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Literary language under transformation in digital age

HUANG FAYOU | 2019-04-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

With digital culture moving into the mainstream, the mutual infiltration of language and image is an inevitable trend in the development of literary language. Photo: FILE


In the course of mass media development, digital media has a transformative effect on society. Movies, radio, television and the internet present new forms of entertainment and cultural pleasure to the public with their technological advantages. In the face of digital culture, language is also adapting itself to the new media environment. As people’s reading habits evolve, authors’ writing and language styles differ more and more from the past. Digital culture, with its strong permeability, has left a deep mark on the vocabulary, rhetoric, discourse and style of literary works.

From a broader perspective, digital culture has a subtle influence on our ways of perceiving and thinking, leading to the weakening of linguistic thinking and the strengthening of audio-visual thinking.


The important feature of the audio-visual literary language is the simultaneous presentation of information and emotion using visual and auditory language, which gives the receiver a sense of presence. The result is a documentary aesthetic, meaning that literary works tend to be close to real public life and record different aspects of reality. The dialogue used in novels is distinct daily language, vivid and rough, preserving the authenticity of ordinary life, and it is also a bit sloppy and verbose.

In retrospect, films and TV series in the 1980s were mostly adapted from existing literature; literary creation and film and TV production were separate. Writers, especially novelists, followed the laws of language art.

However, since the 1990s, more and more writers began to apply script-style narratives to writing novels. Dialogue became the core content and an important force driving plot development.
However, the dialogue in film and TV must be integrated with images to be meaningful. The light and shadow effects, the color contrast in a scene, the relationship between the characters involved in the dialogue and their dramatic conflicts, and the expression and action of the speakers are all organic components of a conversation. In recent script-like novels, the absence of audio-visual elements often confuses readers, because while the use of dialogue is the new norm, there are often too many breakpoints and flaws in the plot development, thus lacking an internal logic on which the story can stand.

The art of language has a hard time competing with film and TV when trying to beat film and TV at its own game, displaying dynamic images and constructing scenes. Audio-visual literary language is vivid and intuitive, but in order to strengthen its audio-visual effect, the author must inevitably sacrifice some of written language’s diversity and expressiveness.

For example, literary language that depicts the exploration of the inner world, the invisible world, and indeterminate space and time can easily be left behind by camera language. In particular, some of these recent film and TV scripts labeled as “literature” actually lose their independence in language and style, and only serve as commentary and explanatory narration, without the writer’s real self and imagination. In addition, some of these recent scripts overemphasize techniques and routines, which homogenizes them and lacks artistic originality.


Stylistic change
In the process of the modernization of Chinese literature, the stylistic shift from classical Chinese to vernacular Chinese was a key transformation.

In today’s world, the expansion of the internet has prompted a new information revolution, which has inspired many writers to devote themselves to non-sequential hypertext writing, giving birth to China’s online literature and related industries.

The internet accelerates the integration of traditional and new media, promotes information sharing in different social fields and the integration of knowledge in different disciplines, and brings to literature, especially online literature, a hybrid language style.

The differentiation and positioning of stylistic types in online literature and the varying emphasis on narration, lyricism and reasoning in different novels means that its language retains some features of written language. The literary language of the printing age is characterized by strong speculative color and introspection. It is in the end a language activity carried out by the author alone. It requires the use of standard words and phrases, correct grammar, and coherent logic, with careful consideration, striving to make the rhetoric accurate, concise and compact.

In contrast, the pursuit of immediacy, defamiliarization and freedom of expression in online literature makes its writing style have the characteristics of a digital oral language. The dialogue is often difficult to understand when taken out of context.

There are obvious differences between the style of online literature and that of traditional literature, which is reflected in deviations in pronunciation, word meaning, vocabulary and grammar. The vocabulary shows the coexistence of classical and vernacular Chinese, the combination of foreign and Chinese languages, and a mix of elegance and vulgarity. At the same time, the web language is open to different language styles with different functions, forms, and temporal and spatial properties. Oral and written styles are also combined.

The rapid development of online literature in the past two decades has overemphasized commerce and entertainment, not quality. Most online writers like to pile up new words and imitate popular tones. The language of their works is crude and lacks originality.

In order to truly generate independent artistic value and improve artistic quality, online literature should not only have a unique value orientation, stylistic strategy and aesthetic, but also, as an art form with words as its medium, its language should not follow trends.

In fact, the language of online literature is very inclusive. Popular elements in different forms are condensed into words and injected into online literature’s language. The problem is that the language of online literature strives for novelty, but lacks a relatively stable language extension mechanism, so that a lot of new words are a flash in the pan. In the end, not only do these words fail to be absorbed into general or special vocabulary, but in the process of language self-regulation, these words’ irregularity quickly renders them obsolete.

It is worth noting that online literature’s language has strong permeability and has expanded into belles lettres, drawing young writers to follow suit. The new style of online literary language is rapidly evolving, and its aesthetics will have a profound impact on the future trend of literary language overall.


Language innovation
With digital culture moving into the mainstream, the mutual infiltration of language and image is an inevitable trend in the development of literary language. Against this backdrop, it is not feasible to require the abrupt purification and rigid normalization of literary language, which would disconnect it from ever-changing reality and thus lessen its vitality.

However, excessive norm-breaking will lead to the desolation of literary language. If all norms are cast aside and language is only a symbol of personal expression, language will no longer have a communicative function and lose its foundation of existence. In the digital era, when language changes are extremely active, writers should still abide by the basic language norms.

That said, the maintenance of the basic norms of literary language cannot rely on punitive measures, which not only is ineffective, but also may backfire. In general, new words and new language phenomena should be treated with tolerance, and language variations should be observed with an open mind. As long as these words do not violate public order and good customs, they should be allowed to grow freely.

At the same time, compared with language, image has more obvious advantages in production and communication in today’s world. Facing the marginalization of language, many writers devote themselves to visual language, and they actively absorb the characteristics of visual symbols to enhance the intuitiveness and visual nature of their language. It must be pointed out that one-way visualization will lead to the generalization of images, and the pursuit of pure visuality will narrow the function of art. Therefore, the basic principle of literary language innovation is that we should not give up the independence of language, and language should never become the appendage of image.

Those literary works regarded as the linguistic specimens of an era display not only their own unique language, but also outstanding achievements in thought and style. Only works that become classics can have a lasting vitality within language innovation, as they are imitated by later generations, stimulating new language creation.

In sum, literary language innovation is by no means a fancy performance of new words or a parrot-like language renovation. The real language innovation is not the random patchwork of old and new languages, but the integration and symbiosis of the two. It is not only a detailed and partial improvement, but also the innovation of linguistic concepts. Holistic language innovation is not a game between one language and another, but a systematic project.


Huang Fayou is from the School of Literature at Shandong University.

edited by YANG XUE