Analysing Texts

Detailed and subtle textual analysis required you to link two key things:

  • Knowledge of linguistic terminology, preferably detailed knowledge
  • Understanding of context and meaning

This means labelling features of texts and explaining why they are there. It does not mean feature spotting or ‘translating’ the text for us in a simple way.

For example, look at this extract from an email from a well-known pizza delivery company, sent in January:

“The text uses a semantic field of temperature”. 

“The text tries to sell the offer by contrasting the hot pizza to the cold weather, making it sound more tempting.”

Both these points are correct, and could be credited on the language spec (one for AO1 and one for AO3), but neither goes far enough. Even together, though, they still are only an average point. A higher-band student would tie together more than one linguistic method/framework, and bring context and meaning together more clearly…

“Using adjectives e.g. ‘frosty’, ‘arctic’ and the adjectival phrase ‘piping hot’ from a semantic field of temperature allows the text to trade on the climate, using pragmatics to contrast the weather with the pizza arriving from the company’s trademark quick delivery. This reminds the customer of the freshness as well as the heat of their pizzas when delivered, which the text seals with the non-verbal ‘mmmm’.”

For the AQA exam papers in English Language, the Textual Analysis tasks also require you to talk about representation, which is something many students find difficult and therefore is naturally something which helps us to separate out the higher level candidates. To help that to be you, try to remember to ask yourself:

  • How are people represented in this text? Which people?
  • How is the reader addressed? What is assumed about them?
  • How does each writer/speaker represent themselves?

E.g. above, the company represents itself as quite fun and informal through the lexis. Which words and/or phrases would you analyse to make this point as fully as possible?

Persona and Narrative

This is a productive framework to use in comparative analysis as it can be applied to the range of texts well.  At a basic level, the person of pronouns (i.e. first person, third person etc) can be commented on for this approach.
For literary texts, look at the persona used and/or the character(s) created.  You’ll need to examine the language used in terms of how it contributes to these aspects.  For example, any use of dialect or unusual expression is worth noting and also whether the audience is addressed directly.

When working with a novel or a narrative poem, you need to be aware of the type of narration:

  • An intradiegetic narrator is involved in the story s/he is telling.
  • An extradiegetic narrator is an onlooker, not taking part in the story s/he is relating.
  • Chronological narrative runs in time order: first this happened, then this, then this. This might also be described as linear.
  • Analepsis is the term for flashback – a glimpse of the past
  • Prolepsis is the term for flashforward – a jump to a future time

In poetry, how is the persona created? Is it obviously a fictional creation (e.g. in a dramatic monologue), an exaggerated aspect of the poet themselves or something like an ‘everyman’ representation? How is the reader supposed to relate to the poem’s voice? Are we meant to sympathise, react against them or are we at some point in between? Which features lead us to this?

In transcripts, this framework should prompt you to look at how each person comes across.  Who has the most/least status, or is it a symmetrical (equal) conversation?  Who asks questions, or tells others what to do?  Do speakers have any interesting individual features, e.g. dialect forms, particular fillers they use etc?  What can you tell about the people from the way they interact?

For non-fiction and media texts, the thing to look at is the voice.  By this, we mean how the text puts itself across.  Does it address the audience directly?  Use first person pronouns?  Is it an authoritative voice?  An entertaining one?  What kind of relationship does it create with the audience?

Form

This framework, as a literary concept, is concerned with the shape of a text.  In analysing poems, you would look for patterns in rhyme and rhythm, while in longer literary texts, this might be issues of narrative structure – e.g. is it chronologically presented.

Whenever you’re commenting on form, it’s not going to be enough to say what the form is (just like you shouldn’t content yourself with identifying who the audience is) – the point is the effect that this has on the language. How is the text constructed and how is this related to formal considerations or conventions of the form? Even more interesting, has the writer broken with formal or generic conventions or borrowed some from a different form to make some kind of point?

Of course, one of the key things you need to do in Language or Lang-Lit assessments is compare texts that aren’t alike, and you may find yourself having to apply this framework to a broad range of texts.  Here’s some ideas on what to look for:

In transcripts of spontaneous speech, you should look at topic management and speech structures.  For example: whose topics get talked about (this should give you some idea of where the status in the conversation lies); how are new topics introduced; are all the topics related; are there structures like adjacency pairs/three-part exchanges; is there simultaneous speech and what kind is it.

In media articles, you would mostly be looking at the way the information flows through the text: how does the whole connect together?  Often texts move from narrow (personal experience) to broad (bigger issues) and sometimes back again.  Or, they might start with an argument and then provide several different kinds of evidence for it.

Non-fiction writing is often similar to media article writing in terms of structure.  Again, you need to look at the flow of information and of topics. With transactional texts, you would be concerned with explaining how the text is constructed to make it a diary, letter etc.

In terms of smaller structures, you might also look for rhetorical features like repetition, triadic lists, contrasts and syntactic parallelism under this heading.

Literary form may also describe the type of text and its structure. Poetic form may be related to a specific number and arrangement of lines or even the rhyme scheme, e.g. a sonnet, ballad or lyric.  Novels may be classified using terms such as Bildungsroman or a novel of manners, while descriptors such as comedy, tragedy or history may be applied to dramatic works.

Imagery and Theme

Imagery

The key thing to remember about imagery is that it is not description.  Imagery is using language figuratively – simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole.  If you need to talk about description more generally, you could perhaps use semantic field as  a concept to make it more technical.  Describing the semantic field of a pattern of imagery is also an effective way to use literary and linguistic methods together in an integrated way, and to discuss a text’s construction more cohesively.

For a Lang-Lit example, in writing about Othello, you might comment on Iago’s use of imagery from a semantic field of pollution and corruption, which he uses to cement the idea that Desdemona has been tainted in Othello’s mind.

To discuss imagery in a Language analysis, it might be relevant to explore the representations created by a pattern of imagery, such as violent, feral connotations offered by animal metaphors in a speech about gangs.

Theme

The theme of a text is what it’s ‘about’, but not the plot.  For example, some themes of Othello are jealousy, gender, truth and deception.  Themes tend to be abstract nouns, as they’re often ‘big ideas’.

For both Lang-Lit and Language, you’ll need to apply this idea to texts other than literary texts (as well as literary texts in Lang-Lit of course).  Themes do emerge in conversations, interviews and media and non-fiction texts as well as literature.

Literary Frameworks

This section focuses on the literary frameworks that Lang-Lit students need to refer to, together with the linguistic ones.  Remember that you supposed to show understanding of Language and Literature in an integrated way – it is not healthy to think of half your course as the ‘language bit’ and the other as ‘the literature’.  Sometimes students spend so long learning the linguistic concepts (since they’re less familiar) that they forget what ‘literary frameworks’ are, or what a ‘literary approach’ is.  These pages should help with that.

The frameworks/concepts covered here are:
Imagery
Theme
Voice
Narrative

Language Study:

Note that these frameworks are also relevant to the study of language, and can be used to analyse ‘language’ texts. It is perfectly possible to discuss the voice of an article, and imagery can commonly be found in many texts, from spoken language to advertising. Do not assume if you are studying A Level Language that you have waved metaphor goodbye along with Shakespeare and 19th century literature!

Comparative Analysis note:

In comparing texts analytically, you should select a range of frameworks to help you.  One of the things you need to demonstrate is an understanding that different kinds of texts can/should be approached differently, so don’t feel you need to manufacture the same amount to say about every text for each framework, especially if you’re comparing different modes or analysing literary and non-literary texts together.

Blended Mode

This is a huge area – it can perhaps even be argued that so very few texts are ‘really’ written or spoken that the majority of texts are blended in some way.  That’s an extreme position, of course, but it does prove that mode is not straightforward and is worthy of discussion beyond just “x is in the written mode while y is in the spoken mode”.

Things to particularly consider about blended texts include:

  • The primary channel of reception and its effect (i.e. is it a visual or aural text)
  • How interactive the text is – is it monologic or dialogic
  • What is the relationship between writer/speaker and audience, and how does this manifest in the text
  • The degree of spontaniety or pre-planning and how that impacts the text
  • In electronic texts, does the lexis show features of ‘txt lang’ e.g. acronymisation etc
  • How formal or otherwise is the text in terms of lexis, syntax and structure?

Spoken Mode

Speech is often stereotyped as colloquial, spontaneous and less important than writing.  Don’t let yourself slip into such oversimplifications!

Make sure you check out the speech page for help with the features of spoken language.

Things to particularly consider about spoken texts include:

  • How participants use phonology for effect
  • How interaction is managed, e.g. through features for monitoring and feedback and through structures like adjacency pairs and three part exchanges
  • How participants co-operate and use facework or accommodation
  • Aspects of planning and preparation, e.g. does anyone use rhetorical devices
  • The shape of the exchange – this may be traced via topic shifts and/or through the balance of power in the conversation

Mode

At its most basic, mode is about differentiating writing from speech, but of course it’s a lot more complex than that and it is quite possible for you to be quite subtle about it.  Please avoid the temptation to declare everything ‘mixed mode’ – remember to visualise mode as a continuum with the most formal written text (legal statutes perhaps) at one end and the most casual conversation at the other.

It is useful to think of the concept of mode as a set of paired concepts, opposites on a series of continuums.  You could ask yourself questions like the following:

How spontaneous or planned is the text?

How known or unknown is the audience?

How monologic or interactive is the text?

The Interaction page should remind you of the theories to refer to in analysing any text which involves interaction between two or more people.

A consideration of mode will enrich comparative analyses of texts, and is therefore useful in the meanings and representations task when shifting from single text to paired text analysis. It is also a required element in analysis of Paris texts for AQA Lang-Lit.

 

 

Context

The context of a text includes several factors:
Genre – what kind of text is it and how does this colour the kind of language that can be used?

Audience – for whom was this text produced?  What assumptions does the producer of the text make about the audience?  Again, how is this evidenced in the language?

Purpose – what are the purposes of this text (there’s very rarely only one)  What in the language tells you these are the purposes?

Mode – how is this text received? What are the mode factors?

Writing about context at A Level requires more subtlety and precision than GCSE.  For example, a broadsheet article may indeed be intended for ‘an educated audience’, but if it’s a piece seeking to persuade people to buy organic fruit and veg, it assumes that its audience doesn’t already, and that they care about the issues the article raises. You will gain more marks for showing how these factors affect the language chosen, than for simply stating them.

Semantics

Semantics is basically about the meanings words have. When looking at semantics, we’re considering words separately and in the phrases they appear in, rather than thinking about the overall effect of the whole (that would be more of a pragmatic issue).

Key semantic terms:

  • Denotation – the dictionary definition
  • Connotation – meanings we associate with a word: spinster connotes old/ugly/miserable
  • Collocation – words which are strongly associated or often found together: vast majority
  • Antonym – opposite: day/night
  • Synonym – same/similar meaning: bright/clever/smart (often synonyms have the same denotation but may have different connotations to create shades of meaning)
  • Euphemism – putting something in a ‘nicer’ way, covering up the truth: passed away, sleeping with
  • Dysphemism – also not directly saying the thing, but using harsher words: kicked the bucket, banging
  • Idiom – everyday metaphor, not literally true but understood by most/all within a cultural context: raining cats and dogs, dressed to the nines
  • Simile – comparing two things using “like” or “as”
  • Metaphor – comparison without “like” or “as”, non-literal phrase
  • Hyperbole – exaggeration: I’ve told you a thousand times!
  • Oxymoron – contradictory or opposing terms put together: brilliant darkness (not just a clash, and the words need to be next to each other)
  • Metonym – using a part of something, or something associated with it to stand in for it: the crown (meaning monarch) skirt (meaning girl/woman)
  • Semantic field – a group of words related by meaning.  For example, in the field of furniture we have things like: chair, table, lamp, sofa etc etc.  In this example field, the word furniture is the hypernym and chair etc are the hyponyms.  In other words, the hypernym is the head word/title and the hyponyms are the lower terms.  A hyponymic list is (unsurprisingly) a list of hyponyms: “He ate hungrily.  Meat, potatoes, vegetables all were shovelled…”

Here are some examples of effective uses of semantics:

  • LANGUAGE/LANG-LIT: MODE ANALYSIS – semantic features may be different in different modes, e.g. written language is more likely to be figurative than spontaneous speech.
  • LANGUAGE: CHILD LANGUAGE – children’s early spoken words tend to come from a small range of semantic fields, e.g. toys, food, social words, people.  Children’s early writing also tends to reflect their interests or school topics, e.g. a 6 year-old may use a range of football-related terms in a story, or they may use several words from the field of dinosaurs.
  • LANGUAGE: DIALECT – words may be used differently in different linguistic varieties e.g. youth dialect uses ‘gay’ and ‘sick’ differently to the standard.
  • LANGUAGE: CHANGE – semantic shifts such as pejoration/amelioration, weakening, broadening/narrowing are worth discussing.
  • LANG-LIT: COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS -semantic analysis is likely to focus on imagery in the poetry coursework, while the exam analysis may require consideration of the semantic fields used.  It is likely, for example, that a literary text may use a greater range of lexis within the main semantic field than a transcript of spontaneous speech would.  It is also probable that the written texts may use secondary semantic fields metaphorically more than the spoken text will.