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An English professor commented that "the future of the English language is grand but as far as its literature is concerned it seems bleak".

How can this sentence be interpreted? What exactly is the difference between language and literature? I know that language is primarily spoken and literature is primarily written. There is no literature without language and language is being enriched by literature. For example, Shakespeare has enriched the English language immensely. I think Shakespeare's works belong to both literature and language.

  • I'm not sure if this can be reasonably answered ... it seems to be a very broad topic without a clear direction to take. (We already have a question specifically about Shakespeare's enrichment of the English language.) At the end of the day it might depend on how you define the terms "literature" and "language". – Rand al'Thor Sep 2 at 11:52
  • @Rand al Thor.It is my first question.I have revised it.please have a look at it.Thank you for your response – Englishmonger Sep 2 at 12:05
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    I've made a big edit to try to make this question on-topic. Asking "do you agree" is inviting opinion/discussion, which Stack Exchange doesn't like. Asking about language vs literature in general might be a bit too broad, but understanding this specific claim and its surrounding context is something we might be able to help with. Importantly: what's the source? Which English professor? – Rand al'Thor Sep 2 at 12:27
  • @Rand al Thor.He was professor English from EFLU.It was an informal talk.He meant it probably because the importance of Literature is diminishing day by day but language is expanding in the world – Englishmonger Sep 2 at 12:37
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The comment differentiates language and literature and suggests they have opposite futures.

the future of the English language is grand

Language is a broad category that includes verbal and written communication of many forms. If the language is connected to the dominant world power, as English is, then the comment suggests that the society promises to maintain that position.

as its literature is concerned it seems bleak

This is a comment less about social dominance than about the conditions for art within a society. We can have no way of knowing what this specific professor meant, of course, but writers have long argued about the ideal social conditions for the production of great art.

One of the most famous, Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), held that the world was divided between societies that primarily valued (1) artistry, beauty, and freedom; and (2) military might, productivity, and obedience. The former produced great innovations in art, while the latter could produce only imitations of older artists.

That is only one example, of course, but the comment about the "bleak" future of literature is specifically speaking about literature-as-art, and so seems to reflect a pessimistic view about the current state of culture within a society that nonetheless dominates the world's business and political order. That is similar to what Arnold thought in 1869, when Britain was the dominant world power, and it is certainly possible that your professor had something in mind like that of the Victorian poet and critic. We don't know, but the distinction between language and literature has a long and fascinating history to it, so you are in very good company in asking this question.

  • Nice answer! Thanks for reviving this relatively old question. – Rand al'Thor Oct 31 at 13:23
  • @Rand al'Thor Thank you! – Philly Oct 31 at 16:03
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As literary people we shall not shy away from trying to decipher the meaning of a speech, statement or literary work simply for lack of context. That we don’t know the professor or why he said so does not stop us interpreting his communication and its ramifications. We do that all the time, it is called Literary Appreciation. We look at the literal and connotative meanings, and consider context and intent etc. Context is important yes. But context itself is not homogenous; it is granular and involves immediate setting, situation and motivation and the wider millieu, setting, situation and motivation. In the absence of the former, the latter can shed light.

The Professor’s remark was loud and clear: “Literature appears to me to be dying”. That’s it. Why does he think like that? Why this pessimistic view? The wider millieu of academics explains this. I have related with academics and industry people and work with both as a consultant and teacher. This professor is symptomatic of an attitude among many academics (the gown) and other town’s people that innovation is debasing “good old culture” or theory. Academics especially in literary fields, arrogate to themselves the custodianship of culture. They want to believe the established, and carefully abstracted rules of engagement which they have packaged in handouts, notes, books and other media are gospel and should be obeyed and not broken. They want you to write to the standards of Shakespeare, Tennyson and literary giants of old. Any deviation is a seen by them as a debasement or dilution of the “real” thing.

This is why when you write fine, “delicious” prose as essay for academics, they derisively dismiss your writing as “journalistic”. They would rather you write terse, boring cryptic prose as essay, and even then will pick nits in your work. It is the same conservatism that made them dismiss e.e. cummins’ poetry in his life time, only now to come to see his towering greatness posthumously. The same is going on with Rupi Kaur who, despite her popularity and commercial success in her niche, is dismissed by the academics. It is the same phenomenon we see in the initial rejection of Wikipedia as a veritable citation in academic work (fortunately, many are coming to accept it). In Poetry we have had this raging argument with the pessimists who think Poetry is dead too. As a protest to spite them we launched the #poetryisnotdead movement. You will find it on Instagram and Twitter particularly. May be in response to this professor of yours, we shall start the #literatureisNOTDEAD movement too. But I digress.

The academics (the gown) and some towns people who see innovations and emerging literature as not literature but a descent to the demise of literature, miss a very important point. Literature is a product of popular culture. I use popular culture not in the “glitz and glamour” sense of it but as activities and artefacts of a people in a given social millieu or the society in general. People had folklores, developed chants and incantations and unique techniques of rendering these long before it was carefully distilled and put on paper as literature. Since literature comes out of the culture of the people and is intended for consumption by the people, it naturally panders to the overall whims and caprices, and adjusts to changes in these.

In the 21Century for example, social media is a cultural fact and having literary works especially poetry and stories done by many, non-academic writers all over the world is a fact. That these things are not of the academia, makes them see it as bohemian (pardon my rhyme, am a poet). So they dismiss these as not good since, for example many poems are not crafted sonnets or allegories or some form in the way they are used to. There is a lot of free versing, free-wheeling innovation and flux. Rather than study emerging phenomena and literary expressions of the times (which is what they are paid for), they condemn and deride them ab initio. This is crux of the matter.

So, my take on the professor’s remark: Literature is flourishing. Just try counting how many good hard copy publications or blogs, social media posts and other online content are, say, stories, drama, poetry, screenwriting or discourse on the craft and practice of writing these & you will see that many academics are so far up “there” in their rarefied ivory tower, they miss the point: it’s all about communication and self-expression, its art! No, Prof.. #literatureisNOTDEAD!

  • A lot of this seems to be a response or commentary to what the professor said, but the question is just asking for an explanation of what he meant. – Rand al'Thor Nov 5 at 15:46
  • I answered that with a paraphrase of what he meant and the rest is explaining the mindset behind that pessimistic view. – Mallam Awal Nov 5 at 23:10

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