Context definition by Henry Widdowson - What is context

Context definition by Henry Widdowson – What is context?!

Context definition is so important in the life of a translator! without a clear and solid context definition, most of the theories that have to do with context will be blurred. Context is all we hear in the course of our studies, especially if we are just starting to study translation as a field of study. It doesn’t matter if you are a translator or a student of translation, what matters is the definition of context as an element in the act of translation. Previously I covered the definition of text by Henry Widdowson. Today, I summarized another chapter from Text, Context, Pretext – Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis of Henry Widdowson. He has an especial writing style and developing concepts from what it was to what it is. Now, this chapter is devoted to defining the context. I strongly recommend you to first study the summary of text definition from this book, and then proceed with this article here, because this is the third chapter of the same book.

Context Definition, a summary of chapter three, Text, Context, Pretext

We interpret as a result of realizing the relationship between stretches of languages and context. In other words, the realization of text as discourse is a matter of establishing an appropriate relationship between code and context. There are some definitions of context that fall under three general levels of physical, social and psychological contexts.

Malinowski states that utterances themselves don’t have any meaning. A statement is never detached from the situation and is never without an aim and function. Utterance and situation are bound together. He states that language is a means of establishing social relations, and expressing feelings. The context of the situation (moment, time, emotions and relations) is a necessity for understanding words. Also, the linguistic context is a necessity for understanding the meaning of utterances, because a word by itself cannot stand for anything. In this view, the meaning is not dependent on context but is determined by context.

Labov has a similar statement about social relations and rights and obligations in statements but considers the context in the domain of discourse analysis. He states that relating what is done to what is said and vice versa interprets utterances as actions and is called discourse analysis.

Firth defines context of situation as a schematic construct in following categories:

  1. Relevant features of participants: person, personality, verbal and non-verbal action. (what is said, meant and done)
  2. Relevant objects
  3. And the effect of verbal action

Mey, defines context to be the sum and result of what has been said up to now, the prehistory of an utterance and prehistory of people using those utterances. Context is dynamic, not a static concept and it refers to the surroundings. For Mey like Malinowski, context is a concrete situational setting, not an abstract one.

Hymes suggests that when a form is used in a context, it eliminates other meanings possible to that form. He also makes a reference to a setting that includes time, place and physical circumstances. His major difference is about Scene Setting, which he refers to as psychological and socio-psychological setting that makes interaction redefined accordingly.

Sperber and Wilson also define context as a psychological construct: a set of premises used in interpreting utterances. Context is a psychological construct and assumptions about the world, religious beliefs, cultural assumptions, memories all have a role in interpretation. Humans get these culturally shared assumptions through socializing that defines them as a member of that community. Sperber and Wilson based their theory on the Grice’s co-operative principle and for them, the inferential process rather than decoding process yields the pragmatic meaning of utterances.

Meaning is a function of the interaction of code and context. Here inferential knowledge, the knowledge that gets activated, plays a huge role in meaning negotiation. Widdowson says that these assumptions also get created and negotiated in the process of interaction. Widdowson suggests that language can have its own contextual implications, which are then evaluated against extralinguistic contextual factors.

Relevance Theory also makes some explanations about context. Here, it gets detached from the socio-cultural context of the situation and becomes the function of an inferential process whereby contextual effects are derived from given contextual assumptions. RT represents meaning not as a semantic aggregate but as a relational function. RT focuses attention too exclusively on contextual effects that are generated intra-linguistically by inference and does not take adequate account of extralinguistic contextual factors.

P.S. Header image cropped from

Join us and Get our Free Email Updates
Get at most one Email per month and stay updated about all that happens in Translation Studies and Industry
We respect your privacy. This email will never get used outside of Dilmanj. We send you at most one email per month, any further change will be announced beforehand.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.

1 × 5 =