C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text and Big Blue Wobbly Things

Let’s start off with Ferdinand de Saussure’s second favourite Youtube clip (he details his favourite videos in in his seminal paper Les Clips, Le Signifié et Le Signifiant: Quelque Chose que Je Viens d’Inventer (unpublished), page 3). Your pre-listening/watching task is to find it amusing.

So, why would I be sharing this with you? The reason is to talk about how you make sense of it. After all, the humour is based on, among other things, some excellent neologisms, so there’s a lot going on when you process what Blackadder says (for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend there was no video and this is an extract from a reading lesson). Here’s the transcript (the reading text) from 49 seconds in:

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.

Blackadder: Every single one, sir?

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?

Blackadder: “Contrafribularites”, sir? It is a common word down our way.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!

Blackadder: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.

Bottom’s Up (or “How I Learned to Love Christine Nuttall”)

One way of looking at ways of interpreting meaning from a text is to think in terms of what is often called “context”. However, this is a rather woolly term, applied by different people to different things in different disciplines and rather inconsistently at that, so we can further break it down into:

  • The co-text: the linguistic features of an unknown item, such as its place in the sentence or the morphemes of which it is composed
  • The context: what Scott Thornbury calls the “physical and temporal setting” in which discourse occurs and which requires a knowledge of its purpose, participants and whether it is written or spoken.

A further way of looking at how this text might be interpreted is to to examine different processes which readers employ when we try to comprehend something. These can be grouped as follows:

  • Bottom-up Processing: involves making use of linguistic clues (letter recognition, affixes, syntactic categories, etc.) present in the text and building meaning up from these components.
  • Top-Down Processing: involves using existing schemata (world knowledge) to aid comprehension and treating text as a whole, rather than a series of individual words.

This rather neat distinction is, of course, a bit too clear-cut to really tell the whole story. It would be rather naive to expect a reader to simply employ one set of processes in interpreting a text and so more modern approaches to talking about receptive skills work posit an interactive model of textual interpretation whereby both these sets of processes occur more or less simultaneously and, well, interact to help us achieve comprehension.

Both Top-Down and Bottom-Up processes can function at various levels when working with text i.e. at word level, sentence level, text level or even, say, an entire novel. For example, if you were reading a noir detective novel, the top-down processing would involve knowledge of noir conventions (genre), expectations of plot, character, etc., while the bottom-up processing would be actually working with the words and clauses to build up the meaning as you go. At word level, on the other hand, bottom-up approaches would be to look at combinations of letters, affixes, and so forth to build up meaning, while top-down processing might check this by activating existing knowledge of what kinds of word/letter combinations are permissible in English (this is extra-textual, after all), allowing you to work out that ‘krk’ is not a valid English word (it means “neck” in Czech).

The next section is “like fitting wheels to a tomato – time-consuming and completely unnecessary”

Ok, so that’s all very well, but how does all the above relate to Blackadder? Well, let’s make a good joke really quite un-funny by deconstructing it co-textually to work out what “contrafibularities” means.

First of all, taking a step out of our reading lesson, note how I’ve spelt it. How do I know that the plural form ends “-ies”? After all, it’s a made-up word, which I’ve never seen written down. The reason for that is my knowledge of general English word patterns/spelling conventions, which dictates that a noun which sounds like it ends in a “-y” in the singular would be “-ies” in the plural. But that’s not the co-text, despite being at the morphological level; rather, it is my extra-textual knowledge – implicit or explicit – that comes into play (here, more exactly, my knowledge of English as a system – though plenty people disagree with me there and would class it as co-text).

Getting back to co-text, I wrote above that “contrafibularities” is a noun. Well, how do I know? I know because it occurs as the head of a complex noun phrase introduced by a determiner (“my”) and because it seems to be in the plural. If that’s a bit much, it means that it comes after an adjective (“enthusiastic”), which is what nouns tend to do when adjectives are around, and my brain extra-textually knows this. It also knows that “offer” is a ditranstive verb (takes two objects) and so if I offer something to somebody, then that something is the direct object which, again, tends to be a noun phrase: co-text being interactively checked by my knowledge of English syntax.

Ok, so I’ve worked out the part of speech, but what does it mean? Again, the co-text helps here. If it’s modified by “enthusiastic”, “contrafibularities” is likely to have a positive meaning. Likewise, the nearest verb is “offer” and you tend not to offer negative things to people. Combine this with our knowledge of how humans conduct their affairs (context) and we see that someone having completed a groundbreaking project is likely to be lauded by someone else and it all starts to add up to a positive word in some way. Then, it even sounds a bit like “congratulations”, which would fit – “offer” would collocate with “congratulations” too – so we arrive at our idea of the meaning. And we all this did this in .06 of a second (I know; I timed it) and with a lot of interactive processes going on.

Above the level of the word

The preceding discussion has focused on an example of what’s often called “deducing meaning from context” or “inferring lexical meaning” or other similar appellations. This is a commonly discussed subskill in the teaching of reading and one you’ll find a few Delta background essays on. It’s also something you can help your learners develop in by working on it in class, showing them how to do it and providing practice in order to help them become more autonomous readers who don’t need to translate every word they don’t know, but who can develop a greater tolerance for ambiguity (though you must still remember those learners who only read to increase their vocabulary). However, when we interpret the meaning of a text, there’s much more going on above the level of the individual word.

Let’s look again at this sentence:

Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

On its own, out of its context within this piece of discourse, this sentence seems to suggest that someone is offering someone else something positive, but we have no idea what that might be or why it might be so. No amount of co-textual, bottom-up processing can help us work out its meaning without the rest of the discourse: its context (including knowledge of this TV show). And yet, when we hear Blackadder say it, we immediately know he is being sarcastic. How can we help our learners know the same?

Going deeper, we have:

  • a situation whereby a servant is more intelligent than his really quite stupid master (yes, actually taking that old conceit from Roman Comedy and making it funny – they did only have one joke, the Romans, and they weren’t even very good at that, but I digress)
  • Said servant is prone to entertainingly sarcastic outbursts.
  • Into this walks a famous intellectual who’s just written the first ever dictionary
  • we would expect him to be congratulated for this

Before Blackadder even speaks, those familiar with the above are ready to top-down interpret the exchanges therein in this context. So where does the humour actually come from?

The most important aspect, for me, would be the word “contrafibularities” again. To congratulate the man who just wrote the first ever dictionary with a word he does not know is somewhat ironic and then you add to that that Blackadder just made that word up and you have a double helping of irony served with extra sarcasm and drizzled in some quintessentially Blackadderian disdain. And you know this and interpret it as such, but you’ve put together your context and your co-text to get there, to infer the speaker’s attitude and interpret the humour, but can you expect your learners to (not that I’d really suggest working with this text in most learning contexts)?

The answer would be probably not, as they will likely lack a good bit of the background to the context. A better argument for presenting reading text in context i.e. activating schemata with some pre-reading work, and helping learners use contextual clues to interpret text, I really cannot think of. Present that text to a native speaker with no idea about Blackadder and you would get similarly blank looks of incomprehension (as my current Delta group now knows..). Then, of course, many learners would tend to treat “confibularities” as if it were a real word that they simply don’t know, rather than applying their co-textual strategies to deduce a likely meaning, so helping them with this subskill can aid them here too.

Reading Lessons vs the Complexity of it all

Assuming the teacher follows a ‘standard’ format in class and introduces the context (‘the first dictionary’?!), maybe pre-teaches some lexis, perhaps sets up a prediction task, then has a gist task, then a detail one and then moves on to a follow up productive activity, then it’s hard to see how the learners really get anything out of this. They may have practised reading, but have they really developed it? Have they thought about how the comprehended (or didn’t) the text? Have they examined lexis they didn’t know and tried to deduce its meaning? Did they interpret any attitude in the text? Did they see how contextual clues can help them with comprehension? Did they think about strategies they can employ to deal with difficult text? Or did they just get the five detail questions right and we moved on? And do they even have to do this? This might well be the subject of a future post.

(And finally, for those who made it this far and are wondering about De Saussure’s favourite YouTube clip, it’s the first minute or so about the C)

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5 thoughts on “C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text and Big Blue Wobbly Things

  1. Pingback: C is for Contrafibularities, Context, Co-text a...

  2. Love it. Me and De Saussure… we’re clearly into the same things. “Contrafibularities” is perhaps the finest word in the English language. Oh, and thanks to your excellent coaching, I was able to work out what “Blackadderian” meant in your post. 🙂

    But really, the best bit for me was your conclusion about whether the standard ‘predict, gist, detail…’ (yawn) is really helping learners DEVELOP their reading skills, or just practise reading. Clearly, practising reading is worthwhile, but developing the skill itself seems sadly neglected in a lot of assessed training-course lessons (especially pre-service, where trainees are typically assumed to be able to understand nothing beyond this simple lesson procedure).

    This kind of exploration of an important sub-skill, of how you can actually deduce meaning from a text using a variety of strategies, is maybe just something hard to fit into a short (approx. 40 min) TP lesson…?

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Hello there Laura,

      You make a good point about pre-service training constraints. I was more aiming this at my Delta candidates, but the point remains. I think you have to balance, at pre-service, the need to work on techniques and procedures with the need to introducing such conceptually tricky ideas as those in this post on top of that. I mean, in the intensive CELTA, for example, we have 4 weeks to help candidates and there are some (yes, we all know there are) who will simply not even manage very basic classroom management and so this is most likely beyond them. For these candidates, perhaps what you identify in your second paragraph is more important; however, for your A candidates, maybe we should push them on to something approximating your third paragraph.

      Thinking about all of this, I recently changed my CELTA to include a focus of strategies/processes (later on in the course as Receptive Skills Revisited) but haven’t had a chance to try it out yet due to not working on our current course. I think it’ll be a good revision session for all, a good push on for the As and a good deepening of understanding for everyone. I did use the Blackadder on Delta, and it went pretty well (not exactly as described above) and seemed to make the point.

      Anyway, nice to hear from you and thanks for commenting.

      Chris

  3. Keneward

    Surely only a pithscrinious teacher like myself would bother to ask why it’s contrafibularities in one place and contrafribularities in another… but I guess that also indicates how the language developed – anyway, thanks for the smiles… Caroline was right when she bestowed her accolades on the blog.

    Keneward

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Hmm, you make a valid point there… I’ll just leave it as it is to keep the mystery factor up! Thanks for comment, Keneward, pithscrinious or otherwise…

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