Date: Wed Aug 30 2000 - 17:18:06 EDT
In a message dated 08/30/2000 12:49:46 PM Mountain Daylight Time,
> How can we go about testing the notion that "the present tense involves
> foregrounding?" Can this notion be falsified? If not, why should we accept
> If you can test the proposition "the present tense involves foregrounding"
> then there must be some independent means of determining what is in the
> foreground and what is in the background of a discourse. By independent, I
> mean some means that is not connected with verb marking.
> The only way I can see to test this proposition is to look in high level
> semantic structure of the discourse for information about what is in the
> foreground and what is in the background. You must begin by presuming that
> you can obtain reliable indicators of foreground and background in the
> semantic structure COMPLETELY INDEPENDED of verb marking before you can run
> your test on the present tense.
> If this is the case, then you have essentially admitted (implicitly) that
> the high level semantic structure of the discourse contains adequate
> information for determining what is in the foreground and in the
Just a couple of short observations.
First, the test of whether presents are foregrounded involves two things that
I can think of. A foregrounded feature ought to have some further
development that can be either formal or semantic--probably both in most
cases. I would expect to see key figures or states/actions/processes receive
some kind of expansion. Also, a kind of a test is the theoretical backing
from the discussions on figure and ground. I suggest that the present
tense's link with present time shows that the tense conveys immediacy,
imminency, or in other words and "here and now" element, which is
prominent/emphatic compared to a "then and there" element.
Second, I detect an assumption (maybe false) that you are assuming that I'm
saying that presents must be foregrounding at the level of discourse. I
don't think that. I think that a present is foreground within a certain
domain or context. I'm thinking that it won't usually go beyond what we have
called a paragraph--often less. So, in a conversation, the domain of
prominence or context would be one given speaker's turn. In Jesus' statement
in Mk. 10:21, it would be ludicrous to say that the present verb is
foregrounded at the discourse level.
Thirdly, the present tense is one of many elements that signal the kind of
relative prominence that are associated (or will be associated) with
foregrounding--that is that it is the second to the highest in prominence in
its system. So call it foreground within its system, but when it is combined
in patterns with other elements, the planes of discourse become more complex
than a flat background, foreground, frontground model--there is a lot of
contouring in there. In other words, when a perfect pops up, I assume that
it is as emphatic as a verb can be, but I don't automatically assume that it
dominates its paragraph. Prominence at that level often involves a
confluence of markers.
> But the high level semantic structure is not something that can be reduced
> to a "bean counter" research paradigm. It is a subjective business
> high level semantic structure and so all the people who want to stick with
> the objective quantifiable questions (formal language features) get caught
> playing a double game. They end up using (implicitly) this subjective high
> level semantic structure to prove propositions like "the present tense
> involves foregrounding." And then they proceed to tell us that they are
> relying on the "hard data," the so called formal language features, to
> their conclusions.
> Will this kind of thinking stand the light of day?
The Hallidayan model (Systemic Linguistics) has a firm middle ground on this.
Halliday says something like the divorce of meaning and form is a heresy.
What this means is that semantic and pragmatic analysis is as valid as the
day is long, but it cannot be divorced from form because meaning is also
conveyed through the form. Thus, I say don't let your interpretation
override the formal features. Rather, let the formal features inform (or
even frame) your interpretation. It's kind of like having the checks and
balances of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
My analyses or even choice of concentration in hermeneutics probably start in
my mind as pragmatic and semantic--but my 'proofs' have formal features as
the starting point. They form an anchor for interpretation (and
Now I'm really going to stop writing posts and work on my thesis. Right now
I'm reading a tasty book on pragmatics and relevance theory. Don't you wish
you were here?
PhD Student, Roehampton
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