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Study Of The Foregrounding Theory English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5281 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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1. Introduction

The term Stylistics has been for a long time associated with literary criticism, and stylistics has been considered as a branch of literary criticism. The author’s style was the major theme of this field of study. Later on, the focus moved from the study of the author’s style to how meanings and effects are produced by literary texts. Thus, there was a critical need to change the field from a branch of literary criticism into a field on its own. Although stylistics has focused on literary works as its raw material of scrutiny, this does not underestimate the importance of stylistics in non-literary texts. Moreover, it is difficult sometimes to draw a clear line between literary stylistics and linguistic stylistics (Jeffries and McIntyre, 2010). In fact the distinction between the two is not the material in of their study, rather than in the objectives of the study. “Literary stylistics in this case is concerned with using linguistic techniques to assist in the interpretation of texts, whereas linguistic stylistics is about doing stylistic analysis in order to test or refine a linguistic model – in effect, to contribute to linguistic theory.” (Jeffries and McIntyre, 2010: 2). Also, Stylistics depends so much on theories and models from other fields more than it develops theories of its own. It is a combination of many sub-disciplines of linguistics, and other disciplines, such as literary studies and psychology, drawing upon these (sub-) disciplines but not seeking to duplicate or replace them. Based on such disciplines, ‘Stylistics’ has started as a distinguished field of study which has its own theories and principles. Among these theories, foregrounding theory, which is the subject matter of this paper, has received a special interest from stylisticians. The term refers to specific linguistic devices: deviation and parallelism devices. These devices are usually used in literary texts in a functional and condensed way. They support the possible meaning of the text, in addition providing the person who reads with the possibility of aesthetic knowledge. According to the theory of foregrounding, literature – by employing abnormal forms of language – breaks up the reader’s routine behaviour: commonplace views and perspectives are replaced with new and unexpected insights and sensations. In this method literature keeps or makes individuals conscious of their automatized actions and preconceptions. This paper discusses the foregrounding theory in detail.

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The paper is organized as follows: first of all, there is a detailed discussion of the origin and historical background of the theory. The Greek, Russian, and European effects on the theory will be discussed. The discussion will move to focus on the principles and assumptions behind the theory. Foregrounding principles of strikingness, effectiveness, time-consumption and universality will be discussed in detail. Once these principles are discussed, devices of deviation and parallelism, which are the main pillars of foregrounding theory, will be discussed and their relation to foregrounding effects will be explained. Once foregrounding devices are discussed, attention will be paid to obvious advantages of the theory in general. Although this theory is a powerful one, it is not surprising at all to find some problems in the theory. These problems will be discussed and possible answers offered to them in literature will be considered as will. Finally, conclusion will be drawn and recommendation will be offered according to the discussion of the theory in general.

2. Foregrounding Theory

With the rapid development of language analysis in the twentieth century, stylistics has come to the view as a powerful discipline which has its own theories such as, Foregrounding Theory, Text World Theory and Schema Theory. The general aim of this discipline is to look at the formal features of a text and find out their significance for the interpretation of that text. Stylistics started with much emphasis on the analysis of literary texts, and then the focus shifted to both literary and non-literary texts (Jeffries and McIntyre, 2010). Irrespective of the type of the text, it remains the raw material of stylisticians.

Among the various stylistic theories, foregrounding theory is the most common and powerful one in the literature. The term is very general to the extent that it resists definition. However, many stylisticians have tried to define it. For example, van Peer and Hakemulder (2006) say that the term refers to specific linguistic devices, i.e., deviation and parallelism, that are used in literary texts in a functional and condensed way. Under their definition, such devices can help to add a specific meaning to the text and provide the reader with aesthetic experience. Van Peer and Hakemulder (2006) also tried to show that foregrounding generally means new information contrasted to old information in the text that forms a background against which the new meaning to be understood by the reader. Others restricted its definition to the literary side of the theory. Shen (2007: 169) argues that this theory “assumes that poetic language deviates from norms characterized the ordinary use of language…and that this deviation interferes with cognitive principles and processes to make communication possible.” In the same way, Martindale (2007) points out that there are two types of foregrounding. The first type is parallelism which involves repetition while the second type of foregrounding is deviation which is related to the use of specific devices in unusual ways. Similarly, van Peer and Hakemudler (2006) show that deviation is a poetic license to the writer who is exceptionally allowed to deviate from normal rules and expectations surprise the reader and give him a beautiful literary experience. The best examples of deviation would be metaphors, ungrammatical rules, paradox, and so on. Examples of parallelism, on the other hand, would be various forms of figures of speech such as, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and so on. Such claims about foregrounding make it the opposite of automatization. While automatization schematizes an event, foregrounding breaks this schematization and creates a special kind of meaning (Miall and Kuiken, 1994).

The roots of this theory go back to the Greek Antiquity. Specifically, to the great philosopher Aristotle who emphasized the use of devices and their importance for foregrounding (van Peer, 2007; Martindale, 2007). Aristotle (ca. 335 BCE, cited in van Peer and Hakemulder, 2006) argues that literary work should be distinguished from other works through the use of strange words, metaphors and unfamiliar terms. Thus, foregrounding started basically as a theory of literature in the Greek philosophy. Later on, Russian Formalists and Czech Structuralists emphasized the importance of foregrounding in literature. According to Martindale (2007), foregrounding in that stage was so much related to novelty. The Russian and Czech theorists were in struggle for maintenance of change in literature. For instance, the Russian Formalist, Shklovsky, points out that the purpose of art is to present the unfamiliar objects in a sophisticated unfamiliar way so that the perception of such objects will be renewed and refreshed in the eyes of the reader (Miall and Kuiken, 1994). Unless this change is continuelously preserved, literature will die. Therefore, foregrounding was the only hope to keep literature alive.

Similarly, foregrounding in English literature and stylistics has been used with different meanings. Van Peer and Hakemulder (2006) show that foregrounding in English can refer to a prominent interest that a reader might assign to something in a text during the process of reading. Such prominence is resultant from a special use of some devices located in the text itself. Foregrounding may also refer to analytical tools used to evaluate texts and show their literary, historical and cultural significance. Therefore, the emphasis has always been on foregrounding in literature rather than foregrounding in other genres.

So far, discussion was about the theoretical account for foregrounding, yet we have not given any example. To understand what is meant by foregrounding, consider the following example that was planned by Miall and Kuiken (1994). In their discussion of foregrounding in literature, they presented a segment of a story called the Dark Walk: “It is a laurel walk, very old, almost gone wild, a lofty midnight tunnel of smooth, sinewy branches.” (p392). Through the alliteration of [l] and [s] sounds in the sentence and the metaphoric use of ‘midnight’ and ‘sinewy’, Miall and Kuiken claim that foregrounding passes through three stages. First, defamiliarization which is present in the use of unfamiliar linguistic features which strikes and captures the eye of the reader. Second, such unfamiliar linguistic features forces the reader to slow down and allow time for the feelings arouse by alliteration and metaphor to appear. Third, such feelings create a rich beautiful image of the dark walk in the mind of the reader.

To summarize this section, we can say foregrounding is a powerful theory that has started in the Greek philosophy, developed by the Russian and Czech theorists, and flourished in the current century. This theory is based on breaking up rules and norms by implementing devices of deviation and parallelism, yielding an aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader.

3. Principles of the Theory

Although it is difficult to delimit the principles and assumptions that underlie the foregrounding theory, this section discusses some general notes which can be considered as basic to the theory in general.

Foregrounding and strikingness

It is always reported that foregrounding causes defamiliarization especially in literary texts (Miall and Kuiken, 1994; van Peer, 2007; van Peer and Hakemuilder, 2006). Defamiliarization, in turn, strikes the reader because he finds the unexpected. Thus, the way new ideas introduced captures the mind of the reader and triggers his attention.

Foregrounding is affective

Besides inducing strikingness, defamiliarization helps to evoke the feelings of the reader. Miall and Kuiken (1994: 393) argue that, “although available evidence is indirect, it does suggest a relationship between the defamiliarizing effects of foregrounding and the emergence of feeling.” Once a reader encounters an unfamiliar text, special area in the mind which is responsible for affect is intensified.

Foregrounding and time

Since foregrounding texts are striking and evocative, they should take longer time for processing and comprehension. For example, when a reader finds verbs ellipsis or grammatical inversions, he needs much more time to figure out the meaning of the sentence. Also, the use of figurative devices such as metaphors and similes triggers the reader imagination and intensifies his feeling. At this stage, the reader will resort to other similar texts or experiences he has encountered in his life which, in turn, prolong the process of reading. Miall and Kuiken (1994: 395) point out that, “Since foregrounding often occurs in clusters of closely related phonetic, grammatical, and semantic features, the sheer density of the processes by which refamiliarization occurs suggests that it takes time to unfold.”

Foregrounding is universal

If foregrounding is striking, affective and time-consuming, are such foregrounding effects universal or related to specific type of individuals? In other words, do foregrounding effects occur in highly trained and sophisticated readers? In fact, many stylisticians have discussed and offered an answer to such question. Van Peer (1986) conducted a study on a group of people for this purpose and he found out that foregrounding effects are present among different readers irrespective of literary background. He found that readers’ responses are affected by deviation, and deviation makes readers process the text more slowly which, in turns, leads into aesthetic appreciation. Similar observations were reported by Miall and Kuiken (1994) who conducted a study on four groups of readers. Miall and Kuiken were interested in testing how foregrounding is indicator of reading times and readers’ judgments of strikingness and affect. In conclusion, they found out that the aforementioned effects are present in all groups independent of readers’ backgrounds or interests. Thus, readers with general linguistics skills and backgrounds will find foregrounding texts striking, affective and challenging. However, none can deny such effects will be higher with people of higher literary background. Also, many questions remain under-researched in this theory. Fore example, when readers concentrate on the way the text is written rather than its content, is that a matter of convention in general or a special property of the text? To put it differently, do readers read literary texts slowly because they already think that literature needs more time to be processed? Or is it a property of foregrounding in general irrespective of the text type or genre?

In summary, foregrounding is striking, affective, time-consuming and universal. It surprises the reader by violating the rules. Such violation triggers his feelings and requires much more time to understand and process the text which in turn forces the reader to focus on the way the text is written more than the content. Finally, such effects are claimed to be universal irrespective of the background or literary experience of the reader.

4. Foregrounding Devices

Linguistic devices are the main pillars of foregrounding theory. They are the tool which is wonderfully manipulated by writers to produce a piece of art. These devices help the writer to express his ideas in a special way, adding some music to his words or giving an image that stimulates the imagination of the reader. Generally, the foregrounding theory is based on two types of devices: devices of deviation and devices of parallelism (van Peer and Hakemulder, 2006; Shen, 2007). The former refers, as the name indicates, to breaking up rules or expectations. What you expect is not what you read or listen to. Following these devices, the writer attracts his readers’ attention because when they hear something unexpected, they will look for clues to know what is going on. Devices of deviation include: neologism, metaphor, ungrammatical sentences, archaisms, paradox and oxymoron. Devices of parallelism, on the other hand, are also called figures of speech. They generally involve repetitive and contrasted structures. Thus, some parts or syllables of the word verbal configuration is repeated or contrasted, leading to foregrounding effects on the perception of the reader. The rest of this section sheds light on the main devices used in foregrounding theory.

4.1 Devices of deviation

Metaphor: it is defined as, “The figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression” (Oxford English Dictionary). As this definition indicates, metaphors involve a mapping between two conceptual domains which are somehow related to our perceptual system. Thus, a metaphor involves a mapping from a source domain into a target domain. Shen (2007) argues that as far as foregrounding involved, mapping should be characterized by deviation via a relation between two remote concepts, i.e., Education is a ladder.

Simile: it is “a comparison of one thing with another, esp. as an ornament in poetry or rhetoric (Oxford English Dictionary). Similar to metaphors, similes also involve two nominal expressions. One of them is a source and the other one is a target. The two expressions are usually linked via linkage expressions such as like or as. In foregrounding theory, similes should involve deviation as well, i.e., Education is like a ladder (Shen, 2007: 171). Thus, the linkage is between two remote concepts, usually from more to less accessible object. Such simile is called canonical simile. However, if mapping is from less to more accessible object, this simile is called non-canonical simile, i.e., A ladder is like education (Shen, 2007: 171). Shen argues that foregrounding often depends on non-canonical similes.

Oxymoron: “A rhetorical figure by which contradictory or incongruous terms are conjoined so as to give point to the statement or expression; an expression, in its superficial or literal meaning self-contradictory or absurd, but involving a point” (Oxford English Dictionary). Such literary device is frequently used in literature. It is one of the basic pillars of foregrounding theory since deviation is the main feature of this device. Shen (2007: 173-174) makes a distinction between two types of oxymoron: direct and indirect. The former represents a direct antonymic relation between a head noun and a modifier which are extremely opposite poles, i.e., hot coldness. The latter represents a relation between two expressions which are not direct opposite poles, i.e., watery dryness. In these examples, hot is the direct opposite of cold whereas watery is not the direct opposite of dryness. As far as foregrounding concerned, Shen (2007) argues that the indirect oxymoron is much more used than direct oxymoron.

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Paradox: it is defined as, “A statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief; often with the implication that it is marvellous or incredible; sometimes with unfavourable connotation, as being discordant with what is held to be established truth, and hence absurd or fantastic; sometimes with favourable connotation, as a correction of vulgar error.” (Oxford English dictionary). Similar to oxymoron, this device is central to foregrounding theory because contradiction is the basic feature of paradox. A paradoxical statement makes sense with more thought. Christ used paradox in his teaching: “They have ears but hear not.” Or in normal conversation, we may use a paradox

4.2 Devices of parallelism

Assonance: it is defined as, “the correspondence or rhyming of one word with another in the final (sometimes also the initial) consonant, but not in the vowel.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Assonance can be described as a vowel rhyme as in the words date and fade. 

Alliteration: it is “The commencing of two or more words in close connexion, with the same letter, or rather the same sound.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Alliteration is commonly used for emphatic effects. It happens in everyday language in phrases such as “tittle-tattle,” “bag and baggage,” “bed and board,” “primrose path,” and “through thick and thin” and in sayings like “look before you leap.” Therefore, foregrounding theory uses such device to attract the concentration of the reader and emphasis certain points in the text.

Antistrophe: it is “The repetition of words in inverse order.” (Oxford English Dictionary). For example: In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria — without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia — without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland — without warning

Rhyme: it is defined as, “Agreement in the terminal sounds of two or more words or metrical lines, such that (in English prosody) the last stressed vowel and any sounds following it are the same, while the sound or sounds preceding are different.” (Oxford English Dictionary). In poetry, the most common sort of rhyme is end rhyme that occurs at the end of two or more lines. Internal rhyme happens in the middle of a line

In conclusion, devices of deviation and parallelism are very central to the foregrounding theory. They are the main tools which should be manipulated by the writers to attract the attention of the reader and make him feel appreciate the experience of the text.

5. Advantages of Foregrounding Theory

If foregrounding theory is very powerful in the literature of stylistics, what are the advantages of the application of such theory? Can foregrounding be practically useful? Or is it just a descriptive theory? This section discusses some advantages of the foregrounding theory.

First of all, foregrounding in general and foregrounding theory in particular are very basic requirements to understand language and literature. Foregrounding as a style is based on a distinction between something and its background. In other words, it is all about making something prominent by making it different. For example, we can make an object in a collection of objects, such as toys, foreground by differentiating it with color, shape, etc. In the same way, we can make a string of words distinguished from others by implying foregrounding devices, such as devices of deviation and parallelism. Thus, foregrounding is a very useful tool in language to affect the reader’s understanding and appreciation of language. In general, this is the most obvious advantage of foregrounding theory in language and literature.

Foregrounding effects are not only restricted to language. This powerful theory can be practically used as a method of language teaching as well. McInyer (2003) shows a detailed description of how foregrounding can used as a pedagogical technique in large-group teaching. Such teaching methodology makes use of internal and external deviation as a means of maintaining the effects of foregrounding throughout the whole lecture course. An example of external deviation is to have two lecturers instead of one in the class so that students will be surprised because such change is unexpected. In this case, knowledge of foregrounding theory is very important for higher education lecturers dealing with large-groups, as it could serve to highlight how the presentation of lecture material can be enhanced, so creating a more effectual learning experience for the student

Foregrounding can also be important in translation. If we accept that fact that discourse analysis has its positive effects on translation, we should expect to have similar effects (van Peer and Hakemulder, 2006). Dorry (2008) argues that foregrounding theory with foregrounding since foregrounding theory is so much related to discourse analysis can be applied to discourse at levels of Syntax, lexicon and Phonology. At the level of syntax, foregrounding is defined as the process that involves placing a constituent of a sentence into the focus position so that it becomes more prominent than other parts of the sentence. Naturally, any change in the usual order of words in a sentence will be reflected on meaning interpretation in mind of the reader. In this regard, change can come through deviation from norms or breaking up the rules. Dorry (2008) points out that since translation is a process of text recreation in which translators do their best to communicate discoursal meaning across languages, the way additional or different meaning is created and understood, should therefore also be focused as well from a syntactic-pragmatic angle. This phenomenon which is the locus of foregrounding theory should be have a very careful attention in translation since understanding it can assist to process and perceive meaningful choices made by writers and speakers in the course of communication. Under this claim, translators should be fully acquainted with foregrounding theory and its devices in the source and the target language because translators should always be faithful to both languages.

To conclude this section, we have seen that foregrounding is a theory that can be applied many disciplines simultaneously. It is indispensable when we study language as an artistic artifact and how it is perceived by the reader or recipient. Also, foregrounding can be applied as a teaching methodology which is based on unexpected techniques to strike the student. Finally, translators should have enough knowledge of foregrounding effects in the source and target language to stay faithful to the text they are translating.

6. Problems of Foregrounding Theory

Foregrounding theory has been the most powerful theory in stylistics. It charmed many stylisticians who devoted their efforts to support this theory. Although this theory has such important position in the stylistics, it is still imperfect. Many critics have mentioned some problems that should be taken into account to render a developed version of the theory. Shen (2007) argues that since deviation in foregrounding is based on the interface of the literary text with the cognitive and communicative principles, and these two types of principles are constrained, deviation should be controlled as well. It looks strange that deviation in foregrounding is not constrained while its assumptions and principles are constrained. Therefore, we need to question the claim of unexpectedness of deviation. In other words, are all types of deviation expected? Shen (2007) discussed some constraints that can be inferred from the devices used in foregrounding theory. A detailed discussion of simile and oxymoron showed that some constraints can be imposed on deviation. However, such conclusion should be carefully considered because foregrounding escapes the routine of everyday language and shake the expectations of the reader by presentation of the unexpected. Thus, how can we constrain the unexpected? And how can we strike a compromise between novelty and constraints? Such questions should be considered when we discuss constraints on deviation.

Other limitations of the theory are discussed by van Peer and Hakemulder (2006). The first limitation of the theory is related to the existence of enough evidence that supports the main claim of foregrounding theory; the grounding theory claims that the use of foregrounding devices increases the reader’s value and appreciation of the text. Unfortunately, this claim has not received enough evidence from research conducted in the foregrounding theory.

Another important problem of the theory is the huge vagueness of its terminology. Such a problem is clear when we consider the very often used terms in the theory like ‘estrangement’, ‘deautomatization’, ‘defamiliarization’ and ‘foregrounding’. Are these terms synonymies or are they different terms? Therefore, the terminology and principles of this theory and its relation to the psychological processes should be fully clarified. More importantly, this theory intersects with the principles and assumptions of other theories and constructs such as Surrealism and Absurdism. Therefore, the boundaries and assumptions should be differentiated from the assumption of other theories (van Peer and Hakemulder, 2006).

A problem that has recently been considered in the literature of foregrounding theory is its scope. Some scholars are very fanatic and refuse to include oral or descriptive literature in the domain of foregrounding theory. Hence, they apply the theory to the written texts only, and they neglect oral and video/audio works. Van Peer and Hakemulder (2006) argue that this problem can be solved by integrating the foregrounding theory to the structure and interpretation of the work as whole. To put it differently, a more systematic and coherent version of the foregrounding theory should be developed to cover all genres of literary works.

Another problem related to this theory is the distinction between literary and non-literary texts. The majority of literary devices discussed above are reported in literature. Also, the majority of studies reported in stylistics were conducted on literary works. On the other side of the theory, some theorists ((Jeffries and McIntyre, 2010) argue that limiting the scope of foregrounding theory to literary works is a hasty decision because the same devices can be applied to literary and non-literary works such as jokes, advertising and politics. In fact, Mukaiovsky (cited in Miall and Kuiken, 1994) addressed this problem and explained the difference between the two types of foregrounding. Foregrounding may occur in non-literary or everyday language. However such type of foregrounding is not systematic in design. Moreover, the main purpose of such language is communication and foregrounding is so much used. In literary texts, on the other hand, foregrounding is very common, systematic and structured. Here, the purpose of foregrounding is to deviate from everyday language and takes the reader to the unexpected to make him enjoy the aesthetic experience of the literary text. A more impressing solution to the problem is presented by van Peer and Hakemulder (2006) who distinguished between two cases of foregrounding: functional and non-functional. Only the former can be seen as literary while later is not a literary use of foregrounding. For example, when a writer uses metaphors or similes in a scientific report, the purpose is not to deviate from the expected and impress the reader. Here, foregrounding is non-functional. In literary use of language, on the other hand, foregrounding is functional and the general aim is to deviate from the expected and present the unexpected

To conclude this section, foregrounding theory has its own problems. The scope of the theory should be clearly identified in terms of the text type (literary vs. non-literary) and form (written vs. spoken). Also, its boundaries should be discussed and assigned with regard to other theories and perspectives in the literature. Similarly, abstract terminology should be clarified and fully explained. Finally, deviation, novelty and constraints should have compromised in the course of the theory discussion.

7. Conclusion

Foregrounding theory is required for the analysis of literary works and history. This theory yields the best conclusions in textual analysis that it is indispensable analytic methodology to describe the specific features and characteristics of any text and explain the poetic effects on the reader. It can be used in both literary and non-literary works, yet the function is different in each situation. By doing extensive research and exploring its rules and effects in cross-cultural texts, the study of literature and literary works will flourish. Foregrounding device, devices of deviation and parallelism, will lose their important value if they are not developed. Thus, their defamiliarization needs to be under continuous development and replacement. A critical problem of constraints threatens the basic feature of foregrounding which is novelty. Novelty is reached to by violation of rules, and violation is seen here as breaking up everyday routine. Therefore, how can we expect the unexpected? How can we control and constrain deviation? Such question and enquires should be the main concern of researchers in this field. All in all, foregrounding is the best theory for innovation in literature because it gives unexpected forms of novelty and creativity.


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