The Phases and Modes of Language


Frye may not have, as Trevor Losh‑Johnson reports someone as saying, an “etiological theory of linguistics,” if that means a theory of the origin or causes of language, but he does have a theory of language––in fact, several theories.  He begins his talk “The Expanding World of Metaphor” by saying:

Let us start with literature, and with the fact that literature is an art of words.  That means, in the first place, a difference of emphasis between the art and the words.  If we choose the emphasis on words, we soon begin to relate the verbal structures we call literary to other verbal structures.  We find that there are no clearly marked boundaries, only centres of interest.  There are many writers, ranging from Plato to Sartre, whom it is difficult, or more accurately unnecessary, to classify as literary or philosophical.  Gradually more and more boundaries dissolve, including the boundary between creators and critics, as every criticism is also a recreation.  Sooner or later, in pursuing this direction of study, literary criticism, philosophy, and most of the social sciences come to converge on the study of language itself.  The characteristics of language are clearly the essential clue to the nature of everything built out of language.(“The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1976–1991, CW 18, 342–3)

The “characteristics of language” are naturally a part of Frye’s theory of language, the two chief forms of which in his late work are in the first chapters of The Great Code (phases of language) and Words with Power (modes of language).  The first chapter of The Great Code, in typical Frye fashion, is elaborately schematic.  It begins with Vico’s notion of the three ages of humanity, and then moves through more than a dozen different categories to classify the tripartite phases that language has, more or less historically, passed through: the poetic, the heroic, and the vulgar; the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic; the mythical, the allegorical, and the descriptive; the metaphorical, the metonymic, and the similic, and so on.  Frye glances at the historical locus of each of these phases, the way each formulates subject‑object relations, the meaning of such words as “God” and “Logos” in each, and the typical form that prose takes in each phase.  All of this anatomizing, devoid of Frye’s examples and illustrations, can be summarized in this chart:

Phases of Language: The Great Code, chapter 1

Vico’s Three Ages Poetic      Heroic or Noble Vulgar
Frye’s Three Ages Hieroglyphic Hieratic Demotic
Uses of Language Poetic Allegorical-Analogical-Dialectical Descriptive
Phases of Language Metaphorical (“This is that”): used by everyone; no cultural ascendancy Metonymic (“This is put for that”): culturally ascendant language Similic (“This is like that”): ordinary language that does not become culturally ascendant
Locus of the Phases Greek literature before Plato; Homer; pre-Biblical Near East; much of Old Testament Plato; the intellectual elite; the ascendant language is given authority by society Sixteenth century and following; Bacon and Locke
Subject/object relations Not clearly separated; linked by common power or energy (mana); magic, charm, & spell play central role More consistently  separated; idea of “reflection” and mirror are foregrounded Clearly separated; subject exposes itself, in sense experience, to impact of objective world
Use of words Words of power releasing magical energy or control Words = outward expression of inner thoughts and ideas;  importance of linear ordering Words are servomechanisms of reflection
Concrete > Abstract Concrete: no verbal abstractions Intellectual and emotional operations of mind become distinguishable; development of abstraction and logic Concrete “things” in nature are prior
Form of Prose Discontinuous: epigrammatic; oracular (e.g., aphorisms of Heraclitus and Pythagoras). Truth: hypothetical Continuous; deductive. Truth: consistent argument. Analogical language = verbal imitation of reality beyond itself.  Dialectic and commentary foregrounded Continuous prose; deduction subordinated to induction. Truth: correspondence to objective world
“God” Language Plurality of gods; embodiments of personality = nature; unifying element of verbal expression = “god” or personal nature-spirit Monotheistic God = trans-cendent reality all analogy points to; Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Plato’s Good; metonymic thinking translates metaphor into hieroglyphic language Reaction against transcendent perspective; religious questions are “unmeaningful”; “gods” no longer believed in
Metonymic parallels of the three phases of language One image is “put for” another image Verbal expression is “put for” something that transcends actual verbal expression; analogical thinking Word is “put for” object it describes
Logos Logos = creative power (Hebrews, Heraclitus) Logos = rational order in mathematical and verbal forms Logos = event or reality that words describe second-hand
Humanity (human entity using language or consciousness) Spirit = unifying principle of life that gives people a participating energy with nature Soul returns to transcendent world; body returns to nature. Vertical imagery Mind/brain.  Horizontal imagery  
Powers Language is immediate and vital Language is released from tyranny of nature Language reveals richness in objective world
Limitations Language restricted by an identity with nature Language of deductive reason leads to nothing new Language precludes imaginative experience

The problem Frye faces in applying his schematic account of language is that the Bible does not fit well into one or more of the phases.  His way out is to devise another framework to account for the Bible’s metaphorical origins and its “concerned” or existential quality.  Thus, he posits a fourth form of expression that is a special kind of rhetoric: kerygma.  The three phases of language more or less disappear in Frye’s subsequent writing, and except for the metaphoric phase Frye does little with the three phases in the other chapters of The Great Code.  But kerygma does not disappear. 

Frye was apparently dissatisfied with this account of language in The Great Code.  In Words with Power, in any case, he takes a somewhat different approach, developing a thesis about four modes of verbal communication: the descriptive, the dialectical, the ideological, and the imaginative.  Each mode is connected to its successor by what Frye calls “the excluded initiative,” “initiative” meaning the motive necessary to get the verbal process going and “excluded” referring to what remains in the background in one mode as an unexamined assumption but which comes to the foreground in the succeeding mode.  Frye replaces the tripartite analysis of The Great Code with a quadripartite one, represented in this chart.

Modes of Language: Words with Power, chapter 1

Aspect of Verbal Communication Perceptual Conceptual Ideological Poetic
Mode of Language Descriptive Dialectical Rhetorical Imaginative
Initiative Ordering of words Impersonal argument Ideology Myth
Excluded Initiative (what remains in the background as an unexamined assumption) Syntactical or grammatical ordering of words assumed but not the focus of attention Personal (subjective) desire or energy Myth, along with the numinous or non-human personal Spiritual vision of faith, opening the way to kerygma 
Narrative Types Textbooks, histories, reference works Philosophical argument, metaphysical systems. Coordination is central. Dialectic: incorporated by rhetoric into a personal mode Poetry
Tropes Avoided or minimized Ambiguity: positive and constructive force Metaphor, allegory, rhythm, etc. strongly emphasized Myth and metaphor: indispensable defining characteristics
Criterion Truth outside language Truth inside language: integrity of the verbal structure Moral truth through dialectic; rationalizing of social authority through rhetoric The conceivable, hypothetical, or assumed
Art/Nature Relation Nature (content) imitated by art (form) Nature (content) contained by art (form) Nature as hierarchy; human beings dominate nature Gods identified with nature
“Political” Principle Open and democratic Argumentative, impersonal, objective, logical Existential Individual: intensifying of consciousness. Social: focus of community
Language as “Mirror” Data of sense perception reflected through language “Being” mirrored through speculative language (speculum = mirror) Speaker/writer mirrors speech and audience: identification of speaker and audience Language of poetry as double‑mirror
Corresponding Medieval Level Literal Allegorical Tropological Anagogic
Corresponding Hegelian Level Consciousness Reason Spirit Religion

In Frye’s new formulation the function of the descriptive or information-centered mode of writing is to transmit the nonverbal.  The descriptive mode minimizes tropes; its criterion is truth; its typical narrative forms are histories, textbooks, and reference works.  Its excluded initiative is syntax, the word-ordering process.  That is, our attention as readers is directed away from the word-ordering process because in the descriptive mode language is assumed to be a transparent vehicle of communication: nature is the content reflected by language.  Frye also refers to the descriptive mode as “perceptual” because descriptive language reflects what we see in nature.  When the descriptive initiative is no longer excluded, it becomes the shaping force of the next mode, the dialectical or conceptual, which functions to coordinate verbal elements.  This is the mode of metaphysical systems, the mode in which data are arranged and arguments constructed and in which nature is the content not reflected but contained by language.  The excluded initiative in this mode –– what begins the process of objective conceptual prose but which is not the focus –– is subjective energy or desire.  Again, when subjective energy does become the focus, the writer and what is written become identified, and we enter the ideological or rhetorical mode.  Dialectic is incorporated into rhetoric in order to rationalize authority.  The excluded initiative in this mode is what Frye calls “the non-human personal,” a somewhat curious locution for the numinous or the divine: the personal non-human world is the world of the gods.  Finally, once this initiative is no longer excluded, we enter the mythological mode, the mode where the fundamental element is no longer descriptive truth or conceptual argument or persuasion in the interest of ideology but the conceivable.  This is the poetic and metaphorical mode of the imagination.  Myth, in short, is the excluded initiative of ideology.  In this four-part sequence of linguistic modes, where the emergence of the previously excluded initiative represents the Hegelian Aufhebung, we can see the close connection in Frye’s thinking between the religious initiative and the fundamental principles of literature: metaphor and myth.  This is one of the ways Frye puts it:

Myth takes us back to a time when the distinction between subject and object was much less continuous and rigid than it is now, and gods are the central characters of myth because they are usually personalities identified with aspects of nature.  They are therefore built-in metaphors. . . . There is an infinite number of individual myths, but only a finite number––in fact a very small number of species of myths.  These latter express the human bewilderment of why we are here and where we are going, and include the myths of creation, of fall, of exodus and migration, of the destruction of the human race in the past (deluge myths) or the future (apocalyptic myths), of redemption in some phase of life during or after this one, however “after” is interpreted.  Such myths outline, as broadly as words can do, humanity’s vision of its nature and destiny, its place in the universe, its sense both of inclusion in and exclusion from an infinitely bigger order.  So while nothing ontological is asserted by literature as such, the imaginative or poetic mode of ordering words has to be the basis of any sense of the reality of nonhuman personality, whether angels, demons, gods, or God. (Words with Power, 22–3)

The schematic theories of language outlined in The Great Code and Words with Power move in opposite directions: from the poetic to the descriptive in the former; from the descriptive to the poetic in the latter.  In addition, the progression in the former is more or less historical; in the latter, this movement is reversed.  At this point in the mental diagram of Frye’s second schema there is no excluded initiative for the poetic mode.  But there is an initiative that has been generally excluded from Frye’s previous works, and this is the experience of metaphor by the reader, especially what Frye calls existential or ecstatic metaphor.  He refers to this “something else” as beyond the literary, and this something else turns out to be the excluded initiative of the poetic, though it takes him another seventy-five pages to say so.  In Words with Power the excluded initiative or the real kerygma is, similarly, “a mode of language on the other side of the poetic” (Words with Power, 101).  The reference here is to the reader’s experience of the Bible, but the power of the experience applies to poetic works as well.  In fact, Frye says that we have to “go through the territory of literature” to get there, and this is the point at which Words with Power makes a radical departure from Frye’s previous work.  “Spirit,” he says in a different formulation, “is the initiative excluded from literature” (Late Notebooks, 1:272).

The excluded initiative of the poetic is what permits the reader to move from the panoramic apocalypse, a detached vision, to the participating apocalypse, an engaged one –– which is a kind of paravritti or reversal for Frye himself.  He does not emphasize this in Words with Power, but he does remark in one of his notebooks for Words with Power that “the recovery and incorporating of the excluded initiative of experiencing literature marked the first step from the Anatomy that I’ve taken” (Late Notebooks, 1:297).  Kerygma moves beyond the poetic, embracing the reader’s existential experience.  It is a key principle in Frye’s expanded theory of language.  [On kerygma, see Michael Happy, “The Reality of the Created: From Deconstruction to Recreation,” in Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye, ed. Jeffery Donaldson and Alan Mendelson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 81–96.]  I wonder if some of Frye’s observations about the phases and modes of language might not dovetail into Trevor Losh‑Johnson’s interests.

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2 thoughts on “The Phases and Modes of Language

  1. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Since my Frygian orientation is based on the Anatomy, this is certainly a new and exiting schematic for me. I wish I could have cited my source for that comment on etiological theories of language, but I have had no luck finding it. There is always the possibility that it was a sort of excluded initiative during my reading that became a center of concern when I wrote my post.

    Is there a term Frye used for the movement of the excluded initiative into its subsequent center of concern (I may not be using the term “concern” correctly)? If reversed, it seems to resemble the displacement of myth into descending modes in the Anatomy- “Reading forward in history, therefore, we may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back” (pg. 52, the final sentence of ‘Comic Fictional Modes’).

    Also, is there any circular thrust to this model, adopted, as it seems, from De Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis? From what I know of De Lubac, his adapted categories were more or less static modes of interpretation. The model adopted from Vico has its implied ricorso, but what modulation is added to second seems to by Frye’s.

    But as an applicative theory of language, it is just the thing that dovetails into my interests. I am interested in theories of language that apply to literature as an order of words, even if such theories do not apply much to linguistics as the discipline stands. My complaint, that comparative literature made me into an amateur expert on everything except literature, may apply in its own way to Prof. Adamson’s lament on the extraliterary.

  2. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    PS- my last sentence of the penultimate paragraph got mangled beyond recognition. It should have read, “The model adopted from Vico has its implied ricorso, but what modulation is in the second seems to be without recurrence.” That is all.


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