Definition and Examples of Text in Language Studies

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In linguistics, the term text refers to:

  1. The original words of something written, printed, or spoken, in contrast to a summary or paraphrase.
  2. A coherent stretch of language that may be regarded as an object of critical analysis.

Text linguistics refers to a form of discourse analysis—a method of studying written or spoken language—that is concerned with the description and analysis of extended texts (those beyond the level of the single sentence). A text can be an example of written or spoken language, from something as complex as a book or legal document to something as simple as the body of an email or the words on the back of a cereal box.

In the humanities, different fields of study concern themselves with different forms of texts. Literary theorists, for example, focus primarily on literary texts—novels, essays, stories, and poems. Legal scholars focus on legal texts such as laws, contracts, decrees, and regulations. Cultural theorists work with a wide variety of texts, including those that may not typically be the subject of studies, such as advertisements, signage, instruction manuals, and other ephemera.

Text Definition

Traditionally, a text is understood to be a piece of written or spoken material in its primary form (as opposed to a paraphrase or summary). A text is any stretch of language that can be understood in context. It may be as simple as one word (such as a stop sign) or as complex as a novel. Any sequence of sentences that belong together can be considered a text.

Text refers to content rather than form; for example, if you were talking about the text of "Don Quixote," you would be referring to the words in the book, not the physical book itself. Information related to a text, and often printed alongside it—such as an author's name, the publisher, the date of publication, etc.—is known as paratext.

The idea of what constitutes a text has evolved over time. In recent years, the dynamics of technology—especially social media—have expanded the notion of the text to include symbols such as emoticons and emojis. A sociologist studying teenage communication, for example, might refer to texts that combine traditional language and graphic symbols.

Texts and New Technologies

The concept of the text is not a stable one. It is always changing as the technologies for publishing and disseminating texts evolve. In the past, texts were usually presented as printed matter in bound volumes such as pamphlets or books. Today, however, people are more likely to encounter texts in digital space, where the materials are becoming "more fluid," according to linguists David Barton and Carmen Lee:

"Texts can no longer be thought of as relatively fixed and stable. They are more fluid with the changing affordances of new media. In addition, they are becoming increasingly multimodal and interactive. Links between texts are complex online, and intertextuality is common in online texts as people draw upon and play with other texts available on the web."

An example of such intertextuality can be found in any popular news story. An article in the New York Times, for example, may contain embedded tweets from Twitter, links to outside articles, or links to primary sources such as press releases or other documents. With a text such as this, it is sometimes difficult to describe what exactly is part of the text and what is not. An embedded tweet, for instance, may be essential to understanding the text around it—and therefore part of the text itself—but it is also its own independent text. On social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs and Wikipedia, it is common to find such relationships between texts.

Text Linguistics

Text linguistics is a field of study where texts are treated as communication systems. The analysis deals with stretches of language beyond the single sentence and focuses particularly on context, i.e. information that goes along with what is said and written. Context includes such as things as the social relationship between two speakers or correspondents, the place where communication occurs, and non-verbal information such as body language. Linguists use this contextual information to describe the "socio-cultural environment" in which a text exists.

Sources

  • Barton, David, and Carmen Lee. "Language Online: Investigating Digital Texts and Practices." Routledge, 2013.
  • Carter, Ronald, and Michael McCarthy. "Cambridge Grammar of English." Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Ching, Marvin K. L., et al. "Linguistic Perspectives on Literature." Routledge, 2015.