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8 - The context theory of interpretation

"Relax. Concentrate.
Dispel every other thought.
Let the world around you fade"1.

In the previous unit, we have seen some aspects of semiosis strictly connected to a psychic, subjective vision. Let us now take a look at Ogden and Richards'' context theory of interpretation.
  After sensory recognition and the distinction between prose text and poetry text, the initial sign is identified with a word, a change occurring thanks to the new psychological context of the sign. While recognizing a sound, or a shape, as such, involves a context consisting of similar, previously experienced sound and visual sensations, recognizing a sign "as a word requires that it form a context with further experiences2" other than sounds or graphemes. For this to occur, we must learn to associate a sign to experiences. This kind of association occurs in our minds, often in an unconscious way, even before we have learned to speak.
  Without realizing it, we learn to classify the occurrence of a given word as a sign, linked to a reaction similar to those elicited by the associated experiences. In this case, too, interpretation is unconscious, provided that no difficulties arise, because then the perceptual automatism can get stuck and conscious interpreting procedures come into play.
  In a sense we could say that the fewer difficulties we face in understanding words, the less we are conscious of the processes we use in order to do so, and the less equipped we are to address a deviant exposure to words (in the case of spoken language a pronunciation different from that we are used to, in the case of written language a spelling that varies from the one we are used to; in both cases, abnormal syntactic uses, i.e. unusually constructed sentences, with reference to what each of us considers the standard construction).
  Once a sound is identified as a word, its importance as a sound is not placed in the background. Some phonic (tone, volume, speed, timbre, intonation, musicality) and graphic features (type-face/handwriting, spacing, dimension, layout, graphics) become part of the message content and, as much as two encounters with the same word can prove to be different, they must share that common character necessary to identify them as occurrences of the same word. Only thanks to this shared part the two words have a similar psychic context and hence can be perceived in a similar way.
  Such psychic contextualization occurs, particularly in the first, simpler stages, in an unconscious way. "Difficulty or failure at any level of interpretation leads in most cases to the re-emergence of the lower levels into consciousness"3, and to a preoccupation with such usually automatic mechanisms, distracting from the interpretation of the message at a pragmatic, functional, outer level.
  When is the case of more complex utterances, of more developed languages, new questions arise. The example chosen by Ogden and Richards is that of the expression "my relatives", an abstract notion because it implies something more than having known single subjects and having learnt their names. The acquaintance with single relatives does not necessarily imply any knowledge of the degree of consanguinity, nor can it be taken for granted the kind of relation usually existing in a given culture between two relatives in the different possible cases. The notion is, therefore, the result of different groupings of experiences; such difference is what causes the common elements to be evident by contrast.

This process of selection and elimination is always at work in the acquisition of a vocabulary and the development of thought. It is rare for words to be formed into contexts with non-symbolic experience directly, for as a rule they are learnt only through other words4.

We learn to use our language as we learn the language itself; it is not a simple matter of acquiring synonyms or alternative expressions, but to learn the nuances of many senses and particular connotations created by the context, such activity of identification of affinities and differences is endless.
  Such activity continually refines our abstraction capabilities, teaches us to use metaphors, "the primitive symbolization of abstraction". Metaphor is described as the application of a single verbal expression to a group of objects that are different but share something. The use of metaphor is not considered from the stylistic, but from the cognitive point of view: it helps the identification of a similar relation in another group. For all practical purposes, metaphor is seen as a signification relation that appropriates the context of another relation.
  When we speak of "a sea of troubles", we are concerned just with a part of the sea, while other parts are discarded. If we are nor able to think at the sea as an abstract entity, we cannot understand what the expression "a sea of troubles" can mean. The abstraction capability necessary to get to the metaphor is just the same, in the two British researchers'' opinion, as that necessary to put an adjective near a noun, or to use prepositions or verbs. And the metaphorical aspects of a great part of language prove that, the higher the level of education of an individual, more words acquire a context through other words. The down side of such sophisticated acquisition of meanings lies in the fact that meanings, built on such abstract references, are bound to muddle our minds more often.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter''s Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

OGDEN C. K. e RICHARDS I. A. The Meaning of Meaning. A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960 [first edition 1923].

1 Calvino 1998, p. 3.
2 A general term here used to cover sensations, images, feelings, etc., and perhaps unconscious modifications of our mental state. [authors'' note]
3 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 211.
4 Ogden e Richards 1960, p. 213.