Terms and Definitions: U
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated April 24, 2018.
This list is meant to assist,
not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts
and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary
terms are listed alphabetically.
SUNT MOTIF (Latin, "Where
are....?"): A literary motif
dealing with the transience of life. The name comes from a
longer Latin phrase, "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?"
[Where are those who were before us?], a phrase that begins
several medieval poems in Latin. The phrase evokes the transience
of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor. It is a particularly
common motif in the ballades.
A particularly memorable example comes from medieval French,
where Francois Villon repeatedly asks in "The Ballade
of Dead Ladies," "Ou sont les nieges d'antan?"
["Where are the snows of yesteryear?"]. Many Anglo-Saxon
poems such as "The Ruin" and "The Wanderer"
also deal with this theme. Although the motif is similar to
the Roman carpe
diem motif in its emphasis on transitory
existence, the medieval ubi sunt motif usually does
not call on the reader to embrace this world's pleasures before
the end comes, but instead grimly or sorrowfully urges the
reader to prepare spiritually for the afterlife.
In linguistics, the earliest known or most ancient etymon
for a particular word, as opposed to a direct source,
the most recent source for a word.
UMLAUT: (1) Jacob Grimm's term for
the process of assimilating a vowel to another sound in the
following syllable. This process is also called mutation.
This process is responsible for many unusual plurals in Germanic
languages like English--such as man-men,
foot-feet, and so on.
(2) The diacritical marking also called a
dieresis. Click here for more information
on this diacritical marking.
UNDECEPTION: One of C.S. Lewis's favorite themes, the idea that the human condition is "the state of being deceived by others, by sin, or by oneself" (Duriez 216), and those illusions then fall away to deeper truths later in the narrative. Lewis uses this term to describe the phenomenon among the protagonists in Jane Austen's novels in his essay, "A Note on Jane Austen," cf. his Selected Literary Essays. Examples in Lewis's Narnia stories include Prince Rilian in The Silver Chair and (more centrally), the White Witch's deceptions with Edmund, and finally the realization of the children in The Last Battle, when they discover that their Narnia and England were but pale shadows or Platonic Forms of a deeper heaven.
The land of the dead--often depicted as beneath the surface
of the earth in a variety of religious literatures. See Descent
Into the Underworld.
GENITIVE: A genitive that has no case ending
to signal its function. A number of such uninflected genitives
appeared in Early Modern English--especially for nouns that
originally were feminine in Anglo-Saxon grammar or nouns ending
in -s or preceding another
word beginning with s-.
Thus, we might find "for conscience sake" and "for
God sake" in Shakespearean plays, instead of inflected versions like "for conscience's sake" or "for God's sake."
PLURAL: A plural word identical
to its singular form. For instance, "I
saw one deer yesterday, but last
week I saw five deer."
Here, the word deer is identical whether it is singular
or plural. Other examples include sheep,
and (in Middle English) horse
and kind, which did
not develop the plural versions of horses and kinds
until the 1600s through linguistic hypercorrection.
THREE (also known as the "three dramatic unities"):
In the 1500s and 1600s, critics of drama expanded Aristotle's
ideas in the Poetics to create the rule of the "three
unities." A good play, according to this doctrine, must have
three traits. The first is unity of action (realistic
events following a single plotline and a limited number of characters
encompassed by a sense of verisimilitude).
The second is unity of time, meaning that the events
should be limited to the two or three hours it takes to view
the play, or at most to a single day of twelve or twenty-four
hours compressed into those two or three hours. Skipping ahead
in time over the course of several days or years was considered
undesirable, because the audience was thought to be incapable
of suspending disbelief regarding the passage of time. The third
is unity of space, meaning the play must take place in
a single setting or location. It is notable that Shakespeare
often broke the three unities in his plays, which may explain
why these rules later were never as dominant in England as they
were in French and Italian Neoclassical drama. French playwrights
like Moliére conformed to the model much more strictly
in Love is the Doctor and Tartuffe.
SET: A series of lowered or raised platforms on stage, often
connected by various stairs and exits, which form the various
locations for all of a play's scenes. A unit set enables the
scene to change rapidly--without intermissions or the drawing
of the curtain in order to place new sets.
The sense that all the elements in a piece of writing fit together
to create a harmonious effect.
UNIVERSALISM: The theological doctrine that all humanity will eventually achieve spiritual salvation. In some versions of the doctrine, like that of Saint Origen in the fifth century, even Satan and the fallen angels would one day achieve salvation. Saint Augustine strongly argued against this doctrine, and the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origenian teachings as heresy. C. S. Lewis was troubled by the fact that one of his favorite mentors and teachers, George MacDonald, believed in universalism. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis creates a narrator-version of himself who takes a day-trip to purgatory/hell, and encounters MacDonald there to discuss salvation with him.
Qualities of literature that appeal to readers in a wide
variety of cultures and
across a wide variety of historical periods--i.e., basic
emotions, situations, values, and attitudes that readers
can relate to regardless of other cultural or historical
SYMBOL: Another term for an archetype.
See discussion under marked
STOP: In linguistics, a stop sound without explosion
(i.e., a puff of air) in the place where articulated stoppage
would normally take place. For instance, this appears in some
New York dialects. Here, when speaking the [t]
in a word like outcome,
a New Yorker might pronounce the first part of the [t],
but rather than releasing the stop as a puff of air after the
[t], the speaker might move directly
into the /k/ sound that begins
the syllable come.
NARRATOR: An imaginary storyteller or character who describes
what he witnesses with surface accuracy, but misinterpets those events
because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding.
Often the writer or poet creating such an unreliable narrator
leaves clues so that readers will perceive the unreliablity
and question the interpretations offered. Examples of unreliable
narrators arguably include "Geoffrey the pilgrim"
in the Canterbury Tales, the character of Forest Gump
in the movie of the same name, and possibly Wilson in "The
Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." See discussion
VOWEL: See spread
The process of changing from a rounded vowel to a spread
vowel. For instance, in the vowel u,
Chaucer would have pronounced the letter as in the word full.
By the 1500s, that sound changed to become the sound found in
and but. That change is
called unrounding. Contrast with the Great
Lightly stressed as opposed to heavily stressed--i.e., a syllable
that has little prominence when spoken aloud. Click here for
more information in a PDF handout.
UNUSUAL PERSPECTIVE: A common poetic technique in 17th-century poetry, later also appearing frequently in 18th-century prose, in which the poet describes or presents a scene from an odd vantage point or from an uncommon point-of-view. The effect of the technique on readers is often defamiliarization. One example of unusual perspective appears in Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House:"
And now to the abyss I pass
Of that unfathomable grass,
Where men like grasshoppers appear,
But grasshoppers are giants there;
They in their squeaking laugh, contemn
Us as we walk more low than them,
And from the precipices tall
Of the green spires to us do call. (369-76)
The unusual perspective in the lines above come from changing the viewer's position to that of a creature smaller than a grasshopper. Other poems might place the viewer's perspective in an unusual location (such as peeking out between the toes of a child), or in an impossibly distant local (such as outside the solar system looking down upon the dance of the planets), or in the perspective of an inanimate object, such as the prosopopoeia in "The Dream of the Rood." Probably the most famous examples from 18th-century prose would be the Islands of Liliput and Brobdingnag in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which Lemuel Gulliver first encounters a race of tiny, belligerent Liliputians and later a titanic race of morally superior beings who treat him as a toy. Swift plays with the size of various objects through Gulliver's interactions to help the reader see them in a new way.
UP-ARROW: Another term for an editor's caret.
A hypothetical language family
thought to include Uralic and Altaic.
A non-Indo-European language family including Finno-Ugric
A hypothetical "best" version of a lost literary text
based on correlating later manuscripts and examining the differences
between them. An Ur-text is not an actual physical manuscript
we can examine or see in a museum, but rather an imaginary reconstruction
of one that must have existed at some past point in time based
on available evidence. This reconstruction cannot be
absolutely certain, but it is a useful thought experiment for
helping editors decide between textual
variants when creating an edition of a literary
Later manuscripts and printed
texts often exist in literary families, with later versions
adapted from earlier ones. Scribal
corruption, printing errata,
authorial revision, and deliberate bowdlerization
or alteration by later editors can result in textual variants
(slightly differing versions of the same basic text). It isn't
always clear which of these versions is most accurate.
When a modern editor wants
to print her own edition, she will have to decide which version(s)
she will use. Likewise, modern scholars who want an authoritative
copy for historical and comparative purposes must determine
which alterations are clear errors and which ones represent
authorial intention. In some cases, textual critics can determine
that one copy is most authoritative and use it as the basis
of a critical edition. They may be able to examine an author's
original typed copy in the case of a recent author like Hemingway
or Toni Morrison, for instance. Far more often, however, the
matter is muddled. Perhaps, as is the case with some works by
Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson, a poem exists
in several slightly different versions in the author's own hand,
or it exists in versions printed by different publishing houses
that have minor alterations in diction, punctuation, and so
on. Do those differences indicate that the author or poet changed
her mind, and we should trust the more recent version as authoritative?
Or does the older version, the first one that the public saw,
count as the most important one, and are the later changes made
by meddling editors? What about when we can't tell which one
she wrote first and we can't ask the author because she has
This confusion is sharpened
keenly in classical, medieval and Renaissance works. Finding
"authorial intention" is difficult when, as in the
case of certain Shakespearean plays, the first editions were
printed in 1623, years after Shakespeare's actual death in 1616.
It is even more challenging in the case of anonymous medieval
authors when we aren't certain who they were and when they lived
exactly. In the case of classical works like the Iliad
or the Odyssey, the poem exists in literally thousands
of different manuscripts--all copied down centuries after the
heyday of Heroic Age Greece, and all varying slightly from each
other in small passages. These are so removed from the original
author, it may be pointless to use "authorial intention"
as the guide to the best text.
In fashioning an Ur-text,
the textual critic begins with the somewhat controversial assumption
that "there is no original text," i.e., that not a
single one of the surviving manuscripts represents the lost
original one accurately and entirely. He then attempts to establish
"families" of manuscripts by finding which ones have
the same or similar readings in the same passages. If he can
date the manuscripts by paleographic evidence, he can then arrange
them into a stemma
(plural stemmata), or family tree,
with individual branches having the same textual reading for
specific lines. In conjunction with other evidence, this often
allows the scholar to pinpoint where and when one manuscript
tradition branches off from another. For instance, we can speak
of the Ellesmere
family of manuscripts and the Hengwrt
family of manuscripts in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Each family has within its members similar alterations, interpretations,
errors, and editorial choices as those found in the Ellesmere
and Hengwrt, which appear to be the oldest and least corrupt
representatives of that group. Later copyists or scribes in
the family reproduced the alterations, interpretations, errors,
and editorial choices of earlier copyists or scribes in the
same manuscript family. Determining this lineage allows modern
scholars to identify and dismiss changes that were later added
and confirm material that must have existed in older versions
of the text. By placing the different families side by side
and travelling up the family tree, the scholar can often gain
fairly good insights into what the lost original might have
looked like before it "mutated" into different stemma,
much like modern geneticists seek to reconstruct divergence
in species by identifying when and where specific mutations
occurred in DNA.
Probably the most famous
Ur-texts include the "Q-text," which in Biblical scholarship
is thought to be a single source that about 40-70 years after
Christ's death branched into the three synoptic gospels of Matthew,
Mark, and Luke (while the non-synoptic gospel of John developed
from an independent manuscript family), and the "Ur-Hamlet,"
an earlier draft of Shakespeare's Hamlet that must
have preceded the corrupt bad
quartos of the play.
The choice among grammatical, syntactic, or semantic options
when the idea is that one or the other option is correct or preferred
to the other. Usage changes and language changes over time.
Another term for the Japanese genre
of poetry also called a waka or tanka.
See discussion under tanka.
A non-Indo-European language family found in Central America
and the western sections of North America.Its members include the languages of Hopi and Nahuatl.
An imaginary place or government in which political and social
perfection has been reached in the material world as opposed
to some spiritual afterlife as discussed in the Christian Bible
or the Elysian fields of The Odyssey. The citizens
of such utopias are typically universally clean, virtuous, healthy,
and happy, or at least those who are criminals are always captured
and appropriately punished. A utopian society is one that has
cured all social ills. See discussion under Utopian
literature, below. Contrast with dystopia.
LITERATURE: The term utopia
comes from a Greek pun. In Greek, eu + topos ("good"
+ "place") and ou + topos ("no"
+ "place") sound very similar. Thus, utopia
at once suggests a perfect society and an impossible one. Utopian
literature is a term for any writing that presents the reader
with (or explores the idea of) a perfect society in the physical
world, as opposed to a perfect society existing in an afterlife.The
first literary utopia was probably Plato's ideal commonwealth
in the Republic, circa 400 BCE, in which a group of
debating philosophers seeking to define justice end up as a
mental exercise creating a hypothetical perfect polis,
or self-governing city of about 8,000 citizens. In this imaginary
society, philosophers are the rulers, goods and women are communally
owned, slavery is taken for granted, and children are bred eugenically.
Artists, actors, and poets are largely exiled. Ramn Llull's
utopia in Blanquerna (c.1280) continued the
tradition, but had little literary impact. Some Arthurian literature had minor utopian elements in the idealization of King Arthur's court at Camelot, but the medieval poets mostly romanticized an imaginary past rather than using hypothetical utopias as a means of critiquing political structures and imagining alternatives. Later, Sir Thomas More's
Utopia solidified the genre in 1516 and his name for
the imaginary kingdom became the term used in reference to the
genre more generally. Later versions include Andreae's
Christianopolis, Campanella's City of the Sun,
Bacon's New Atlantis, Samuel Gott's New Jerusalem,
Winstanley's The Law of Freedom in a Platform, Edward
Bellamy's Looking Backward, William Morris's News
from Nowhere, Theodor Hertzka's Freeland, H. G.
Wells's A Modern Utopia (my personal favorite), and
more recent additions like Ecotopia.
Common features of the genre
include elaborate multil-lingual puns or anagrams
in the names of characters or in the geographic features of
the imaginary landscape, native guides that show the way through
the land to a narrator who is an outsider or stranger to the
utopian society, and extensive criticism about contemporary
political, social, economic, or ethical problems. A common misconception
is that Utopian models are meant to be actual blueprints for
a better way of life. In actual fact, the point of such literature
is to help the reader better understand the problems, paradoxes,
or faults found in existing political institutions rather than
suggest necessarilya specific design for perfect politics.
I consulted the following works
while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when
feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or
provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these
resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:
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Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
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Anderson, Douglas. "Note on the Text" in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
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Thomas Cable. A History of
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Catholic University of America
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Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology
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