Notes from the Text-Worlds Reading Group – 14th November 2018

The Text-Worlds Reading Group held their second meeting on Wednesday 14th November at The Bath Hotel in Sheffield. We discussed Chapter Four of Werth’s 1992 manuscript, which is the earliest known complete draft of his monograph, Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. This week’s blog is written by Sara Whiteley and there are contributions too from two students of the MA in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield: Jack Burrows and Kerry Miller.

Chapter Four of Werth’s text deals with the topic of ‘Knowledge’, and attempts to address the questions ‘What is knowledge, and where is it manifested?’ (1999: 94). Werth presents categorisations of the types of knowledge which might exist in the mind of an individual discourse participant, drawing on semantic and cognitive approaches to the subject. Knowledge is categorised based on its provenance, content, and the mode in which it is expressible.

As you would expect, some elements of the chapter are now dated – for instance, one group member pointed out Werth’s reference to the ‘shift of power’ that has been created by ‘the fax machine and the photocopier’ (1992: 63; 1999: 97). However, the questions and issues which Werth raises about the nature of knowledge still seem highly pertinent and remain largely unresolved today. Werth critiques Charles Fillmore and George Lakoff for failing to define the concept of a ‘frame’ (he describes a frame as ‘a hypothetical mental structure’, ‘an area of experience in a particular culture’ and as a ‘cognitive space’) (1992: 172-75; 1999: 104-7). He also tries to explain how frames are created from our conceptualizations of the actual world. He posits that situation types are a precursor to frames, and that frames are generalisations formed from situation types combined with cultural knowledge (1992: 181; 1999: Section 4.4.2). Overall, Werth argues that language and discourse play a crucial role in the formation of knowledge.

Figure 4.3

An interesting difference between the 1992 version of Chapter Four and the 1999 version was the presence of Figure 4.3 (1992: 177, see right), which diagrams the relationships between frames. Werth depicts the ‘marriage’ frame which underpins our understanding of the word ‘bachelor’. Other frames, which have a bearing on the main frame (such as a ‘divorce’ frame, ‘law’ frame, ‘sexuality’ frame and so on), are depicted around the edges. The diagram illustrates the interconnected nature of frame knowledge and the way that single words can evoke vast networks of potentially relevant experience.

The group spent some time discussing the different categories of knowledge which Werth identifies. In particular, we grappled with the differences between functional and propositional knowledge. We were also interested in the way that Werth characterises the ‘real’ or ‘actual’ world. Werth emphasises that human conceptualization is key in the formation of knowledge frames:

The relationship is not between the frame and the actual real-world phenomena, but between the frame and a conceptualization of the actual real-world phenomena.

(Werth 1992: 181; 1999: 110-1)

We noted that this idea that the ‘real world’ is mediated by human conceptualization is very important in Werth’s work.

Group members pointed out that the ‘discourse-world’ level of Text World Theory is often, erroneously, thought to be simply another way of saying ‘the real world’ or ‘actual world’. However, discourse-worlds are in fact the conceptualizations of discourse participants, which are created as they engage in linguistic communication. We noted that Text World Theory differs from Possible Worlds Theory quite significantly here. In Possible Worlds Theory it is acceptable to talk about ‘the actual world’ as an ontological realm, whereas in Text World Theory we are always dealing with conceptualizations in the minds of human beings rather than ontological absolutes.

Another reason that ‘the discourse-world’ is not simply ‘the real world’ is that discourse-worlds only exist during the production and comprehension of language. We worked up a couple of examples (based on our pub setting) as follows:

If Alice sat near Natalia in the back room of the Bath Hotel and said to her, ‘Nice weather we’ve been having…’, then both participants would conceptualise a discourse-world in which their interaction was taking place, and also construct text-worlds in order to represent the content of Alice’s utterance.

However, if Alice sat near Natalia in the back room of the Bath Hotel and the two didn’t communicate linguistically, then there would be no discourse-world. Text World Theory is a theory of language in use. Where there is no language, there is no need or use for Text World Theory – or at least not Text World Theory as characterised by Werth.

It is worth noting that some of the more multimodally-minded group participants were keen to challenge the idea that Text World Theory can only be applied to linguistic modes of communication. However, having some sense of the centrality of language in Text World Theory can help to understand the notion of ‘the discourse-world’.

It is expected that we will return to the nature of the discourse-world and knowledge in future discussions…!

Below are some further reflections on this week’s group by MA students, Jack Burrows and Kerry Miller.

Having begun postgraduate study just a few months ago, we felt incredibly fortunate to attend the Text-Worlds Reading Group, and be involved in the discussions that took place. The group discussed Chapter Four of Paul Werth’s 1992 manuscript which focused on setting out his ideas surrounding knowledge; how this is stored and utilised in reference to interpreting a text.

We found it particularly illuminating to consider Werth’s position in reference to generativist and cognitivist approaches. It was important to consider both Werth’s background as a generativist, and the context in which the 1992 manuscript was written. With cognitive grammar in its infancy, there seems more of a conscious effort on Werth’s part to retain the interest of, and persuade, generativists to this way of thinking. It was fascinating, and somewhat tragic, to read a manuscript that was produced in a time when Werth could not have known how cognitive grammar would develop in the years to come.

One criticism Werth raises in his chapter is that no previous work has explicitly defined the notion of knowledge frames, with theorists instead preferring to use examples to explain the concept (Werth 1999: 104). Perhaps surprisingly, due to his criticism of previous work, Werth also places a heavy emphasis on exemplification in order to explore the idea of a frame, alongside exploring how frames are created in order to unpack a definition. Werth comes to a definition of frames as ‘a distillation from a pattern of text worlds, representing complexes of situation-types and background knowledge’ (Werth 1999: 184). While this defines the evolution of a frame, it still fights shy of explaining what it actually is. In his 1992 manuscript, Werth certainly doesn’t include such an explicit definition as he does for other key terms, such as ‘text world’ on page 95. In these definitions, characteristic of the 1992 manuscript, the term and definition are emboldened, the latter also italicised, and followed by the word ‘definition’ in block capitals.

Figure 4.3, which explores the idea of frames and how they interact with each other, was cut from the final version of the book. As discussed in the group, this diagram may have been particularly useful as it demonstrates how frames do not work independently, but rather one piece of text invokes a number of frames that all work in combination in order to facilitate understanding. The diagram focuses on the use of the term ‘bachelor’, and it was brilliant to see Werth’s humour coming through in the 1992 manuscript in his justification of this example as ‘let us take bachelor (since everyone else does)’ (Werth 1992: 176).

The next meeting of the Text World Theory Reading Group will take place on Wednesday 21st November 2018 at 5.30pm. We will be reading Chapter Five of Werth’s manuscript. If you would like to attend or read along with us remotely, please contact Professor Joanna Gavins for details of the venue and/or to arrange access to the manuscript.

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