You are on page 1of 16

1

COHESION, COHERENCE AND ABSURDITY: THE WE MAKE SENSE OUT OF TEXTS


Let us look at the following two groups of sentencesi.Sachin Tendulkar stared at yet another challenge when he left Mumbai on Saturday with wife Anjali for London. The maestro will be operated on his right shoulder by dr. Andrew Wallace on Monday. Since he needs around eight weeks to recover, Tendulkar has been ruled out of the ODI series against England. There is question mark about his availability for Indias tour of West Indies as well. (Hindu, 26/3/ 2006) ii .Indian democracy is in a very bad state. Cricket is a very interesting game. Sachin scored a century recently. Well, the summer is going to be very hot. Whereas i. above will be immediately recognized as a coherent text, ii. will be difficult to make sense of. The difference between the two is that i. is a text, where as ii. is merely a group of sentences put together without any logical or grammatical connection between the sentences. i. is coherent: ii. is absurd. Let us now look at the concepts of cohesion, coherence and absurdity keeping in mind the above two examples. We will be mainly asking ourselves what are the elements that make i. a meaningful text and ii. an absurd collage of sentences. To begin with, let us talk about textuality. Textuality is ---what enables the speaker or writer to construct texts, or connected passages of discourse that is

2 situationally relevant and --- it expresses the structure of information, and the relation of each part of the discourse to the whole and to the setting ( Halliday, as quoted in Joia and Stenton,1980: 50). It is clear that when talking about texts, we will have to move beyond sentence. For a long time the dominant trend in linguistics was to look at sentence as the basic unit of language. However, the development of discourse analysis lead to a study of the larger-than-sentence units and it was seen that textual organization is not a mere extension of syntactic organization. As van Dijk says Those syntactic relationships that have traditionally formed the core of grammar-hold only within the sentence. If we extend them to descriptions of intersentential relations, we are lapsing into metaphor. ------. Infact the domain of text and discourse linguistics is more congruent with that of rhetoric than with that of syntax (1985: 13). Halliday and Hasan make the same point when they say A text is not something that differs from a sentence, only bigger; it is something that differs from a sentence in kind (1976: 2). Let us now see how intersentential relations lead to textuality. Meaningful text manifests both cohesion and coherence. The term cohesion is generally used to refer to the grammatical connectivity between the sentences of a discourse and coherence is used to refer to the semantic organization of the content. For example, Bublidge et al use the term cohesion for the syntactic organization of discourse which can be recognized by the discourse receiver. And they say The semantic organization of discourse can to a large extent be characterized as a set of properties which we designate by the term coherence (Bublidge et al, 1999:5). Velde D. van also makes similar point when he says ----( cohesion is) the syntactic organization of discourse which can be recognized by the discourse receiver.--The semantic

3 organization of discourse can to a large extent characterized as a set of properties which we designate by the term coherence (1984: 5). Thus cohesion refers to the grammatical connectedness between sentences of a text, whereas coherence refers to the semantic connectedness. Let us first look at the concept of cohesion. Halliday and Hasan(1976) make a detailed analysis of cohesion in English in their book Cohesion on English. They say that in a text, the sentences are interconnected. As they say Cohesion occurs when the interpretation of some element in discourse is dependent on another (1972:4). There are ties that bind the sentences together. There can be immediate ties and remote ties. Broadly, the cohesive ties can be either exophoric or endophoric. When we have to go outside the text to interpret the tie, we have exophoric cohesion. Another broad category is catophoric and anaphoric. When the interpretation of a tie depends on what has preceded, we have anaphoric cohesion; if the interpretation depends on what is to follow, we have catophoric cohesion. The famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice -It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man with good fortune is in need of a wifecan be an example of catophoric cohesion. Halliday and Hasan further say that reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion are the different types of cohesion in English. Let us now look at the passage i. To see how it shows cohesion. Sachin Tendulkar stared at yet another challenge when he left Mumbai on Saturday with wife Anjali for London. The maestro will be operated on his right shoulder by dr. Andrew Wallace on Monday. Since he needs around eight weeks to recover, Tendulkar has been ruled out of the ODI

4 series against England. There is question mark about his availability for Indias tour of West Indies as well. Let us see the different ways in which the sentences connect together. The passage is about Tendulkar. In the first sentence, we have his name. The second sentence uses the word maestro to refer to him. This is case of lexical cohesion that uses a general word. The next sentence uses the personal pronoun he and this is a personal reference. When connected with the second clause in the sentence (Since he needs around eight weeks to recover, Tendulkar has been ruled out of the ODI series against England ), it can be seen as an example of catophoric cohesion. There is lexical repetition in the repetition of the name Tendulkar. The final sentence uses an additive conjunction in as well. Thus even a small passage like this shows many grammatical links among the sentences and these links make the passage a meaningful text. But text ii. does not show any of these connectionsIndian democracy is in a very bad state. Cricket is a very interesting game. Sachin scored a century recently. Well, the summer is going to be very hot. There is no explicit grammatical connectivity among the different sentences of the passage. However, grammatical connectedness in itself can not fully account for the well formed ness of the texts. In the passage i. above, for example look at the word maestro which is used to refer to Tendulkar. What makes us think that it is Tendulkar that we are

5 talking about? If the word was used with respect to some other batsman (say, Kaif), could we have made the connection? And how does yet another challenge make sense? Let us look at another exampleiii. Expert motor driving school for Ladies and gents 22 years of excellent Service branch road no.2, Beside Q.Mart, Banjarahills. 9246271113. The above is an advertisement for a driving school. We make clear sense of the passage even when there is no clear and explicit cohesion. For example, we recognize the phone number even when the text has not mentioned that it is a phone number. We also can recognize whereto locate the school, though this is possible only if we are Hyderabadis. Here is an example of a text which does not exhibit cohesion, but still we can not say that this is absurd. Similarly, it is possible to form a text that exhibits all grammatical connectedness, but one which still can be called absurd. For example, look at the following hypothetical textvi. Sachin Tendulkar was batting on 50. He looked at the bowler who was getting ready to serve. Sachin held his racket firmly and got ready for a forehand. The maestro wanted to use his height for advantage. The passage exhibits all the cohesive ties that we saw in text i. It even uses the word maestro to refer to Tendulkar. But to anyone who knows cricket, the text is absurd. Those who know Tendulkars height will also wonder how he can make use of all his five foot four inch frame. Thus cohesion in itself is not enough to account for the

6 well-connectedness of a text. We need to go beyond cohesion to coherence. And this coherence is not merely a formal textual feature. As Brown and Yule say The reaction of some scholars to the question of coherence is to search for cues to coherence within the text and this may indeed yield a descriptive account of the characteristics of some types of text. It ignores, however, the fact that human beings do not require formal textual markers before they are prepared to interpret a text.(1983:66) Broadly speaking, coherence refers to the strategies employed by the reader to make sense out of a text. Coherence is something that can be analyzed at different levels. The usual definitions of coherence focus on the textual properties that can be determined linguistically and on the contextual properties that depend on the readers knowledge of the linguistic and non-linguistic facts of his culture. For example, coherence is The degree to which a piece of discourse makes sense. ---. A coherent discourse has a high degree of --- connectedness (Trask, 2004:39) and To refer to the coherence of

discourse is to refer to the ways in which its parts constitute a whole. We are talking about whether and how a discourse makes sense--- (Edmundson, 1999: 252). But it is necessary to point out that connectedness and making sense are two different phenomena that require different strategies from the reader and there is a need to distinguish between the text-intrinsic and the text-extrinsic organization. The connectedness between the different units of a narrative is text-intrinsic whereas the superstructure and frame form the text extrinsic level of coherence. Lindemann expresses these levels in the following way-

7 1) Micro structure Text intrinsic 2) Macrostructure 3) Superstructure vs. text extrinsic organization 4) Frame Non-linguistic organization (Lindemann, 1983: 29). Let us look at each of these categories and try account for the coherence in some texts. Micro-structure refers to the interconnectedness between the successive units of a text. This includes cohesion also. We have already seen the role cohesion plays in text i. But along with cohesion, we can also note the semantic connectedness between the successive sentences of text i. This semantic connectedness can be seen as the connectedness between the propositions of each sentence. Each sentence of text i. refers to the same topic- that is Tendulkar. Van Dijk calls this argument repetition. Text ii. is absurd not only because of the lack of cohesion, but also because the successive sentences refer to different and unconnected proposition. Thus the coherence of any text is a matter of the micro-structure. Such a micro- structure manifests itself in terms of local coherence. As Velde D. van says In the case of local discourse processing, inference-making processes concern only the sequential structure of propositions underlying adjacent utterances. Here it is advisable to call the established semantic Linguistic vs.

8 connections by the term local coherence. In the case of global discourse processing, propositions underlying separate utterances are integrated into the total semantic organization of discourse. Here it is justified to denote the emerging hierarchical structure by the term global coherence(Velde.D. van, 1980: 15) This global coherence is a matter of the macro- structure. We make sense out of a text not just on the basis of the connectedness between successive sentences or any other units of the text. Along with micro- structure, texts also exhibit macro-structure. That is, as a group the propositions belong to some common field. Van Dijk illustrates with the following example- One way of approaching text coherence (as opposed to the kind of overt textual cohesion that is marked by syntactically definable co-reference) is to look for such textual macrostructures as reveal a unifying underlying theme linking sentences to each other. Susie went to the railway station. She bought a ticket for Stockholm, went out to the platform, waited for the train, and climbed into a second class carriage. This coheres because it has a macrostructure Susie went to Stockholm by train. (van Dijk 1977: 28). Thus texts exhibit coherence through macro-structure also. Micro-structure and macro-structure are text-intrinsic properties. That is, they are available in the text itself. But superstructures are text extrinsic properties of discourse. Super structure is defined as --- schemata for conventional text forms; knowledge of these forms facilitates generating, remembering and reproducing macrostructures.(van Dijk, 1983:54). Though they are text extrinsic features, still they are linguistic features. Let us look at the example iii. again-

9 Expert motor driving school for Ladies and gents 22 years of excellent Service branch road no.2, Beside Q.Mart, Banjarahills. 9246271113 This text makes sense because we have a sense of the superstructure. The super structure here belongs to the field of advertisement. In literature the superstructure plays a very important role in determining coherence. A story beginning with the sentence once upon a time, in a far off land----- will make sense only if we are familiar with the superstructure of folk tales. The novels of James Joyce or Virginia Wolfe may not make sense to someone who is not familiar with modernism and its conventions. Sometimes superstructure plays such a strong role in determining coherence in literature that we accept as coherent even those things which our commonsense would think of as absurd. Thus we enjoy stories where in the first line itself we hear that the protagonist has become a cockroach (Metamorphosis, Kafka)! The next level of coherence is the script or the frame. This is a non-linguistic aspect of coherence. Van Dijk uses the term knowledge structures to talk about frames. He says During comprehension, readers pull out from their general store of knowledge some particular packet of knowledge and use it provide a framework for the text they are reading.(1983:43) Causal relations exist between states and events in the physical world. Knowledge about them is often crucial for interpreting a text.Typically a text leaves some crucial causal relationship implicit, and the readers have to supply this missing link from their own knowledge.(Van Dijk, 1983:43). We all have some

10 knowledge of the world and we have schemata in our minds. When we encounter a text, we try to fit it into one or the other schemata. Let us look again at the hypothetical example that we discussed earlierSachin Tendulkar was batting on 50. He looked at the bowler who was getting ready to serve. Sachin held his racket firmly and got ready for a forehand. The maestro wanted to use his height for advantage. The text has cohesion and it also has micro-structure. Each sentence adds to the theme of the previous sentence. In terms of macro-structure, the global theme of the text is Sachin facing a bowler. The super structure of the text is that of commentary. In spite of all these, the text does not make sense. It is because it does not fit in with the script or the schemata of cricket. The first sentence by using the word batting introduces the scheme of cricket, but the word forehand used in the next sentence does not fit in with this schema. Thus cohesion, micro-structure, macro-structure, superstructure and frame are the different aspects of coherence. A coherent text will be coherent if it satisfies our expectations from these different points of view. To conclude, let us look at a poem (a non-sense poem) to see how it makes sense, i.e. if it makes sense at all. We are looking at the first paragraph from a poem by Edward LearThe owl and the Pussycat went to sea In a beautiful pea-green boat, They took some honey, and plenty of Money, Wrapped up in a five pound note. The owl looked up to the stars above,

11 And sang to a small guitar, O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love, what a beautiful Pussy you are, you are, you are, What a beautiful Pussy you are! Let us see why this poem is called a non-sense poem. The passage exhibits cohesion very clearly. All cohesive ties are anaphoric. We have the pronoun they referring to the owl and the pussy, the pronoun you referring to the pussy. We have lexical repetition in the owl and we have lexical substitution in my love. Thus from the point of view of view of cohesion there is no reason to call this poem non-sense. Semantically, the passage exhibits micro-structure. All the sentences are semantically connected. Each sentence deals with what the owl and the pussy cat did. We have macro-structure also. The macro-theme of the passage can be said to be The owl and the pussy cat went to a picnic and the owl sang a song. Thus the passage is coherent from all the intra-textual yardsticks. Still we have found no reason to call it absurd. In terms of superstructure, the passage belongs to a type of literature called poetry. This is indicated by the typological shape and by the presence of rhyme. If the super-structure was that of a narrative, the passage would not have been coherent. In narrative we expect clear place and time indicators. A narrative that does not give it would not be coherent. But we know that this is a poem. Hence we do not worry that it has not begun with One day, a owl and a pussy cat------. This clearly shows that what is coherent for a particular kind of communication may not be coherent for a different kind of communication.

12 Why then is this poem called non-sense poem? The source of the absurdity of this poem does not lie in linguistic features. It lies in non-linguistic features. It is true that there are many things in the poem familiar to our experience of the world. We have the picnic frame and the courting frame. When you go to a picnic you take some thing to eat and when you court, it is very natural to play a guitar. But the absurdity of the poem lies in the participants in this activity. The owl and pussy cat going to picnic does not fit in with any of our frames or schemas. Taking money in a purse is in accordance with our schema, but taking money and honey in a five pound note is not in accordance with any of our experience! And the owl falling in love with a cat is also not in any of our schemas. Thus the poem is not coherent from the point of view of frame. That is why it is called a non-sense poem. Thus, a given text may be absurd because of different reasons. It can be absurd because it lacks cohesion. It can be absurd because there are no micro and macro connectedness between the different sentences. It can be absurd because it uses the wrong superstructure. Or it can be absurd because it does not make sense: it does not fit in with any of our schemas. But practically speaking, there are very few absurd texts. That is why most of the examples for incoherence in this paper are hypothetical examples. The nonsense poem mentioned above can not be senseless if it has given joy to many people! We find some sense in a play or a poem which calls itself absurd. That is why people try to make sense out of Beckets plays. It seems that we have a great ability to make sense of absurdity and we can say that very few authentic texts are absurd. Almost all instances of language use have coherence.

13 ReferencesBrown, Gillian and George Yule. Discourse Analysis Cambridge University press, 1983. Bubldge, Wolferam, Uta Lenk and Eija Ventola. Ed. Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse : How to Create It and How to Describe It. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins publishing company; 1999. Dijk, Teun A. van. Discourse and Literature. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins publishing company: 1985. Dijk, Teun A. Van and Walter kintsch Strategies of Discourse Comprehension , Academic press , inc. Orlando, Florida, 1983. Edmondson, Willis J. If Coherence is Achieved, Then Where Doth Meaning Lie? in Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse: How to Create It and How to Describe It, 250-265. Halliday, M.Y.K. and Raqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. London, Longman; 1976. Joia, Alex de and Adrian Stenton Terms in Systemic Linguistics: A Guide to Halliday. London, Batsford Academic and Educational limited; 1980. Lindemann, B. Text as process: An integrated view of a science of texts. Journal of Pragmatics, vol.12, no.1: 1983, pg.5-41. Trask, R.L. Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. London, Routledge; 2004.

14 Velde, Van D. Prolegomena to Inferential Discourse Processing Pragmatics and Beyond vol. 2. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins publishing company; 1984.

15

16