Language, Literature, and Critical Practice: Ways of Analysing Text

By David Birch | Go to book overview
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The critical study of language is a study not just of the structures of language and texts, but of the people and institutions that shape the various ways language means. In a functional theory of language, analysts are not just interested in what language is, but why language is; not just in what language means, but how language means. In the critical linguistics that has developed since the mid-1970s, which forms the base of Chapter 1 in this book and against which many of the ideas outlined in the other chapters are problematized, the assumption is that the relationship between the form and content of texts is not arbitrary or conventional, but that it is determined (and constrained) culturally, socially, and ideologically by the power of institutional/discursive formations. The choices and selections that producers of text therefore make from the system of language are principled choices, instituted by social, messy, 'real' worlds of discourse, not by idealized abstract worlds. The structures-the forms-of language do not pre-exist social and cultural processes; they are not encoded in some sort of psychological imprint. The forms, and hence meanings, of language are shaped and determined by institutional forces. Analysis of text, therefore, according to this way of thinking, is analysis of ideologically loaded structures and meanings, not of innocent, arbitrary, random structures. Answering the question of how texts mean therefore answers the question of how institutions mean. This is therefore analysis concerned with discourse as process, not with language as idealized product.

Paul Ricoeur argues that structuralist linguistics excluded too many important aspects of language phenomena, most importantly the act of speaking, that is, language as performance (Ricoeur, 1981). Analysis of text that marginalizes language as meaningful activity therefore marginalizes (and, as we have seen, often excludes) the primary aim of language, which is to say something about something to someone, in order to do some-


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Language, Literature, and Critical Practice: Ways of Analysing Text


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