In their studies of the distinguishing features of literature the formalist scholars, many of whom were linguists and followers of the Polish linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845–1929), turned to the problems of language in literature. The idea of literariness is easily embraced in terms of what differentiates literature from nonliterature. What distinguishes these is language and its particular use. The formalists juxtaposed the language of imaginative literature, especially poetry, with the language of everyday conversations to present the specific function assigned to language phenomena in literature. Colloquial language, they indicated, serves purely communicative purposes, whereas in poetry this communicative function of language is reduced to a minimum. Thus, Jakobson defined poetry as a "language in its aesthetic function" (Noveishava russkaya poeziya, p. 11). He also said, and Tomashevsky repeated in Teoriya literatury: Poetika (1925; Literary theory: Poetics), that the language of poetry is oriented toward itself and draws attention to its own properties.
To demonstrate their thesis about the aesthetic function of poetic language, the formalists turned in their early works to the study of sound and its role in poetry. The Russian scholars investigated the sound-oriented avant-garde futurist poetry, while the Polish formalists, especially Siedlecki in Studia z metryki polskiej (1937; Studies in Polish metrics), demonstrated that the same can be said about sound and its aesthetic use with reference to a more traditional, non–avant-garde kind of poetry. In their more mature studies the formalists investigated poetic language not only through limiting it to the sound structure but also through including its other components: syntax, vocabulary, and semantics. Wóycicki's Forma dźwiekowa prozy polskiej i wiersza polskiego (1912; Sound form of Polish prose and verse) and Tynianov's Problema stikhotvornogo yazyka (1924; The problem of verse language) serve as the best examples of formalist studies concentrated on a close correlation of sound and meaning in poetry.
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