Introduction to British and American Literature 13.20.1008
What is literature?
It isn’t a good idea to try and answer this question directly, i.e. in some such manner as”Literature is a…”. It is
relatively easy to answer a question such as „What is a horse” by saying that a horse is a four-legged animal with
hoofs which eats grain and vegetables because the terms we have to employ („vegetable”, „grain” 2leg” etcv.)
are easy to understand, raise no serious need for further definition or elucidation. By contrast, the answer to the
question as to the definition of literature will be uninformative if it is short and simple (the terms will involve a
great deal of background knowledge) or will become extremely long if we want to include the necessary
It is more practical, and perhaps just as conducive to the purpose, to approach matters by making ourselves
aware of the fact that literature is always in some natural language (English, Hungarian etc.), that the
characteristic of being in a language is an essential characteristic of a literary text (and literature in general). The
same natural languages are used in other fields of life such as the scientific laboratory, the doctor’s surgery, at
business negotiations, at a university, in an ordinary shop, on the bus etc. but in literature somehow language is
used in a different way. To bring this difference out let us first take a look aat some important characteristics of
the use of language outside literature, ie. in “real life”.
The Use of Language outside Literature
When we communicate by using languaage, i.e. some unit of language – a sentence, a phrase, or just a single
word – we have certain expectations: we expect the utterances of others to be related to reality in a certain way.
We expect e.g. the statements of others to correspond to reality, i.e to be true;we also expect advice and
instructions to lead to the desired goal. Or, when we ask someone to do something, we expect the heareer
toerform certain actions which will stand in a certain relationship of correspondence to out words. When we ask
someone to open the swindow, we exect that the person should do something as a result of which the window is
opned and not something as a result of which the curtain is drawn or the lights are put on.