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Text and discourse

Text is the product of language use held together by cohesive devices. The notion of text views a stretch of written language as the product of an identifiable authorial intention, and its relation to its context of culture as fixed and table. Text meaning is seen as identical with the semantic signs it is composed of: text explication is used to retrieve the author’s intended meaning, text deconstruction explores the associations evoked by the text. We do not take into consideration either what happens in the minds of the readers nor the social context of reception.

Discourse is the process of language use, whether it be spoken, written or printed, that includes writers, texts, and readers within a sociocultural context of meaning production and reception.

Coherence plays a particularly important role with poetic texts that are meant to engage the reader’s emotions and sensibility, but it can also be found in other written texts. Take, for example, the label found on aspirin bottles.

WARNING: Keep this and all medication out of the reach of childen. As with any drug, if you are pregnant or nursing a baby, seek the advice of a health professional before using this product. In the case of accidental overdosage, contact a physician or poison control centre immediately.

This text is coherent, it makes sense for the reader who knows from prior personal or vicarious experiences that drugs are bad both for children and for pregnant women,who understands the difference between a health professional and a physician, and who understands why you would go to the former if you are pregnant and to the latter if you had taken too much aspirin. In addition to prior experience, the reader makes sense of this text by near electrical wires, places off limits and dangerous substances. However, prior experience and prior texts are not sufficient to render this text coherent. Why is it entitled WARNING where the danger is not explicitly stated? Why should one go and seek help only in case of “accidental” overdose? Why does the text say “overdosage” instead of “overdose”? In order to make the text coherent, we have to draw on the two other contextual factors mentioned above: the text’s purpose, and its conditions of production.

The pharmaceutical company that issued this warning wants to avoid lawsuits, but it also wants to avoid spreading panic among aspirin users, who might thereby refrain from buying a product. Thus it does not like to highlight the word “dangerous” on its bottle, nor does it want to use the word ‘overdose” because of its too close association with the drug traffic scene. It wants to create the image of a reader as an intelligent mainstream person who could not possibly take an overdose of aspirin, unless by accident. The commercial and legal interests, i.e. the corporate culture, of the company have to be drawn into the interpretation of this text, in order to make it into coherent discourse.

One of the greatest sources of difficulty for foreign readers is less the internal cohesion of the text than the cultural coherence of the discourse. For example, a sentence like “ Although he was over 20 years old, he still lived at home” written for an American readership, draws on the readers’ cultural knowledge concerning young men’s independence from their families, but might not be self-evident for readers from a culture where young men continue to live at home well into their twenties. Conversely, a sentence like “I made spaghetti for dinner, because potatoes are so expensive nowadays”, written for a German reader, draws on the cultural fact that many Germans always have potatoes with their meals; it may sound odd to a reader with other cultural habits. The ability of the reader to interpret such logical connections shows how much coherence is dependent on the context of the literacy event itself.

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