Topic 31 – Text and context. Text types: main criteria for text typology. Register.

Topic 31 – Text and context. Text types: main criteria for text typology. Register.

The traditional concern of linguistic analysis has been the construction of sentences, but in recent years there has been an increasing interest in analysing the way sentences work in sequence to produce coherent sketches of language. Following that interest, within this topic I am going to deal with texts. I am going to divide the topic into four different sections. I will begin by establishing a difference between text and context, explaining each of them. Then I will I will explain the criteria for the classifying of texts. In my third section, I will offer a classification of the different types of texts than can be analysed. And finally, I will deal with the notion of register.

Let’s start with my first section, dealing with text and context. Text and contexts are aspects of the same process. There is text and there is other text that accompanies it: text that “goes with”, namely, context. This notion of what is “with the text” goes beyond of what is said and written: it includes other non-verbal going on the environment in which a text unfolds. So it serves to make a bridge between the text and the situation in which the text actually occurs.

I am going to deal with context first for the reason that, in real life, contexts precede texts. The situation is prior to the discourse that relates to it. The term context means, literally, accompanying text, and van Dijk defines it as “the state of affairs of a communicative situation in which communicative events take place”. For a very long time, the word context in English referred to the words and sentences before and after the particular sentence one was looking at, that is, to the linguistic context. However, nowadays, context is mainly understood following the notion of context of situation, introduced by Malinowski. The context of situation refers to all the extra-linguistic factors that have some importance on the text itself. These external factors affect the choices that the speaker or writer makes on the basis of the nature of the audience, the medium, the purpose of the communication and so on. The context of situation is made up of all the phenomena which affect the discourse. For instance, in face-to-face interaction, the context of situation includes the immediate and wider environment in which the text actually occurs, such as the classroom in the case of a teaching discourse, the shop or market in a sales transaction, the workshop in the case of a discussion about a gearbox replacement, etc. We can say that the context of situation is related to the material, social and ideological environment where words are uttered.

Taking into account the context of situation is essential for the adequate understanding of the text. If you discuss gearbox replacement while on top of a mountain, the precise fact of the altitude may have little bearing on the discourse (on the other hand, it might), but the fact that there is no engine present is likely to be very significant. In addition to the physical location, there is the location in time of the event: time in history, time of the year and time of day may play a determining role.
The interactants also play a part in the context of situation. The people who are discussing gearbox replacement, their ages, nationalities, gender and especially their social roles on this occasion (for example, mechanic and car-owner; apprentice mechanic and skilled mechanic; teacher and student; two non-expert car-owners; friends or strangers) may all be significant.
Every immediate situation is located in a cultural context. The context of culture is an intricate complex combination of various social phenomena involving historical and geographical setting but also more general aspects like the field of the activity: education, medicine, provision of goods and services in exchange for money. Car maintenance discourse in a highly hierarchical society may be different from that which takes place in a relatively egalitarian society (if there is such a thing). Classroom discourse takes place within a wider cultural context of, say, university education or secondary school education, or slightly more specifically African university education, or Kenyan University education. The discipline in question also plays a part in the context of culture: thus a physics lecture takes place within the cultural practices and traditions of the field of physics at large as well as in a particular education system or institution.

Any piece of text, either spoken or written, will carry with it indications of its context. We only have to hear or read a section of it to know where it comes from. Given a text, we should be able to say something about the context of situation that produced it. The same happens the other way round: given a context of situation, we should be able to predict the type of text which it generates.

A final remark about context is its dynamic character. A context is not just one possible world-state, but a sequence of world-states. The situations do not remain identical in time, but change. The actual context is defined by the period of time and place where the common activities of speaker and hearer are realized, and which satisfy the properties of “here” and “now”.

Up to this point I have been dealing with the notion of context, which, as I have previously said, is prior to the text. Now I am going to move on to deal with the notion of text. There are many different definitions of text depending on the perspective we adopt. In the simplest way perhaps, we can define text by saying that it is language that is functional, that is, language that is doing some job in some context. Following Halliday and Hasan, the word text in linguistic is used to refer to any passage, spoken or written, of whatever length, that does form a unified whole. Therefore, a text is not defined by its size, but by its form. We could say that a text is best regarded not as a grammatical unit, but as a unit of language in use, that is, as a semantic unit. If we take this into account, we could say that, although when we write it down a text looks as though it is made of words and sentences, it is really made of meanings, despite the fact that these meanings have to be expressed or coded in words.

The property of being a text is given by textual features such as texture and ties. First of all, the concept of texture expresses in itself the property of “being a text” and this is what distinguishes a text from something that is not a text. The resources that English has for creating texture are called ties. Halliday and Hasan define ties as the term used to refer to a single instance of cohesive relation (anaphora, cataphora, reference). The concept of a tie makes it possible to analyse a text in terms of its cohesive properties and give a systematic account of its patterns of texture.

Up to this point I have dealt with the notions of text and context. Now I am going to deal with the criteria for the classifying of texts. First of all, we should have to ask ourselves: What makes a sequence of sentences a text? Seven criteria or standards are given for textuality, that is, criteria that a sequence of sentences must meet in order to qualify as a text:

  • Cohesion is the connection which results when the interpretation of a textual element is dependent on another element in the text.

The store no longer sold porcelain figures. It used to…

The interpretation of “it” is dependent on that of “store”, and the interpretation of “used to” is dependent on “sold porcelain figures”.

  • Coherence is the connection which is brought about by something outside the text. This “something” is usually knowledge which a listener or reader is assumed to possess. The best way to illustrate coherence is giving an example of incoherence. Chomsky gave the following example: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The listener’s knowledge tells him that the utterance is non-sensical.
  • Intentionality means that writes and speakers must have the conscious intention of achieving specific goals with their message, for instance, conveying information or arguing an opinion.
  • Acceptability requires that a sequence of sentences be acceptable to the intended audience in order to qualify as a text. For instance, for a teacher it is not acceptable to be told: “You sit down and shut up”.
  • Informativeness is necessary in discourse. A text must contain new information. If a reader knows everything contained in a text, then it does not qualify. Likewise, if a reader does not understand what is in a text, it also does not qualify as a text.
  • Situationality is essential to textuality. It is important to consider the situation in which the text has been produced and dealt with. For instance, you don’t speak about football in church.
  • Intertextuality means that a sequence of sentences is related by form or meaning to other sequences of sentences. For instance, a chapter is a text related to other chapters of a book.

In order to chart the differences between kinds of texts, classification is necessary. Together with the criteria which a sequence of sentences must meet in order to qualify as a text, I am going to mention some criteria that help us distinguish between the different text types:

  • Literary devices: there are some basic principles of literature that can be applied to all types of texts and that may help us distinguish between them. The subject of a text is expressed in terms of a theme; the writer approaches this subject from a specific point of view, both physical and psychological, and from a definite perspective; the writer’s attitude towards a subject is expressed through his voice, real and assumed, which is marked by a distinctive tone. Satire, irony, hyperbole… are special attitudes and tones. Furthermore, the voice of the writer speaks through his style, which essentially is a product of language, the choice and combination of words, sentence structures…

Taking all this into account, we could say that theme, point of view, perspective, attitude, tone and style are elements that help us to distinguish different types of texts.

  • Order and sequence: the notion of order and sequence can be logical, chronological, special, psychological…
  • Text structure: by studying the textual and lexical elements of text types one can learn to regularly recognize the overall structure of a text. The inclusion or exclusion of elements such as heads, arguments, epigraphs, salutations, etc may give us clues about the type of text we are dealing with.
  • Purpose: text can be classified along with their function, that is, according to their contribution to human interaction.

After presenting the different criteria for the classification of texts, I am going to move on to my third section and to include an overview of the different text types. Users of a language can usually distinguish between different kinds of discourse, and people also have opinions on the suitability of given kinds of discourse for specific types of messages. Many attempts have been made to design a classification system. A large number of these attempts are reminiscent of literary scientific research done in the area of genre theory, in which four genres –fairy tale, myth, saga and legend – were distinguished. The different classifications depend, once more, upon the perspective adopted. Texts can be classified according to purpose, according to type or mode, etc. I am going to follow Egon Werlich’s discourse typology, according to which five basic or ideal forms are distinguished that are fundamental to discourse types. Werlich’s basic forms of texts are:

  • Descriptive: the purpose of a descriptive text is to describe and present attributes of people, animal, items or places, or to provide a detailed, neutral presentation of a literary situation. Descriptive texts tend to be organized in terms of space. However, there is set no template for description, although there seem to be common ways of describing particular things. For example, description of objects tend to be based around the component parts; descriptions of places seem often to follow a particular visual orientation (bird’s-eye view, al walk around a place, etc.) while the description of a plant, for example, will typically follow a bottom-up orientation (from roots to leaves). Examples of texts that may fit into the descriptive texts are brochures, descriptions of animal, descriptions of scientific and technical concepts…We may distinguish different modes of description, such as scientific, literary, static or dynamic. Descriptive texts usually aim at precision and clarity. The vocabulary used can be expected to be precise and exact, the overall style neutral, unemotional and sometimes technical and dry. Basic components of description are specifying, classifying and defining. Moreover, much description in the Western tradition is based on relating what is being described to something else.
  • Narrative: It is often considered to be the most universal genre. The purpose of a narrative text is to entertain, to tell a story, or to provide an aesthetic literary experience. Narrative texts are based on life experiences. The genres that fit narrative text structures are folktales (legends, myths, realistic tales…), fiction (contemporary, historic, science fiction….) and fantasy. The main feature of narrative texts is the telling of a story of events or actions that have their inherent chronological order, usually aimed at presenting facts. This story telling involves the participation of elements such as characters and characterization, setting, plot, conflict and theme. With minor differences, it has been found that the template for narratives is universal, and will include the following:
    • An abstract (e.g. a title) or an opening remark (e.g. “Did I tell you about…?
    • The orientation, including time, place and character identification.
    • The goal (I wanted to marry the princess)
    • The problem (But the Queen did not like me)
    • Steps to resolve the problem
    • Resolution or climax
    • Coda (and they lived happily ever after) or moral / lesson to be learned.

Instances of narrative texts are novels, short stories, poetry, drama… Narrative texts are usually organized in terms of time. Typical language components of narrative texts are time and place indicators, copular sentences, presentatives (There is / are), sequence of temporarily ordered relative clauses, and stative and intransitive verbs.

  • Explanatory: explanatory texts are usually written in attempts at analyzing, explaining, describing and presenting facts, events and processes that may be complicated. Examples may be a brochure, lab procedures, government documents… Their structure is mainly determined by logical coherence, but aspects of time and space may be also quite important depending on the subject-matter. An expository text should be fairly detailed and precise in order to convey accurate and objective information. The language used is neutral, objective and analytical. You would not expect to find emotionally loaded terms or subjective comments.
  • Instructive or procedure: instructive texts tell the reader what to do in a clearly specified situation, usually referring to future activities. The author of an instructive text assumes that the reader knows very well what he wants to do, but he needs to be told how to do it. A typical example of an instructive text would be a recipe in a cookery book. Procedural discourse usually consists of a set of ordered steps. These steps may be marked with enumerative or temporal markers. The author’s style and choice of words are usually unemotional and objective, and the style is simple, straight-forward and aimed at precision. Syntax is dominated by imperatives and sentences in the passive voice.

I would like to mention that some authors include expository and instructive texts within the same group.

  • Argumentative: argumentative texts are intended to convince or persuade the reader of a certain point of view, or to understand the author’s reasons for holding certain views on a matter under discussion. Argumentative texts include demonstration brochures, government speeches, debates, face-to-face discussions, etc. The author will analyse the question or problem he wishes to discuss and will present his own opinion to the reader, along with the arguments that led him to that opinion. The language used by the author will reflect his personal views on the subject-matter. It is not neutral and makes use of devices such as irony and sarcasm, as well as rather emotional terminology. The classical template is introduction, explanation of the case under consideration, outline of the argument, proof, refutation and conclusion. However, there are many possible variants.

Up to this point I have dealt with the notions of text and context, with the criteria for the classification of text and with the different text types. Now I am going to move on to my last section, dealing with register. In order to define register, I am going to establish a difference between style, dialect and register. All this variation may be found in all types of text, and may help us to identify them. A given language is not used homogenously. We find some regional variations and some variations associated to individual speakers. If you carefully record someone speaking you will find that there is still patterned variation in the pronunciation of a single phoneme, in the choice of words, and in grammar. A first useful explanation is provided by the notion of style and the related dimension of formality. At times, we are more careful and at times we are more relaxed in our speech or writing. This varying level of attention to variety forms a natural continuum. Most accounts of language now make some references to levels of stylistic variation. In bilingual communities, these stylistic levels may be marked by switching from one variety to another. For instance, officials in Switzerland who use Swiss German in intimate and casual circumstances move to High German for informal and formal speech. The commonly accepted explanation for this stylistic variation is the care that speakers and writers take with their expression. The more formal the situation, the more attention we pay to our language and so we are more likely to conform to the favoured and educated norms of our society. Moreover, a speaker who controls more than one variety chooses a level of speech according to the audience he or she is addressing. Related to this is the concept of accommodation; we automatically adjust our speech to be more like that of our interlocutor.

Whereas style refers to differences in the degree of formality, dialect concerns variations that are located regionally or socially. A third set of variation concerns the special register especially marked by a special set of vocabulary (technical terminology) associated with a profession or occupation or other defined social group and forming part of its jargon or in-group variety. People who work at a particular trade or occupation develop new terms for new concepts. Phrases like hacking and surfing the net have no obvious meaning to those who are not keeping up with the computer revolution. A specialized jargon serves not just to label new and needed concepts, but to establish bonds between members of the in-group and enforce boundaries for outsiders. If you cannot understand my jargon, you don’s belong to my group. For instance, thieves and underworld jargons, sometimes called cant, whose goal is to make it hard for the outsider to understand conversations.

Dialects, styles and registers as I have presented them are ways of labelling varieties of language. The starting point of this classification is linguistic variation, which I have attempted to explain by associating it with a specific set of social features. I might choose to work in the reverse direction, by classifying social situations, and then naming the variety that is suitable for it. A register is a variety of language most likely to be used in a specific situation and with particular roles and statuses involved. Examples may be toasts at a wedding, sports broadcast… A register is marked by choices of vocabulary and of other aspects of style.

To sum up, I have divided this topic into four different section, dealing with the notions of text and context, the criteria for the classifying of texts, the different types of texts, and the concept of register. As a final word I would like to say that, although the notion of text has not received much attention up to recent times, much work is being devoted to it at present. For this reason, all the aspects covered in this topic are rather blurry, and it is possible to find many different theories, terminologies and opinions, although I have tried to concentrate on the most representative ones.