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Context

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Context

When people use language, their words exist in a specific environment, a unique context that plays a role in shaping their meaning. Factors like social norms and cultural beliefs impact how speakers and writers use language and how those around them interpret it. Variables such as where we use certain words and how we communicate them also shape our understanding. The context people use in language is thus critical to understanding the meaning of speech and writing.

Meaning of Context in the English Language

In English, the word context refers to the circumstances surrounding language that shape its meaning. The term encompasses physical setting, historical background, and political and socioeconomic factors connected to how people use words.

Context in Writing

Context, context, context.

Written context refers to the circumstances in which a text is situated.

For instance, this includes the time period in which the author wrote the text and the social and political forces that impacted the text. Understanding a text's context helps readers understand its meaning.

For example, if a reader is analyzing George Orwell's book 1984 (1949), they have to consider what was going on in the place and time it was written: the United Kingdom in 1949. During this time, there was widespread social anxiety about the threat of totalitarianism and technological developments. These social fears shaped George Orwell's ideas regarding what the world would look like in the future and led to his novel about a surveilled dystopian society.

Context in Speaking

There's another kind of context, though.

Spoken context refers to the circumstances in which the speech takes place.

The context includes the speaker's physical setting, the surrounding culture, and social circumstances. The context of speech influences how listeners understand what is said.

For example, imagine a woman who wants to break up with her long-time boyfriend. If she chooses to have this important conversation at a loud party, he might not understand the severity of the situation. However, if she sits him down when they are alone in a quiet place, he might realize more quickly that she is serious.

Another famous example of how a speech's context impacts its meaning is Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. When analyzing the meaning and significance of this speech, people have to consider the importance of its context: the March on Washington. This march was a large protest in which 250,000 people met in Washington, DC, to resist racial segregation. King gave his speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the president whose leadership paved the way for the end of slavery. Understanding the historical significance of the speech's location and the social pressures of King's time all shape a listener's understanding of his words.

Context/Background, Lincoln Memorial, StudySmarterMLK delivered his 1963 "I Have Dream Speech" in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This situational context prompts reflection on the historical context of Lincoln's work for racial equality.

Importance of Context in Language

There are many reasons why it is important to consider context. Above all, understanding the context of language helps people understand its intended meaning.

For example, consider Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). In this text, Lee uses language that would be considered inappropriate today, such as the N-word. Analyzing the historical context helps readers understand how this word operates in the text.

Lee wrote the novel in 1960, when racial segregation was legal and African American civil rights were an important social and political issue in the United States. There was rampant racism in the American South, especially in small towns like the fictional Maycomb, Alabama. Lee aimed to portray the harsh racism that existed in these towns to tell a story that advocated for the end of systemic racism.

Understanding historical and social context like this helps readers understand the meaning behind Lee's use of offensive language.

Lee's use of the word caused several libraries to ban the book for years. Taken out of context, her use of the N-word is understandably alarming. However, when taken in its appropriate context, readers can understand that Lee was not using that word in an offensive manner herself but rather portraying how racism operated in small Southern towns like the one where her story takes place.

Types of Context in Language

The main types of context in language are historical context, sociocultural context, and situational context.

Historical Context

Everything has a historical context.

Historical context refers to the time and place where a text was written.

It includes the defining circumstances of a historical period, such as how people behaved and what they believed during that time.

For instance, Ernest Hemingway wrote his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) in the 1920s. The book is about the disillusionment among his post-World War I generation, particularly those who, like him, moved away from the United States to Europe. The characters are cynical, restless, and struggle to find meaning in anything around them. To understand the implications of their behavior, readers have to consider how WWI's brutal historical context changed people's views on life. Knowing this context helps readers understand why the characters struggle to find a purpose.

Sometimes writers set their fiction stories in a different time period than their own. When analyzing such fiction, try to analyze both historical contexts!

Sociocultural Context

Society and culture influence many aspects of human behavior, from how people dress and dance to how they speak and exchange ideas.

In language, sociocultural context is how words connect to their surrounding society and culture.

Understanding how cultural values inform writing or speech is critical to understanding their meaning.

For example, Henry David Thoreau's book Walden (1854) is about his experience retreating to a secluded cabin in the woods. In the text, Thoreau emphasizes the importance of finding meaning in the natural world. He wrote this book in the United States in the 1850s, a time of widespread industrialization when the social value of progress and technological expansion was increasing. Readers who take this sociocultural context into account when analyzing Walden can understand what shaped Thoreau's values and why he communicated them to his reader.

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a text's historical and cultural contexts. While sociocultural context can be connected to historical context, the former encompasses values and behaviors that may exist regardless of the time period. For example, the value of family has been a key aspect of culture in the Southern United States for many years. A text written or set in the American South would have that value embedded in its sociocultural context, no matter its historical context.

Consider what your current sociocultural context is. How does the culture you live in inform how you communicate and write?

Context/Background, Retreat to Nature, StudySmarterThoreau advocated for a retreat to nature like this one in a social context that valued progress and industrial expansion.

Situational Context in the English Language

Another type of context is situational context.

Situational context refers to the circumstances of a situation that shape the language within it.

For instance, imagine someone is giving a speech in front of their entire school. They might rush their words more than they would in front of just their close friends because they are nervous about public speaking. The speed of the speech could then changes how listeners perceive its meaning. This shows how being in a particular situation can impact how one uses language and how others interpret it.

Examples of Context

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" demonstrates the importance of context. In this letter, King responds to eight Birmingham clergymen who published a newspaper article critiquing his demonstrations against racial segregation. This historical context is important because it helps readers understand King's intended audience and what ideas he aimed to address.

King delivers the powerful line in this letter: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Another example of the role of context is evident in Lorainne Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The play is about a working-class African American family who lives in Chicago, Illinois, in the 1950s. They are expecting inheritance money, and each family member has a distinct dream of what to do with it. Their dreams are shaped in part by their sociocultural context.

For instance, the family lives in a patriarchal society in which men are pressured to provide for their families. These social pressures are a key aspect of the oldest son, Walter Lee Younger's sociocultural context, and they impact how he acts and what he represents in the play. He is determined to make a lot of money fast to provide for his family, and he risks everything to do it. The stress of the pressure also takes a toll on his self-esteem and relationships with others.

Understanding the role of his sociocultural context helps the audience learn about the impact of patriarchal expectations in familial relations.

Context - Key Takeaways

  • Context refers to the circumstances surrounding a text that shape its meaning.
  • Context is important for understanding the meaning of a text.
  • Historical context refers to the time and place where a text was written and takes place.
  • Sociocultural context is how words connect to their surrounding society and culture.
  • Situational context refers to the circumstances of a situation that shape the language within it.

Frequently Asked Questions about Context

In writing, context refers to the circumstances in which a text is situated. 

An example of context is how George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, a time in which people were worried about the future implications of totalitarianism. 

In English literature, context refers to the circumstances that shape the meaning of a text. Context includes elements like the time and place an author wrote a text in. 

Historical context, sociocultural context, and situational context. 

In writing, context refers to the circumstances in which a text is situated. In speaking, context refers to the circumstances in which the speech takes place. 



Final Context Quiz

Question

Written context may include:

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Social forces

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Question

It refers to the circumstances in which a text is situated. 

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Written context.

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Question

It refers to the circumstances in which the speech takes place. 

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Spoken context

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Question

"The context of speech influences how listeners understand what is said."

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True

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Question

Above all, understanding the context of language helps people understand its _____. 

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Intended meaning

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Harper Lee's offensive language is:

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Part of the socio-historical context and part of their intent

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It refers to the time and place where a text was written. 

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Historical context

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"Writers almost never set their fiction in a time other than their own."

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False

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It is how words connect to their surrounding society and culture. 

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Sociocultural context

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Question

"Understanding how cultural values inform writing or speech is critical to understanding their meaning."

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True

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