A posteriori



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SECONDARY SOURCE: Literary scholars distinguish between primary sources, secondary sources, and educational resources. Students should also. To understand the difference, click here.

SECONDARY STRESS: A stress less prominent than the primary stress--often indicated by a grave accent mark. See chart of common diacritical markings for more information.



SECOND LANGUAGE: In addition to a first language (i.e., a native language), a second language is any language used frequently for communication, trade, diplomacy, scholarship, or other important purposes.

SECOND-PERSON POINT OF VIEW: See discussion under point of view.

SECOND SOUND SHIFT: Another term for the High German Shift.

SELF-REFLEXIVITY: Writing has self-reflexivity if it somehow refers to itself. (Critics also call this being self-referential.) For instance, the following sentence has self-reflexive traits:

This is not a sentence.

Here, the demonstrative pronoun this refers to the larger sentence that contains it--the sentence's subject-matter is its own structure as a sentence. Postmodern writing has become especially fond of this artistic technique, employing metafiction and metapoetry. Self-reflexivity calls attention to its own artifice, violates verisimilitude, or breaks the boundaries between sign, signifier and signified. See metaliterature.

SEMANTIC BLEACHING: The process by which a word loses all its original meaning--a phenomenon quite common in toponyms and personal names. For instance, few English speakers think of "Red People" when they hear the toponym Oklahoma, even though this is what Oklahoma means in the original Choctaw; the loanword has undergone semantic bleaching.

SEMANTIC CHANGE: A change in what a word or phrase means.

SEMANTIC CONTAMINATION: Change of meaning that occurs when two words sound alike. Because the words are so similar, often the meaning of one becomes attached to the other. This is especially likely with foreign loan words. For example, the Old English word dream originally meant "joy." However, the Scandinavian loan word draumr meant "vision while asleep." Through semantic contamination via the Viking invasions, the English word dream gained its current meaning, as Algeo points out (277).

SEMANTIC MARKING: When the meaning of a word is limited semantically, that word is said to possess a semantic marking. See marked word and unmarked word.

SEMANTICS: The study of actual meaning in languages--especially the meanings of individual words and word combinations in phrases and sentences--as opposed to other linguistic aspects like grammar, morphology, etymology, and syntax.

SEMIOLOGY: Another term for semiotics.

SEMIOTICS: The study of both verbal and nonverbal signs. In Charles Sanders Peirce's thinking, a sign may fall into several possible categories:


  • iconic signs bear some natural resemblance to what they signify. For instance, a map of Tennessee is an iconic representation of a "real world" geography.

  • indexical signs show some causal connection with what they signify. For instance, a stylized image of smoke as a sign indicating "fire" would be an indexical sign.

  • symbolic signs have an arbitrary or conventional relationship with what they signify. Note that in linguistics, almost all verbal sounds and written letters fall in the category of symbolic signs. Using the sounds /c/ and /a/ and /t/ to represent a furred quadroped that hunts mice, or the graphemes , , and as a visual representation of those sounds, is purely arbitrary.

SEMITIC: A non-Indo-European family of languages including Arabic and Hebrew.

SEMIVOWEL: A sound articulated in the same way as a vowel sound, but which functions like a consonant typically. Examples include [w] and [y]. In some languages such as Welsh, these can function as graphemes for pure vowels.

SENEX AMANS (from Latin "ancient lover"; also spelled senex amanz in Old French): A stock character in medieval fabliaux, courtly romances, and classical comedies, the senex amans is an old, ugly, jealous man who is married to a younger, attractive but unhappy woman. He is often a poor lover (or even impotent) with bad breath, wrinkled skin, and grey hair. He is frequently cuckolded by a younger, handsome, virile man who secretly seduces his wife. We find examples of the senex amans in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "The Merchant's Tale," and in various other fabliaux. Likewise, the motif also appears in the medieval French lais such as Marie de France's "Guigemar" and similar works such as Tristan and Iseult. The motif of the senex amans often becomes useful for fast characterization, since it often can quickly cast a predatory light on an elderly male antagonist. An example of such use would be the old king of Ghana pursuing the young Imoinda in Aphra Behn's Oronooko, or any of the aging aristocrats sadistically pursuing young virtuous peasant girls in gothic novels.

SENRYU: The senryu is a satirical form of the haiku. The form originates in Edo with the poet Karai Senryu (1718-1790). While the haiku attempt to avoid excessive "cleverness," vulgarity, humor, or explicit moralizing on the poet's part, the senryu embraces these elements. The genre allows a greater liberty of diction. Its tone is less lofty than the Zen-like tone found in many haiku, and it often focuses on the distortions and failings of human nature rather than the beauty of nature. Conventional topics include mothers-in-law, shrewish wives, women of disrepute, the antics of bachelors, and misbehavior among the clergy. Here is an example of a senryu:

When she wails
At the top of her voice,
The husband gives in.

As Joan Giroux suggests in The Haiku Form, the humor and implicit lesson in such senryu are very appealing to European and American writers. It is a genre much more accessible to the Western poet, accustomed as we are to logic rather than Zen. She writes:

Would-be writers of English haiku are often dismayed to have their Japanese friends remark, "Your poem is more like senryu. It is too philosophical." It is not surprising, therefore, that senryu appeals strongly to Western readers. The Western tradition of logic rather than intuition makes senryu in some respects easier [for Western poets] to write than haiku. (22-23)

Contrast senryu with haiku. See also kigo, tanka, haikai, and hokku.



SENSIBILITY, LITERATURE OF: Eighteenth-century literature that values emotionalism over rationalism. This literature tends to perceive feelings as more reliable guides to morality and truth than abstract principles, and thus it tends to view human beings as essentially benevolent--a sharp contrast with the idea of Original Sin and total depravity in Calvinist writings.

SENTIMENTAL NOVEL: An eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century novel emphasizing pathos rather than reason and focusing on an optimistic view of the essential goodness of human nature. Examples include Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling.

SEPTENARY: Another term for heptameter--a line consisting of seven metrical feet.

SEPTUAGINT (Latin, septuaginta, "seventy"): A Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) produced in the third century BCE. According to an apocryphal legend found in the "Letter of Aristeas," seventy-two Jewish scribes were asked to translate the Torah into Greek for inclusion in the Ptolemaic library. The legend states that they all finished at exactly the same time (seventy-two days) and produced exactly identical translations with no transcription errors or corrections. Although most Biblical scholars dismiss this legend today as implausible and see the story as originating much later than the actual translation, the Septuagint provides an important manuscript comparison with the Masoretic texts. The Septuagint is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the basis of its liturgy. In medieval writing, the Septuagint is often referred to only as the Roman numerals LXX (i.e., "seventy").

SEQUEL (from Latin sequi, to follow): A literary work complete in itself, but continuing the narrative of an earlier work. It is a new story that extends or develops characters and situations found in an earlier work. Two sequels following an original work (together) are called a trilogy. Three sequels following an original work together are called a tetralogy.Often sequels have a reputation for inferior artistry compared to the original publication since they are often hastily written from the desire to capitalize on earlier financial success. Examples include Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad, which is a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett, which is a sequel to Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. In the late twentieth century, it became common retroactively to write "prequels," a later book with the same geographic setting or characters, but which takes place in an earlier time.

SERF: A medieval peasant tied to a specific plot of land in the feudal system of government. He was allowed to work this land in exchange for services to his lord. In the early medieval period, probably 90% of the European population was a part of this group of agricultural laborers. In the late medieval period, increasing numbers of these peasants became freemen who owned their own land or worked as craftsmen in city guilds. See discussion under feudalism.

SERIES: A number of novels related to each other by plot, setting, character, or some combination of these traits. Examples include The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and cheap pulp fiction collections like The Executioner or the Longarm westerns are all examples of series. Contrast with prequel, sequel, trilogy and tetralogy.

SERMON: See discussion under homily.

SERMON JOLI: Another term for a sermon joyeaux. See discussion under mock sermon.

SERMON JOYEUX (also sermon joli): See discussion under mock sermon.

SESTET: (1) The last part of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, it consists of six lines that rhyme with a varying pattern. Common rhyme patterns include CDECDE or CDCCDC. See sonnet, below. (2) Any six-line stanza or a six-line unit of poetry.

SETS: The physical objects and props necessary as scenery in a play (if they are left on-stage rather than in a character's possession).

SETSUWA TALE: A Japanese tale dating to the10th-14th centuries, typically sharing a grotesque mode of representation, especially a tendency to depict the body and bodily functions in bizarre or fantastic ways.

SETTING: The general locale, historical time, and social circumstances in which the action of a fictional or dramatic work occurs; the setting of an episode or scene within a work is the particular physical location in which it takes place. For example, the general setting of Joyce's "The Dead," is a quay named Usher's Island, west of central Dublin in the early 1900s, and the initial setting is the second floor apartment of the Misses Morkan. Setting can be a central or peripheral factor in the meaning of a work. The setting is usually established through description--but sometimes narration or dialogue also reveals the location and time.

SHAKESPEAREAN SONNET: See discussion under sonnet.

SHAMANISM: A religious practice first identified by anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer tribes in Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada in which a shaman would serve as a mediator between his tribal community and the spirit world. The shaman would bridge this gap through spiritual exercises (such as chanting to induce trances) or through symbolic journeys (like descending into a cave or climbing a mountain) or through magical transformations (such as donning an elk skin or a mask to become one with the Spirit of All Elk). In these shamanistic religions, the shaman was thought either to project his soul magically out of his body to reach the spirit world or else to physically enter it through his journey. Once in the spirit world, he would communicate with the spirits to ensure a good hunt or good weather, to seek spiritual advice, or to ask for assistance with curing a disease. The spirits were typically animistic or totemic in nature rather than anthropomorphic.

In its strictest original sense, shamanism applies only to the practices of a half-dozen or so tribes in the far north around the Arctic Circle, but some scholars in comparative religion have popularized the term and applied it to similar beliefs among South American, African, Australian, and Polynesian ethnic groups. Some go so far as to argue that hunter-gatherer societies naturally tend to form shamanistic religions, or that shamanism is humanity's "original" or "default" religious belief before the rise of agriculture caused vegetationsdämons to complicate the pantheon. In classical mythology and sacrificial rites, many features of individual myths appear to originate in shamanistic hunting rituals, as scholars like Walter Burkert have argued.

SHAPED POETRY: See concrete poetry.

SHARERS: In the Renaissance, these were senior actors holding business shares in the stock of a theatrical company. In such a joint-stock arrangement, the shareholders would pool their funds to buy supplies, make costumes and props, hire works, and write new plays. They would share profits (and losses!) equally. Greenblatt notes that, "Shakespeare was not only a longtime 'sharer' of the Lord Chamberlain's Men but, from 1599, a 'housekeeper,' the holder of a one-eighth share in the Globe playhouse" (1141).

SHIBBOLETH: Among linguists, the term refers to any language use that distinguishes between one "in"-group and another "out"-group. The term comes from the biblical account of how Israelites would ask suspicious foreigners to say the word "shibboleth"; if the speaker pronounced it "sibboleth," marking the talker as an enemy, he or she would be seized and killed. The term often appears in the phrase, "to speak the shibboleth."

SHIFTING: A general term in linguistics for any slight alteration in a word's meaning, or the creation of an entirely new word by changing the use of an expression.

SHIH POETRY: Shih is Chinese for "songs." There is no general word for "poetry" specifically in Chinese, but there are exact words for different genres of poetry. Shih is the basic or common Chinese verse. The term encompassed folksongs, hymns, and libretti. The earliest extant shih in five-word lines may date back to 100 BCE. Contrast with fu poetry.

SHORTENING: In linguistics, the word has two meanings: (1) creating a new word by omitting part of a longer expression, and (2) changing a long vowel to a short one.

SHORT STORY: "A brief prose tale," as Edgar Allan Poe labeled it. This work of narrative fiction may contain description, dialogue and commentary, but usually plot functions as the engine driving the art. The best short stories, according to Poe, seek to achieve a single, major, unified impact. See single effect theory, below.

SHORT SYLLABLE: In linguistics, any syllable containing a short vowel, but followed by only one consonant or no consonant at all. Do not confuse this term with a short vowel (see below).

SHORT VOWEL: As Algeo defines it, "A vowel of lesser duration than a corresponding long vowel" (329).

SIBILANT: In linguistics, any hissing sound made with a groove down the center of the tongue.

SIGN: In linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure bases his theory of signification (semiology) upon the sign, an arbitrary mark, sound, or gesture that becomes imbued with meaning because it is part of a larger, more complex system of other marks or sounds with their own meanings. The linguistic sign is the union of the signifier (a collection of sounds that distinguishes this sign from others) and the signified (a concept or meaning arbitrarily and conventionally assigned to this collection of sounds). Note that the signified exists only in the head of a language user. The referent in linguistics is the "real world" equivalent, the extralinguistic object the signified points to in the physical universe. Saussure, however, deliberately ignores the referent as something existing outside the realm of linguistics proper, prefering to treat language as a system of arbitrary distinctions without any positive terms.



See also parole and langue.

SIMILE: An analogy or comparison implied by using an adverb such as like or as, in contrast with a metaphor which figuratively makes the comparison by stating outright that one thing is another thing. This figure of speech is of great antiquity. It is common in both prose and verse works.

A poetic example comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost:

Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge
Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphony and voices sweet. (I. 710-12)

Even more famously, Robert Burns states:

O, my luve is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
O, my luve is like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune

A simile is an example of a trope. Contrast with epic simile and metaphor, above.

"SINGLE EFFECT" THEORY: Edgar Allan Poe's theory about what constituted a good short story. According to Poe, a good short story achieved its unity by achieving a single emotional effect on the reader. He writes of it in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales and describes it as "a certain unique single effect to be wrought out" (Quoted in Thomas Woodson, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher" from Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969.)

SINO-TIBETAN: A group of languages spoken in China, Tibet, and Burma, including Mandarin.

SITUATIONAL IRONY: Another term for universal irony. See discussion under irony.

SKALD: The Old Norse or Scandinavian equivalent of a bard or court singer. Most of the surviving skaldic poetry deals with contemporary Viking chieftains and kings--usually making extensive use of kennings. Medieval skalds included Bragi Boddason (c. 825), Eyvindr Finnson (c. 950), Egill Skallagrimsson (c. 850), and Gunnlaugr Ormstunga Illugason (c. 990-1020?). The skalds faded in importance after 1000 CE.

SKAZ (plural skazka, from the Russian verb skazat, "to tell"): A Russian yarn or tall tale in which the author dons the voice or persona of a fictitious narrator (typically an uneducated peasant). The genre thus allows the author to characterize the speaker through speech peculiarities (dialect pronunciation, malapropisms, non-standard grammar, slang, and regional neologisms). See Harkins 360 for more information.

SKENE (Greek "tent"): In classical Greek theaters, the skene was a building in the front of the orchestra that contained front and side doors from which actors could quickly enter and exit. The skene probably also served as an area for storing costumes and props.

SLANG: Informal diction or the use of vocabulary considered inconsistent with the preferred formal wording common among the educated or elite in a culture. For instance, formal wording might require a message such as this one: "Greetings. How are my people doing?" The slang version might be as follows: "Yo. Whassup with my peeps?"

SLANT RHYME (also called inexact rhyme): Rhymes created out of words with similar but not identical sounds. In most of these instances, either the vowel segments are different while the consonants are identical, or vice versa. This type of rhyme is also called approximate rhyme, inexact rhyme, near rhyme, half rhyme, off rhyme, analyzed rhyme, or suspended rhyme. The example below comes from William Butler Yeats:

Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images.

Slant rhyme has also been used for splendid intentional effect in poems such as Philip Larkins' "Toads" and "Toads Revisited," and has been increasingly popular with postmodern British poets after World War II. Contrast with eye-rhyme and exact rhyme.

SLAPSTICK COMEDY: Low comedy in which humor depends almost entirely on physical actions and sight gags. The antics of the three stooges and the modern fourth stooge, Adam Sandler, often fall into this category.

SLAVE NARRATIVE: A narrative, often autobiographical in origin, about a slave's life, perhaps including his original capture, his punishments and daily labor, and his eventual escape to freedom. Examples include Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and Frederick Douglass's abolitionist writings and speeches. Contrast with captivity narratives.

SLAVIC: An eastern European sub-branch of Indo-European.

SMOOTHING: In linguistics, the monophthongization of several Old English diphthongs.

SOCCUS: A soft shoe worn by actors in Latin comedies, in contrast with the buskins or kothorni worn in tragedies. Our modern English word sock comes from this term. Often, the word sock is used a metonym for comedy in contrast with buskin as a metonym for tragedy. Hence, Harry Shaw explains John Milton's reference in L'Allegro to "the buskin'd stage" and to Ben Jonson's "learned sock"--i.e., tragedy and comedy (43).

SOCIAL DIALECT: In linguistics, a dialect used by a special social group rather than through an entire ethnicity or region.

SOCIAL REALISM: In literature, a branch of realism, especially significant in Russian writing, that focuses on the lives of middle and lower class characters (see realism). At its worst, the movement becomes mere propaganda to highlight bourgeois evils, proletariat virtues, and glorifies the Soviet Union under the Stalinist regime. At its best, this movement exposes ideological mystification and presents accurate depictions of incipient class conflict.

SOCIAL SATIRE: Satire aimed specifically at the general foibles of society rather than an attack on an individual. See discussion under satire.

SOCRATIC DIALOGUE: An attempt to explore a philosophical problem by presenting a series of speakers who argue about an issue and ask each other questions. These various individuals hash out their ideas, accepting some and dismissing others, to arrive at a conclusion (or sometimes merely arrive nearer a conclusion). This model is opposed to the "lecture" model of teaching in which single authoritative experts present their conclusions before students who accept and memorize the experts' judgment, or the "treatise" model in which an author summarizes his or her thinking in an essay for the reader. In the case of Greek writings of Plato, Plato often presents the material as a recorded debate between Socrates and his pupils, or between Socrates and intellectuals of differing opinions, such as Gorgias or Diogenes. Examples of Socratic dialogue can be found in The Symposium, in which a number of dinner guests define the nature of love, and in The Republic, in which a group of thinkers speculate about what constitutes ideal government. See also socratic irony.

SOCRATIC IRONY: Adapting a form of ironic false modesty in which a speaker claims ignorance regarding a question or philosophical problem. The speaker then turns to another "authority" and raises the question humbly, asking for the expert's answer. When the "authority," presents an answer, the "modest" original speaker continues to ask pointed questions, eventually revealing the limitations or inadequacies of the supposed expert--all the while protesting his or her own inferior knowledge. The irony comes from the speaker's continuing presentation of himself as stupid even as he demolishes inferior ideas others present to him. This is the method Socrates supposedly took regarding philosophical inquiry, and it is named socratic irony in his honor. See also irony and socratic dialogue, above.




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