Inspiring words and communication through personification

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John 1:1.

“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.

On reception of school workshops and consultancies,

It’s been really well received by schools and teachers because they see it as a way of making literacy more exciting. It can also be viewed as Continued Professional Development for them because they get the time to consider their approaches to teaching.

In practice, Making Words Human might ask a pupil to consider a list of words and pick out “Which one would be the striker on a football team?” Or it might ask them to write a story about a word or letter going for a walk. And two years on from its first rollout, it’s having a measurable impact upon the performance of pupils at Key Stage 2 across the schools, with SATS’ statistics taken in June 2013 revealing the value added in terms of points progress. For example, in Year 6, 62.5 per cent achieved ‘well above average’ of national expectation; while in Year 4, 100 per cent achieved ‘above average’ of national expectation.

This has been backed by qualitative feedback from teachers who have talked about children engaging with ‘how words feel’ and in one memorable case, transforming a below-average boy with behavioural issues, into someone “captivated” by words. Min, with the help of Affinity (formerly Innovation for the Creative and Cultural Industries), has gone on to commission an artist to help her create ‘Punctuation Station’, bringing to life punctuation marks in the guises of circus performers - like ‘Momma Comma’ or the ‘Quotatwins’

And through a personal contact, she has gone on to apply her work into the professional practice of adult counselling. Developing an awareness training package called ‘Alive to Language’, Min has worked with a counsellor-trainer at the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists to roll out the course.

She said: “Its focus is upon fostering a deeper understanding of the personal use of words for both counsellors and patients to enhance that communication process. The idea is that it’s used as a joint exercise to help with expression and the exploring of feelings; as a diagnostic tool after the session; and again as a CPD tool for counsellors.”

With a book on its way and invitations to speak on the subject at King’s College London, the former children’s literature librarian is continuing to bring to life words and books for people of all ages.

On applying the work into other areas,

It’s been wonderful to expand this work from its narrow academic focus and apply it to education and counselling... this is a new way for us to think about the way words work in our society too!