Ways of Talking About Things: Contexts

George W. Grace

What has always seemed a major problem with the world-view (Weltanschauung) conception of linguistic relativity has been the (usually tacit) assumption that each language must have a single self-consistent world-view. A more accurate assumption would be that we (social groups, cultures, individuals) have a proliferation of different world-views or partial world-views, and that these are not necessarily even compatible with one another. Sanity, I imagine, depends on (among other things) our not having our incompatible partial world-views evoked simultaneously too often. I suppose that an important part of our strategy for avoiding that is to arrange to have our different partial world-views be evoked by different contexts. We accomplish this, I suggest, by incorporating our different partial world-views into different particular ways of talking with these ways of talking tied to particular contexts.

I tried in Grace 1982a to make the case that we have different ways of talking for different kinds of subject matter, which is to say that the subject matter is a significant aspect of the context of a speech act. Here I will try to provide some additional clarification on that point. In order to do so, I will briefly discuss contexts in general, and in so doing again point out that context is involved in language use in several different ways. (A particularly distinctive kind of role played by context is the reconstruction of a context for the emic situation by an audience in the process of understanding something that has been said. In fact, as was emphasized in Grace 1982b, a sayer is obliged to attempt to anticipate what context the audience will be able to reconstruct).

The following brief general discussion of contexts will begin with the physical context within which we live our lives. This physical context may be regarded as a habitat consisting of places.


I would like to introduce the subject of places with a quotation from James J. Gibson (1979: 136), "The habitat of a given animal contains places. A place is not an object with definite boundaries but a region.... The different places of a habitat may have different affordances. Some are places where food is usually found and others where it is not. There are places of danger, such as the brink of a cliff and the regions where predators lurk. There are places of refuge from predators. Among these is the place where mate and young are, the home, which is usually a partial enclosure. Animals are skilled at what the psychologist calls place-learning. They can find their way to significant places."

I want to begin by asking you to think of every animal as living in a habitat which is made up of a number of different places such as Gibson describes. These places are, of course, connected in fixed spatial relationships to one another. We may suppose the animal to have some knowledge of these spatial relationships; as Gibson pointed out, it probably displays some skill in finding its way from one place to another. The concept "cognitive map" has become familiar in connection with this kind of knowledge. Edward Tolman (1948) proposed the term to designate, in the first place, the knowledge of their environments including the spatial relations within them displayed by laboratory rats, but also, by extension, similar knowledge displayed by other species including humans.

The term "cognitive map" has persisted in use, but it now seems clear that the knowledge which an animal has of its habitat is not map-like in character. It is sufficient here to note that such knowledge does exist and that the term "cognitive map" is being used to refer to that knowledge without any commitment as to the form which it takes.

In the quotation cited above, Gibson referred to places' having "affordances". Affordance is a term which he introduced. He says of affordances (1979: 127) "The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.... I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment." Examples which he gives are (1979: 36) a path, which affords pedestrian locomotion, and an obstacle, which affords collision and possible injury. He notes (1979: 135) that, "The richest and most elaborate affordances of the environment are provided by other animals, and for us, other people." He proposes further that perception is made in terms of affordances; e.g., (1979: 134) "I now suggest that what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their qualities." That is, we perceive and know them in terms of the significance which they have for us, of their implications for our behavior for our interaction with them, rather than in terms of some supposedly "objective" criteria.

I ask you to think now of different patterns of behavior developing and becoming habitual for each of the familiar places in the animal's territory, so that the animal has different behaviors which have developed as a product of the interaction between the animal and the affordances of each place in its environment. We may think of habitual behaviors as being organized according to what are called "schemata". I will introduce the concept of schema by quoting Frederic C. Bartlett. He wrote (1932: 198): "Every day each normal individual carries out a large number of perfectly well-adapted and co-ordinated movements. Whenever these are arranged in a series, each successive movement is made as if it were under the control and direction of the preceding movements in the same series. Yet as a rule, the adaptive mechanisms of the body do not demand any definite awareness, so far as change of posture or change of movement is concerned." Such a coordinated series of movements is presumed to be governed by a "schema".

Bartlett says further (1932: 201):

"'Schema' refers to an active organisation of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response. That is, whenever there is any order or regularity of behaviour, a particular response is possible only because it is related to other similar responses which have been serially organised, yet which operate, not simply as individual members coming one after another, but as a unitary mass. Determination by schemata is the most fundamental of all the ways in which we can be influenced by reactions and experiences which occurred some time in the past."

To summarize, in the picture presented so far we have seen the animal as occupying a habitat which it knows to be made up of a number of different places. These places are accessible one from another in ways known (at least to some extent) to the animal. This knowledge is incorporated into the animal's "cognitive map". Each place has its affordances from the point of view of the animal that is, those aspects which hold the potential of significant effects on the animal for good or for ill. These affordances are, in effect, what the places mean to the animal. The animal will often have developed appropriate behaviors for the different places behaviors appropriate to the affordances of each place. We also saw that these appropriate behaviors might be thought of as taking the form of schemata.

There is one complication which I have left out. In actuality, the animal's environment will presumably also contain detached objects objects which are not fixed in any one place but which may show up in unexpected places. These detached objects may affect the momentary affordances of a place to a very significant extent. Among the most important kinds of detached objects are other animals (in the case of humans, of course, other humans are of especial importance).

The very existence of detached objects implies that there are aspects of the animal's world which cannot be adequately accounted for in a strictly map-like representation. In fact, I want to propose that the greater the animal's capacity for abstraction, the less valid the map is as a metaphor for the organization of its world.[1] In order to accentuate that difference in the case of humans, I will substitute the word situation for "place" in talking of human cognitive maps, and I will assume situations to be defined to a very great extent in terms of conditions other than spatial. In fact, except for emic situations, I assume them to be defined in terms of their affordances.


For example, I will assume that the situation in which a particular person finds him/herself can be radically changed by something like the arrival of another person or even of a message, despite the fact that the supervening situation exists in exactly the same physical location as the preceding one. In fact, just a change in the subject of conversation can bring about a significantly changed situation. In sum, human situations are defined to a great extent in sociological terms i.e, human realities are largely socially constructed (or culturally defined) realities.

By moving from the concept of place to that (etymologically its metaphoric extension) of situation, we have moved from the relatively concrete to the quite abstract. It might be prudent to pause for a moment to reflect on what these concepts actually represent. Indeed, a moment's reflection reveals that even places themselves do not represent such an unambiguous segmentation of the physical environment as the preceding discussion may have appeared to suggest. Places are really identified as places on the basis of what they mean to whatever animal is immediately in question. That is all the more true of situations. Since the situations which I have in mind are more abstract, it is even more true of them that they depend for their specification on an (in this case, human) observer.

Consider, for example, the question of the extent of a situation; how much does it include in space and in time? The answer is that situations may be either great or small in extent. The situation that appears relevant to our observer may be confined to that which is immediately visible, audible, and tangible, or it may extend to include much that is known or assumed to be going on elsewhere, even in distant parts of the world. Temporally, it may be confined to as little as a single abrupt gesture or it may include in one whole a series of connected steps, each of which makes sense in the context of the others.[2]

I want also to point out two different kinds of situation which need to be distinguished where language is concerned. I have referred in various works (e.g., Grace 1981: 101, 112ff.) to what I call the "emic situation" specified in a linguistic sign such as a sentence. The emic situation is represented as a model constructed of emic elements (on "emic elements", cf. Grace 1981: 51ff.). The emic situation, of course, is specified by the sayer and presented as such to the audience.

The other kind of situation which concerns us, and the kind which is of main concern in the present note, is the situation which constitutes the effective context in which some other situation (for our purposes, some other situation of linguistic interest) is contained. There are two such contained situations situations which sometimes require to be considered in relation to their contexts. One is the aforementioned emic situation. As I pointed out in Grace 1982b, understanding of something which has been said typically requires some reconstruction of the context of the emic situation characterized in the utterance. Moreover, the sayer typically provides the particular characterization i.e, designs the particular emic situation precisely in the anticipation that the audience will be willing and able to reconstruct the context in an appropriate way.[3]


The other kind of contained situation of situation typically requiring to be put into context is the speech act itself. I have mentioned elsewhere (Grace 1982b: 28-29) that the individual speech acts the acts, themselves, as distinct from the content of the linguistic expressions which are their vehicles (and especially the emic situations which they specify) call for understanding by the audience. There has been a great deal of literature recently on just this problem of constructing a context for the speech act. That is the problem of determining what the speaker means by the speech act itself by performing the act (as distinguished from what he/she means by what he/she says in that act). See, for example, Gumperz 1977, Scollon and Scollon 1981. However, that is not the kind of containing situation which concerns me here. I am concerned here with kinds of situations as the context for generalized ways of talking.

We have said that humans have different patterns of customary habitual behavior which respond to the affordances of their (to a great extent culturally defined) situations. It should not seem surprising that one aspect of such patterns of habitual behavior is the verbal aspect, that different ways of talking are appropriate to different situations. Appropriate ways of talking may involve many aspects. For example, various codings for politeness or solidarity may be called for, or formulaic expressions may be required on particular cues.

There is a great deal of literature on this general phenomenon studies which start from the (containing) situation and consider it as the factor which determines what ways of speaking are appropriate. I will not attempt to review this literature here, but will proceed directly to one particular factor which is relevant in some situations and which I am especially concerned with. That factor is the subject matter which happens to be under discussion. Thus, I will particularly emphasize here the fact that the subject matter may itself be one of the relevant factors defining the situation in this regard. That fact is the basis for my having spoken, as I did in Grace 1982a, of "ways of talking about things.

However, to say that different topics of conversation different subject matters require different ways of talking seems to suggest that there is for any given community some fixed number of standardized (conventionalized) subject matters. And, at the very most, that number would have to be finite. Otherwise, speakers could not be expected to learn the appropriate ways of talking for each. But can it be true that there is such an inventory of conventional forms? I am proposing that it is useful to regard it as true, but that we must be willing to reckon with a fair degree of indefiniteness in the identification and characterization of the particular subject matters and particular ways of talking.

I should emphasize, therefore, that it is not always easy to decide whether the subject matter under discussion on a particular occasion is a conventional subject matter or not. I think it is more accurate to think in terms of tendencies. What I want to propose is that within a particular community certain subject matters do tend to assume conventional status. There is a tendency within groups and even within single conversations for conventions to begin to take shape. And from the perspective of the community as a whole, certain subject matters will tend to come up repeatedly in conversation, and the way they are talked about and, in general what is said about them, will tend to assume a kind of patterning. If we chose to do so, we might more or less arbitrarily settle upon some kind of criteria which would permit us to say at a certain stage in this development that a new conventional subject matter had come into existence in that community. If (as I am assuming would ordinarily be the case) it were possible to discern particular patterns in the ways of talking consecrated to such a now-conventional subject matter, then we could say that that subject matter governed its own way of talking that there was a "consecrated way of talking" about it. If we were to settle upon such largely arbitrary criteria, it would therefore be possible to say that there was a certain fixed number of conventionalized subject matters and of consecrated ways of talking about them. However, I do not see any immediate value in undertaking to do so.

There is another problem about the definition of conventional subject matters and of ways of talking. It was a main point in Grace 1982a that there can be different consecrated ways of talking about the same thing the same subject matter (the classical case, for example, following a Kuhnian scientific revolution) and that the same way of talking about a particular thing may be common to different languages (as, for example, the way of talking peculiar to a particular religious orthodoxy or scientific tradition). The problem is, what (if anything) does it mean to say that two subject matters or two ways of talking are "the same"?

First, what can it mean to say that two ways of talking are talking about the same thing? That is, what is it to say that two subject matters are the same? Once again, the practice of translation between languages seems to provide a good place to start. It seems reasonable to assume that if any pair of expressions can be said to be about the same thing, an expression in one language and its translation in another (what I called "translation equivalents" in Grace 1982b) would constitute such a pair. (Formerly, I would have been inclined to say that they say the same thing about the same thing, but the conclusions reached in Grace 1982b no longer permit that assertion).

But is it possible at all for two different ways of talking to be about the same thing to have the same subject matter? I think the answer to this question must be that no two ways of talking are ever about absolutely the same thing. That must be true because, in the final analysis, the thing which a way of talking is about is a thing created by the act of talking about it. Therefore, if two traditions of talking are independent of each other in the slightest degree, their common creature will commence immediately to evolve in slightly different ways.

However, that conclusion does not seem to dispose of the issue. I would like to propose that what we should be concerned with is not things which are the same in some absolute sense but rather with things which are equivalent. Things which are equivalent are things which are, for at least some practical purposes, the same. Practically, we are saying, two expressions or two ways of talking may be treated as being about the same thing if the "things" they are about i.e., their subject matters are somehow equivalent. But under what conditions may we conclude that two subject matters are equivalent? The practical answer, I believe, must be that two subject matters may appropriately be regarded as "the same", i.e., equivalent, if someone chooses to treat them as being the same and if that person is able to make such treatment stick. That is, if doing so makes sense to those concerned, it is reasonable to regard them as the same it is reasonable as far as that particular context is concerned, with that particular audience at that particular time.

We are left with one final question: how do we talk about things for which we have no consecrated way of talking? It is interesting to note that most of the literature of theoretical linguistics seems to assume that that is precisely the situation in which speakers-to-be ordinarily find themselves. It is a situation of unusual freedom, but for the same reason, one which demands unusual ingenuity. It is a situation essentially beyond the reach of idiomatology. What, then, is a poor speaker to do in circumstances of such unrelieved freedom?

The essence of the answer is that in such an unstructured situation one resorts on a grander scale to the same devices which one employs any time that one produces what I call an ad hoc sign (cf. Grace 1981: 55-57, 112-115). That is, one characterizes ad hoc elements and, by means of these elements, characterizes an emic situation. In short, one makes use of ways of talking designed for, and consecrated to, other subject matters to characterize this unconventional subject matter. And the basis for such characterization is metaphor one speaks of one thing as if it were another (and on such metaphors, see once more Lakoff and Johnson 1980). That, I presume, is what we must do when we have to translate from one language to another something for which there is not a consecrated way of talking in the target language, or when there is a consecrated way of talking, but that way is not equivalent to the way of talking of the source language.

On this point, I should again call attention to Richard Rorty's (1979) concepts of "normal" and "abnormal discourse" (cf. Grace 1982a: 18-19). Normal discourse is governed by conventions as to "what counts as a relevant contribution, what counts as answering a question, what counts as having a good argument for that answer or a good criticism of it" (1979: 320). Although Rorty seems to have in mind mainly scientific or philosophical discourse, his normal/abnormal distinction appears to be very close to my distinction between talking about something in conformity with a consecrated way of talking about it and talking about it in any other way.


The main points which I have tried to make may be summarized as follows:

1. The environment of an animal is not uniform, but rather contains different places with different affordances. That is, the different places afford different dangers and opportunities to the animal.

2. These different places with their different affordances evoke the development of different behaviors. Eventually, different adaptive behavioral schemata develop.

3. However, because of the unpredictable presence or absence of detached objects (including animals and humans) in places, the affordances of a place are not constant. The adaptive behavioral patterns must be responsive to the total situation (the affordances actually present at the time), rather than just the place itself.

4. The effective situations in which humans function are so heavily influenced by socially constructed aspects of reality that physical place can no longer be regarded as the most prominent determinant of the situation for humans.

5. One important aspect of the behaviors which humans develop for different situations is the verbal aspect. Kinds of situations and ways of talking may both become conventionalized (note that conventionalization can exist in varying degrees). Humans have different appropriate ways of talking for different conventional situations.

6. One factor in situations around which conventionalization may develop is the subject matter under discussion. There are sometimes ways of talking consecrated to particular conventional subject matters.

7. It is unusual and difficult to be obliged to talk about a truly non-conventional subject.



[1.] Although the concept "cognitive map" was introduced specifically in connection with patterns of spatial organization and "schema" specifically for temporal sequential organization, there seems no basis for keeping the two apart. As Terence Lee has put it (1973: 98), "Sir Frederic Bartlett (1932) broadened and elaborated our ideas of the schema, particularly to explain the phenomena of memory. Most of the applications have been to emphasize the collective unity of a temporal sequence of actions, but it has also been applied with the same object to spatial patterns. In fact, it is very unlikely that there is much difference in the way in which the brain deals with the two arrangements, for we can only appreciate space by scanning it temporally, and we can only act in space successively. This must imply neural mechanisms of very similar form."

[2.] I think we sometimes have more difficulty thinking of the time at which something takes place as having extent; this difficulty (if I am right about it) presumably is attributable to our concept of the present (vs. the past and the future) as having no duration. I would like to quote two statements which have impressed me. First, Gibson 1979: 101: "The flow of ecological events consists of natural units that are nested within one another episodes within episodes, subordinate ones and superordinate ones. What we take to be a unitary episode is therefore a matter of choice..." Second, J. L. Austin (1965: 106-107), in discussing the "acts" represented in the vocabulary of English noted: "That we can import an indefinitely long stretch of what might be called the 'consequences' of our act into the act itself is, or should be, a fundamental commonplace of the theory of our language about all 'action' in general.

[3.] In Grace 1982b: 29-30 I discussed briefly what sorts of context are provided for an emic situation in the process of understanding. I referred particularly to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) "experiential gestalts". Apparently of particular importance in such contextualizations is the provision of antecedent conditions (which would make sense of the situation in focus by providing as a background prior situations which would lead up to it) and of possible consequences (alternative situations which might follow upon it). Cf., for example, the concept of "narratization" in Jaynes 1976 (cf. pp. 29, 64, 217, 218) and that of "story" in Schön 1979: 267, 281, Rein and Schön 1977: 243f.



Austin, J[ohn] L. 1965. How to do things with words. New York: (Oxford University Press) Galaxy Books.

Bartlett, Frederic C. 1932. Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: The University Press.

Downs, Roger M. and David Stea (eds.). 1973. Image and environment: Cognitive mapping and spatial behavior. Chicago: Aldine.

Gibson, James J. 1979. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, etc.: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Grace, George W. 1981. Ordinary language. Computer printout.

Grace, George W. 1982a. Ways of talking about things. Ethnolinguistic Notes, series 3, no. 5. Computer printout.

Grace, George W. 1982b. Thoughts on translation and meaning: A progress report. Ethnolinguistic Notes, series 3, no 6. Computer printout.

Gumperz, John J. 1977. Sociocultural knowledge in conversational inference. In Muriel Saville-Troike (ed.)., Linguistics and Anthropology. Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1977, pp. 191-211.

Jaynes, Julian. 1976. The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, Terence E. 1973. Psychology and living space. In Downs and Stea 1973, pp. 87-108.

Rein, Martin and Donald A. Schön. 1977. Problem setting in policy research. In Carol H. Weiss (ed.). Using social research in public policy making. Lexington Books. Lexington MA: D. C. Heath and Co., pp. 235-51.

Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Schön, Donald A. 1979. Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem-setting in social policy. In Andrew Ortony (ed.). Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 254-83.

Scollon, Ron and Suzanne B. K. Scollon. 1981. Athabaskan-English interethnic communication. In Narrative, Literacy and Face in Interethnic Communication. Norwood NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, pp. 11-36.

Tolman, Edward C. 1948. Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review 55: 189-208.


see also Grace, George W. 1987 The Linguistic Construction of Reality (pdf)