Notes from the Text-Worlds Reading Group – 24th October 2018

The Text-Worlds Reading Group gathered for its first meeting on Wednesday 24th October at The University Arms, Sheffield. We began our discussion of the first three chapters of the earliest known complete manuscript for Paul Werth’s monograph, Text-Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. 2019 will mark 30 years since this book was published and Werth’s ideas continue to shape and inspire a huge range of research in cognitive linguistics, stylistics, and discourse analysis globally, as well as increasingly gaining ground as an approach to teaching English at all stages of the UK National Curriculum.

The manuscript the Text-Worlds Reading Group will be reading together over the coming weeks was completed in 1992, at which point Paul Werth distributed it to friends and colleagues for feedback. It is considerably longer than the revised version of the book which Paul Werth eventually submitted to his publishers, Longman, shortly before his death in 1995. That text was edited by Professor Mick Short at Lancaster University and eventually released in 1999. Although Werth had agreed to provide Longman with camera-ready copy, Mick was faced with considerable work to do to bring the text to a publishable state, including tracking down missing references, as well as tidying up formatting and layout. Mick had to edit or remove many of the illustrations and diagrams Werth had originally included in the book, too, as they were too numerous and too expensive to reproduce. Paul Werth also had a notoriously dry and mischievous sense of humour and several examples and footnotes which exhibited this (some of which were feared by the publisher to be potentially libellous!) were removed from the final text.

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Front cover of the 1992 manuscript for Text-Worlds

My own first contact with Werth’s work came when I was an MA student at the University of East Anglia in 1996, attempting to write my final dissertation on extended metaphor and hitting a block. Werth’s article on metaphor, published in the journal Language and Literature in 1994, changed not only how I thought about that subject, but how I thought about literary language and the experience of reading in its entirety. Re-reading the manuscript for Text-Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse in 2018 reminded me again of the excitement I felt at discovering Werth’s ideas as a student, of the astonishing ambition of his thinking, and of his infectious passion for his subject matter. That passion inspired me to write my PhD on his work and it continues to underpin all the research and teaching I do on Text World Theory three decades later. It was perhaps the scope of Werth’s claims about producing a fully context-sensitive account of discourse which grabbed my imagination most strongly as a student. As he states in his manuscript:

People who are interested in linguistic systems usually stop at the text, because they find the whole notion of tackling something as immense as context more than a little bit scary. There is too much of it, it is very complicated, and linguists have traditionally found great difficulty in knowing where to start… I firmly believe that we cannot afford to ignore context, not least because it is the source of very many of the problems thrown up by current approaches to language study.

This is still an exceptionally brave starting point for a monograph on linguistics in 2018, or indeed for any academic researcher embarking on a new enterprise. Other members of the reading group comment below on some of the aspects of Werth’s earliest draft of his book which interested them during our discussion.

From Sam Browse, Sheffield Hallam University:

For me, one of the most interesting things about the first few chapters is how Werth positions his work in relation to both generativist approaches and the (then) emergent cognitive perspective in linguistics. Rather than talking to his own academic “tribe”, you get the sense he is engaging with the whole gamut of opinion in the discipline (which is also quite intimidating – especially the sections on construction grammar which were edited out of the final monograph). As you would expect, Werth has plenty of criticism for the Chomskyan view, but he also takes aim at the inadequate treatment of context in cognitive linguistics – you are kept from getting too comfortable with any one position or school of thinking!

From Jess Norledge, University of Nottingham:

It’s not only Werth’s focus on context but also his outright refusal to de-emphasise emotion and culture which I find so inspiring, both in his response to the key features of cognitive science and when outlining the aims of the Text World Theory framework (Werth, 1992: 37-8). There have been several fascinating studies in recent years that have applied Text World Theory to discussions of readerly engagement, emotion and immersion that have stemmed from this pioneering decision to “emphatically not downgrade emotional, cultural and contextual matters” (Werth, 1992: 38, emphasis in original), and seeing this so clearly mapped out in his early draft was fantastic. It’s brilliant to know that even in ’92, Werth was very much on side – #TeamTWT

(The perplexed-looking crab in FIG 1.4 was also a delightful highlight!)

From Sara Whiteley, University of Sheffield:

One of the most intriguing things about reading Werth’s 1992 manuscript was scrutinising this draft alongside the 1999 book and noticing what had been left in or out. Much of the first three chapters were the same, with cuts seemingly motivated for brevity and relevance – for instance, the reduction of the section on cognitive grammar (1992 version: pp.69-72; 1999 version: pp.43-4) and construction grammar (1992 version: pp.74-86; 1999 version: pp.44-5). Nevertheless, it was interesting to see Werth engaging in more detail with cognitive grammars even in 1992, and we discussed just how forward-thinking and cutting-edge the work was at that time.
We also discussed what it must have been like for Werth to realise that generativism, the dominant linguistic paradigm in which he had been trained, could not answer the questions he had as a discourse grammarian/text linguist (1992: xii). Another interesting cut was a paragraph in which Werth reiterates his position in relation to generativism (“I do not want to create the impression of conducting a crusade against Generative Grammar…” 1992: 33). Re-reading the work, we discussed how, even though Werth ultimately rejected GG, his generativist training is still evident in some of the logic and scope of his arguments.

Another interesting cut was a paragraph from the Foreword which situated this volume in relation to Werth’s planned and completed publications. He notes that “the immediate forerunner of the present book” existed “only in the form of about 15 files on disk, would have been a monster” (1992: xv) and that to make its size more manageable, he turned it into “three slimmer volumes, of which the present book is the second” (1992: xv). The first volume, Werth suggests, would be concerned with theoretical issues and implications, and “the third volume (which I plan to embark on next) will consist of practical applications to English grammar” (1992: xv). It seems, therefore, that Werth regarded this book as one of a trio which were to set out his theoretical and practical vision for Text World Theory. The 1999 volume is sometimes criticised for the lack of expansiveness in its examples (Werth focuses mainly on narrative, literary texts in order to set out the parameters of the theory), but this perhaps makes more sense if we consider that Werth had in mind a third book that would set out the theory’s broader applications.

Finally, the extra illustrations in the 1992 version, which were left out of the 1999 book due to cost, provided rewarding glimpses of the personality of the author! (e.g. 1992: 2, 23, 36…)

The next meeting of the Text-Worlds Reading Group will take place on Wednesday 7th November at 8pm. If you would like to attend or read along with us remotely, please contact Professor Joanna Gavins for details of the venue and to arrange access to the manuscript.


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