Text World Theory is a cognitive-linguistic model of human discourse processing. Its theoretical underpinnings can be traced to a number of diverse academic disciplines, including possible worlds theory, cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, and stylistics.
The basic premise of Text World Theory is that human beings process and understand all discourse by constructing mental representations of it in their minds. Text World Theory aims to provide the analytical tools necessary for the systematic examination and discussion of these mental representations, or text-worlds.
The text-world approach to discourse was originally developed by Professor Paul Werth during the 1980s and 1990s. As well as publishing a series of articles and book chapters on the framework during this time, Werth provided a detailed account of the fundamental workings of the text-world approach in his monograph Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. Following Werth’s untimely death in 1995, this book was published posthumously by Longman in 1999. Text-Worlds is now out of print, but a full pdf of the book is available to download here.*
Contemporary Text World Theory
Werth claimed to have devised a methodological framework capable of accounting for the cognitive processes behind the production and interpretation of all forms of human communication: from telephone conversation to dramatic performance, from church sermons to newspaper reports. These ambitious objectives have continued to generate great interest in Text World Theory far beyond their author’s lifetime.
In recent years, Text World Theory has been tested, enhanced, and extended by a growing number of text-world researchers and students. This work has been led in particular by Professor Joanna Gavins at the University of Sheffield. Having spent years revising and refining the text-world approach, Professor Gavins published a comprehensive overview of the framework, Text World Theory: An Introduction, in 2007. This book is available to view here.
Contemporary Text World Theory continues to be developed and augmented by researchers working on, among other things, political discourse; newspaper language; dramatic discourse; legal language; oral narrative; multimodal and experimental literature; children’s reading; book group talk; and poetry. It is also gaining increasing currency as an concept-led approach to the teaching of English in UK classrooms at Key Stages 2 and 3.
Text-Worlds at the University of Sheffield
The University of Sheffield is home to a thriving community of text-world researchers, all of whom are members of the wider Literary Linguistics Research Cluster in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. You can find out more about joining them as a postgraduate student here.
The University of Sheffield also houses the Text World Theory Special Collection in its Western Bank library. You can find out more about this unique research resource on our Special Collection page.
* Please note that the original publisher of Text-Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse has now released the copyright of this text back to the estate of Professor Paul Werth. Extensive effort has been made, by numerous researchers and publishers over many years, to trace the estate, but without success. The full text is therefore made available here in the interest of academic research and with the aim of making Werth’s important work openly accessible to as wide an audience as possible.