Linguistics as a Poetic Device

I thought it would be interesting to look more into language and linguistics in this blog post, since the last poem I wrote played around with those sorts of things. (But mostly because I’m a geek for linguistic).

I’ll start off with some terms that we probably all know:

Homophone- these are words with different meanings and spellings that sound the same, such as there/their/they’re and you’re/your.

Homograph- these are words that are spelt the same, but pronounced differently, such as read/read or lead/lead.

Auto-antonym- I actually call these “Janus words,” because that’s the name I originally learned them. There’s a bunch of different words for this term, though. [Fun background information: Janus is the (minor) Roman god of beginnings., transitions, and gates. He has two faces, one looking backward and the other forward to look at the past and the future. In my high school Latin classroom, there was a painting of him by the door.) These types of words have two contrasting definitions. A common example is fast, which can mean to move quickly (running fast) or to be unmoving (holding fast).

Portmanteua- when two or more words are combined to make one word, such as slang (coming from a fusion of shortened and language) or smog (from smoke and fog).

Mondegreen- these are words that come into being from the mispronunciation of other words. Personally, I think that this term is particularly difficult to understand until you see it in action. If you’ve ever placed the game Mad Gab (I used to play it in a high school English class, and I was particularly terrible at it), then you’ve seen examples of mondegree words and phrases. An example, from a Mad Gab card, you have the phrase “Thumb Other Oven Fin Chin.” Read it out loud. Let the words bland together. You may (or may not) have figured out that “Thumb Other Oven Fin Chin” sounds like “The mother of invention.” [If you didn’t get it try breaking the original phrase down like this “Thu mbother Ov enfinchin.]


Why is any of this important?

As poets, I think that we should be aware of the linguistic nature of words, and how those natures can add meaning to a poem in an extremely subtle way. Silent letters can connote shyness. Homophones can portray confused feelings. Portmanteau words can be used to show a blending of feelings or emotions in a poem. Looking at the linguistics of a poem can add an entirely new set of interpretations and meanings. Linguistic devices also connect very closely to sound (homophones and mondegreen words), to image (homographs and portmanteau), and tp meaning (Janus words), which are all aspects of poetry that we’re focused on anyway.

Plus, we’re writers. If we don’t geek out over words and everything they bring to the table, who will?

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