Sunday, May 2, 2021

Style

Penguin in Antarctica jumping out of the water
photo credit: Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons CCA 2.0 Generic

The popular singer Sting has it. Along with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and so many more musical talents in the ten-year retrospective recently celebrating International Jazz Day - they all had it. Then, in very different ways in their glory days, so did Bob Dylan and Shirley Bassey and Mozart and Beethoven, and Jack Benny and David Letterman, oh, and what about Charlie Chaplin and so many more?

In the movie business, so concerned to promote style, even Charlton Heston and John Wayne had it, yet so did Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Charlie Brown. Of a completely different character, so did Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Long ago, in the full-blown age of Hollywood invention was the "It-girl," Clara Bow, who became a role model, says the Smithsonian, for women who were free of the domestic sphere.

Also for earlier generations, Ingrid Bergman, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire had style, yet so did Groucho Marx, together with other famous and everyday folks. All with some distinction from each other, and sometimes with commonalities, to make the composite we call style.

Some people so want style, perhaps thinking their world will be so much better... that maybe fame or treasure will follow, if they attain IT. Yet Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman clearly have a different depth and purpose in their styles, as does Glenda Jackson. Then, there are various worlds of style in the arts, literature, and public life.

For many, style is bound within a job or role, like speechwriters who daily seek style in words, and even in her days of grief, Queen Elizabeth has it. Is style actually the person? 

Related hard-to-answer questions persist - Is style distinct from content? Or, are these convenient descriptors one? Are there good and bad styles? Does the tabloid press have style, or a style? Do the cringeworthy who creep into public life have style? Their followers think so.

What's clear is that style means many different things to different people.

One approach to looking at style says, whether in language or life, it's about choices. In this view, what we choose in facts, opinions, ideas, or actions, along with the words, sentence shape, and passage development we use is what delivers style. 

Fact is we do say a lot to others in the words we choose and what we do, beyond the "message" supposedly denoted in words or actions. Always best to remember that communication happens in the mind of the listener, reader, or observer when interpreting what we express.  

To look at how our language projects style, a whole area of study called "stylistics" has spawned over many decades an eclectic range of approaches to find or assess style, in literature, speeches, the media, professional interactions, daily conversation, comedy, and so on.

In some quite intriguing looks at language, these describers of language style tell much about what words do to suggest conversational or formal tone, personality, family origins, occupation or profession, disposition toward an audience, and a host of other "tells."

Some discourse analysts even say they can distill systems of belief, a.k.a. ideology, in language style. Can't help wondering how much their own ideological lens determines what they find?

Among the many explanations and explorations of this field of stylistics, one that nicely overviews approaches to literary style is on Aunty Muriel's blog, "What is stylistics?"[Here]. Another overview, pertinent to how we use language to persuade is the detailed text, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion by Jeanne Fahnestock; also, of course, always worth another look is to catch up on the latest from the eminent British linguist, David Crystal, via his ever-growing website.

Perhaps style is the person... certainly seems so for the many resilient explorers and explainers of language.

No comments: