Context in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A person is shown explaining something to a couple of other people

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Pronunciation: KON-text

Adjective: contextual.

Etymology: From the Latin, "join" + "weave"

In communication and composition, context refers to the words and sentences that surround any part of a discourse and that help to determine its meaning. Sometimes called linguistic context.

In a broader sense, context may refer to any aspects of an occasion in which a speech-act takes place, including the social setting and the status of both the speaker and the person who's addressed. Sometimes called social context.

"Our choice of words is constrained by the context in which we use the language. Our personal thoughts are shaped by those of others," says author Claire Kramsch.

Observations

"In common use almost every word has many shades of meaning, and therefore needs to be interpreted by the context," says textbook writer Alfred Marshall.

"The mistake is to think of words as entities. They depend for their force, and also for their meaning, on emotional associations and historical overtones, and derive much of their effect from the impact of the whole passage in which they occur. Taken out of their context, they are falsified. I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to some incongruous matter which quite distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether," says Alfred North Whitehead, British mathematician and philosopher.

Text and Context

"[British linguist M.A.K. Halliday] maintains that meaning should be analyzed not only within the linguistic system, but also taking into account the social system in which it occurs. In order to accomplish this task, both text and context must be considered. Context is a crucial ingredient in Halliday's framework: Based on the context, people make predictions about the meanings of utterances," says Patricia Mayes, PhD, an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Linguistic and Nonlinguistic Dimensions of Context

According to the book, "Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon," "Recent work in a number of different fields has called into question the adequacy of earlier definitions of context in favor of a more dynamic view of the relationship between linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of communicative events. Instead of viewing context as a set of variables that statically surround strips of talk, context and talk are now argued to stand in a mutually reflexive relationship to each other, with talk, and the interpretive work it generates, shaping context as much as context shapes talk."


"Language is not merely a set of unrelated sounds, clauses, rules, and meanings; it is a total coherent system of these integrating with each other, and with behavior, context, universe of discourse, and observer perspective," says American linguist and anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike.

Vygotsky's Influence on Studies of Context in Language Use

According to writer, Larry W. Smith, "Although [Belarusian psychologist Lev] Vygotsky did not write extensively specifically about the concept of context, all of his work implies the importance of context both at the level of individual speech acts (whether in inner speech or social dialogue) and at the level of historical and cultural patterns of language use. Vygotsky's work (as well as that of others) has been an impetus in the development of the recognition of the need to pay close attention to context in studies of language use. For example, an interactionist approach following Vygotsky is readily compatible with recent developments in such linguistics- and language-associated fields as sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, and the ethnography of communication precisely because Vygotsky recognized the importance of both immediate contextual constraints and the wider social, historical, and cultural conditions of language use."

Sources

Goodwin, Charles and Alessandro Duranti. "Rethinking Context: An Introduction," in Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Kramsch, Claire. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Marshall, Alfred. Principles of Economics. Rev. ed, Prometheus Books, 1997.

Mayes, Patricia. Language, Social Structure, and Culture. John Benjamins, 2003.

Pike, Kenneth L. Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics. University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Smith, Larry W. "Context." Sociocultural Approaches to Language and Literacy: An Interactionist Perspective. Edited by Vera John-Steiner, Carolyn P. Panofsky, and Larry W. Smith. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Whitehead, Alfred North. "Philosophers Do Not Think in a Vacuum." Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Recorded by Lucien Price. David R. Godine, 2001.