The deautomatization of language

by Anna Ndishakena Nandenga

The deautomatization of language

Defamiliarisation refers to a situation where a writer takes an everyday object that we all recognize and, with a wave of his or her authorial magic wand, renders that same object weirdly unfamiliar to us – strange even. Our perspective shifts and we see the object in a new way. The word defamiliarisation was coined by the early 20th-century Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky.

Defamiliarisation makes a distinction between practical language and written language. This makes us to see the world anew. Literature makes the ordinary be strange. Sense of novelty and newness can be achieved in the written form. The view regards literature as a way to rejuvenate life to be more exciting and thereby rejoice in the daily routines as sources of enlightenment. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.

The concept ‘defamiliarisation’ (making strange) was introduced as a central aspect of the technique of art. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object.



Literariness is what makes a literary text different from other genres. Literariness resides in poetry where ordinary language is defamiliarised, e.g. devices like repetition, rhyme, and stanza. Poetry defamiliarises language in a distinct manner and ordinary language becomes intensified, condensed, twisted, drawn out and turned on its head.

Language deautomatization arises when devices, normally perceived by the reader to be familiar and conventional, are seen at first sight, and the effect upon the reader is one of  defamiliarisation. Literature deautomatizes one›s perceptions, composing a deliberate set of deviations from the norms of ordinary language. Animal Farm by George Orwell is an example of defamiliarisation because all of the characters are animals. This rescues the work from becoming just another political piece about the evils of Communism and the corruption of power and transforms it into artistic literature. Defamiliarisation not only forces the audience to see Animal Farm as art, but allows the author and audience to distance themselves from the seriousness of the message so that the piece can be enjoyed as art and does not become just another political rant.

Defamiliarisation can also be achieved through the use of unique or difficult language. Poetic language must appear strange and wonderful, and in fact, it is often actually foreign: the elevated, almost literary language of folk songs. An example of this is T. S. Eliot’s use of Greek, Latin, German and other languages in The Wasteland, which forces the reader to become a more active participant in the process by having to make an extra effort to decode the strange and exotic words in order to understand the poem. One is never allowed to fall into a comfortable lull and be a passive listener/reader when dealing with T. S. Elliot.

Whether an object is rendered unfamiliar by the kind of language used, the unique portrayal of characters in the story, or how a particular event is illustrated, the goal of defamiliarisation is to make the object strange and unfamiliar so that the piece is transformed from ordinary prose to extraordinary art.

Foregrounding is also another way of deautomatizing language. Foregrounding is a technique for ‘making strange’ in the language. Because foregrounding is able to work at any level of language, it typically involves a stylistic distortion of some sort. This can happen when an aspect of the text deviates from a linguistic norm, or alternatively, where an aspect of the text is brought to the fore through repetition or parallelism. A notable thinker once lamented that the objective of literature in foregrounding its linguistic medium is to estrange or defamiliarise, refresh ordinary perceptions and render things more perceptible.

The opening line from the poem Dolor by Roethke: ‘I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils.’ The pencils are personified; it contains an unusual word, ‘inexorable’; it contains repeated phonemes such as /n/ and /e/.
Whether the foregrounded pattern deviates from a norm, or whether it replicates a pattern through parallelism, the point of foregrounding as a stylistic strategy is that it should acquire salience in the act of drawing attention to itself.

• Anna Ndishakena Nandenga is a Master of Arts in English Studies student, in the Department of Language and Literature Sstudies at the University of Namibia. Email: anandenga77@gmail.com

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