“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
“Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy wit.”
Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene II.
From the Bible to the works of Shakespeare; from Dickens to WH Auden, prosopopoeia, or personification, has been used as a rhetorical device to animate words, books, even the act of writing. By ascribing human attributes to language, even to the extent of creating a fictitious author, writers can imbue subtle meaning and commentary in their prose and poetry.
It’s a tool that has fascinated one Plymouth academic for 20 years and has opened the door to some very modern applications, such as improving literacy levels in primary school children, and facilitating better communication between therapists and their patients.
"For centuries, writers have talked about words as though they are people,” said Dr Min Wild, Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities and Performing Arts. “It allows them to give a voice to someone who is not there or to something that is inanimate. Personification is an ancient trope but one very popular today, especially in advertising where agencies use it to bring products to life, whether it’s a talking car or a cheeky telephone. It’s much easier to sell a personality than a box of wires and chips.”
Min’s interest in the subject dates back to her undergraduate degree when she was studying the birth of the periodical in the 18th century. It was here that she discovered two popular examples of prosopopoeia: The Spectator, which was produced by two men in the guise of a single editor; and The Midwife, written by Christopher Smart in the persona of an outspoken and elderly midwife called Mrs Mary Midnight.
Struck by how funny and challenging the latter was, particularly in an age when women were not encouraged to write, Min embarked on a sustained period of research, publishing a well-received book on the use of personification in The Midwife, as well as a number of influential essays and papers, culminating in Making Words Human in 2010 in which she collected and analysed rare and arresting examples of prosopopoeia.
Now regarded as a world authority on the writings of satirist Smart, Min has applied her expertise to the creation of vibrant, engaging teaching materials for primary schools, and, supported by Professor Dafydd Moore, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, worked directly with the Moorsway Federation Primary Schools in Devon, where she led workshops and consultancies with staff.