Bob Dylan is a subtle master of the English language

American Singer Bob Dylan during his tour through West Germany at the Dortmunder Westfalenhalle, June 27, 1978.
American Singer Bob Dylan during his tour through West Germany at the Dortmunder Westfalenhalle, June 27, 1978.
Image: AP Photo/Proepper
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American folk singer Bob Dylan was awarded today the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Dylan, the first musician to win the honor, is a ”linguistic trendsetter,” says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language writer. “Dylan’s linguistic uniqueness lies in his ability to combine diverse lyrical elements into an endlessly inventive style,” Zimmer explains in an email.

There are many strands to this inventive style. For one, Dylan challenges standard rules of usage: His use of the verb “lay” in his 1969 song “Lay, Lady, Lay” incensed grammar traditionalists, who argue that the verb “lie” is actually the correct term.

Dylan also fuses his lyrics with older linguistic constructions, as Zimmer explains:

The Times They Are A-Changin’‘ not only uses the ‘a-‘ verbal prefix once common in many dialects of vernacular English, it also uses the pronoun ‘they’ in a style typical of older ballads, to emphasize the subject. The ‘way’ in ‘Go ‘way from my window’ in ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ is another example of an older non-standard usage that Dylan used for modern poetic purposes.

In 2007, the Oxford English Dictionary updated its entry for the verb “to prophesize” to include Dylan’s use of it (the term’s origins date back to 1816). “Come critics and writers who prophesize with your pen,” Dylan sang in “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. As Zimmer explained in a 2011 blogpost, the usage of “prophesize” has surged since the early 1960s, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks the frequency of a phrase’s usage in books over time.

Zimmer also points to Dylan’s use of the words “philosophize” in the 1964 song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “negativity” in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” released in 1965. Dylan did not invent either word, but Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that “negativity” became more popular than another noun, “negativism,” after Dylan’s rise to fame in the 1960s.

For Kevin J. H. Dettmar, a professor of English at Pomona College and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, the musician’s greatest achievement has been creating “something like a new popular music genre, using the sonic and rhythmic resources of poetry.” Dylan’s songs pack a powerful punch, and much of this “derives from his delivery (phrasing, vocal timbre, emphasis) and the music itself, which the words ride on,” Dettman says.

“[Dylan] expanded the expressive power of popular song, and therefore, of the language—in part, by giving American popular song permission to take itself seriously,” he says. “In moving from folk to rock, he brought folk’s social concerns, and something of the 1960s introspective tendencies, and figured out how to make them into resources for popular music.”

Dylan’s linguistic legacy is not restricted just to art—New York Times reports, the 75-year-old also happens to be the most cited songwriter in US judicial opinions.