called interior rhyme. Here again only the sound is considered, not the spelling. E.g. In Keats’s poem ‘On a Grecian Urn’

“Thou will unravished Bride of quietness

Thou foster child of silence and slow time’’


The word name-making. This is the capability of sounds to echo through the sense of a word as in ‘swish’ or ‘plop’. In Eliot’s “The Waste Land’ has an example of this kind-

“Only a cock stood in the rooftree

Co Co roco co co rico” ( Onomatopoeia)

2. Syntactic Deviation:-

Syntactic deviation can be achieved by violating the grammatical rules. i.e. Word order. Following are the examples of syntactic deviation.

E.g. in Wordsworth’s Poem ‘Daffodils’

‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance’’

Normally in English language we have the sentence pattern as SVO ( Sub + Verb+Obj). But here Wordswoth deliberately violates the norms and uses the pattern as O (ten thousand, V (saw), S (I) to achieve expected effects. The above sentence also has thematic fronting of the words “Ten Thousand”.

3. Semantic Deviation :-

Literature, especially poetry has an unusual way of expressing things.

We get pleasure from the poems through defeated expectancy. When various poetic devices are used at that time semantic deviation occurs.

E.g. In Wordsworth’s poem ‘Prelude’.

‘The child is the father of man’.

This line seems to be semantically anomalous. But to put the words in this order, Wordsworth has some intention in his mind. To explain, we can say that man as compared to child has lost all the values of society. But a child seems to be more innocent than a man. It means that a child is closer to God. Hence man should follow the way child follows.

4. Lexical or Morphological Deviation:-

Lexical deviation is found when the writer changes the order of the words or selection of words or invents new words.

E.g. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’

‘Doff thy name’

Here the word ‘Doff’ was coined by Shakespeare. It is the combination of ‘Do + off’ means to “throw away”, “cut off” or “remove”.

G.M Hopkins uses three adjectives to describe in one of his poems such as ‘Unfathering’, ‘Unchilding’, ‘Widowmaking’. These words have no place in a dictionary. These adjectives show the destructive power of an ocean. All these words are lexical or morphological deviations because we cannot add prefix ‘un’ and suffix ‘ing’ to a noun.

5. Graphological Deviation :-

Graphology deals with the system of writing. i.e., how the text is

Written. Usually in poetry lines are of same length but in prose lines are of different length. But it has been observed that all the poems don’t follow this rule. Thus there is a graphological deviation also. The shape of the poem and length of lines sometime adds to the meaning of the poem also thus it is important. Graphological deviation also refers to deviation of spellings, punctuation, spacing, the use of dashes, line arrangements and non-use of capitals. They contribute to the visual effect of the poem.

For Example: In the novel Tristam Shandy, to represent ‘Death’ – there is a black page.

In. D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, the lineation perhaps represents the twisting, wriggling movement of a snake.

Then in .E.E. Cummings No.3 of 73 Poems is an example of graphological deviation.

e.g. Seeker of truth

follow no path

all paths lead where

truth is


In this poem we have phonological base of rhyme. According to lineation the poem ends with the statement “truth is” belongs to the previous clause and the poem has an exclamatory conclusion in the isolated word “here”.

6. Repetition :-

Repetitions means repetition of linguistic units such as words, phrases, lines, sentences etc. Refrain is an example of repetition. By repeating the same pattern, foregrounding is achieved.

There are two types of repetition.

1) Free Repetition :- In this device certain units of language are repeated,

e.g. In Coleridge’s Poem, “The Rime of Ancient Mariner”.

“Water water everywhere

And not a drop to drink”

Here the unit like words (water) has been repeated in order to achieve the desired effect.

2) Partial Repetition: In this device, a certain part of the unit is repeated.

e.g. In William Blake’s Poem-

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright.”

In this line, the phoneme /b/ is repeated.

E.g. in Coleridge’s Poem “The Ancient Mariner”.

“And not a drop to drink”

In this line the phoneme /d/ is repeated.


Thus there are various deviation which allows the literary language to be unique and different from the normal or ordinary language.


A scheme of language is never complete and static, because language is always being put to new uses. Some times it is resharpened, particularly for occasion where like to be emphatic. Literature, being an art establishes a relationship with the scheme of language, by using linguistic elements to build new schemes of its own, adding new rules of meter, line length, word order, choice of vocabulary to the existing rules of ordinary language. So literary language can be different and yet not different from ordinary or no-literary language.

Language plays an important role in the life of human being to communicate with other human being. Ordinary language is known as general language which is easy to understand and communicate, but literary language is somewhat difficult. Reader has to be conscious about getting the meaning of literary language because literary language has a quality of creativity and novelty. Multiple interpretations can be gained by literary language. In short reader has to get more efforts to understand literary language, where he or she doesn’t have to be more conscious is while using ordinary language.






This is to certify that Mr. Litton Prosad Mowalie has worked on the topic “ Ordinary Language and Literary Language’’ A term paper on Linguistics and Stylistics, Paper–VII in partial fulfillment of her master in English in Institute of Advanced Studies in English. The sources she cited in this work duly acknowledged in the Bibliography.


I take this priviledge to acknowledge and to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Sridhar Gokhale who inspired and provided ample materials in the class for the better understanding of the subject. It is because of his marvelous teaching, I was able to comprehend the topic and write a term paper. I would also like to express my gratitude to my classmates who have supported me with notes and books. I am indebted to Dr. Ashok Thorat for the opportunity of studying in his institute and to the librarian for the good support with books. Finally to God be the glory and honour because He has given me the courage to work hard.


Language can vary not only from individual to individual but also from literariness to ordinariness. Figures of speech, archaism, inversions, various types of deviations, hyperbations, creativity, innovation, neologism, metre, rhyme, obscurity, implicitness, ambiguity and complexities etc. are features or factors responsible for the difference between ordinary and literary language. Because of the use of these features literary language remains more memorable and original than the ordinary language.

The main focuses on this paper are on the Ordinary Language and Literary Language. This paper is presented with an intention to focus on the differences between the ordinary language and literary language and why literary language is different from ordinary language. The paper provides ample examples of how creative writer’s use of language is different and artistic than the ordinary use of language. The whole intention of the paper is to understand the topic at a deeper level and to come out with a valid conclusion of the importance of both ordinary and literary language in linguistic and stylistic studies. I am sure anyone reads this paper will be benefited.


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By- Adrian Akmajian, Richard A, Demers,

Ann K. FarmerRobert M. Harnish

( Fourth Edition)

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By Thomas Pyles and John Algeo (Third Edition)

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Toman Asian Pvt. Ltd.

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  1. Google Search Engine.


عبدالرحمن بن حمد التمامي said...

It is a good article with simple sequence.
We as Muslims think that Allah taught Adam language.
It is a great blessing from Allah.
Thanks again
Abdulrahman altammami
Dep. of English.
Riyadh, KSA.

Litton PM said...

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. You have been very kind.

Jyoti Virkar said...

Thank you for sharing this article. I am pursuing MA in Linguistics and struggling with notes. This article is of great help.
Thank you and God bless you.