New Research on Cohesion and Coherence in Linguistics
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New Research on Cohesion and Coherence in Linguistics

Zhang Delu, Liu Rushan

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New Research on Cohesion and Coherence in Linguistics

Zhang Delu, Liu Rushan

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The study of text cohesion and coherence has been a topic of heated discussion in Linguistics since the 1990s. Western linguists have developed two major theoretical frameworks to describe the relationship between the two concepts: one posits that cohesive devices are important means to ensure cohesion; the other argues that coherence does not rely on cohesion. Yet neither has complete explanatory power over reality; nor can they solve real-life problems.

This title proposes a creative, concrete, and highly operational theoretical model that unites cohesion and coherence using authentic English or Chinese examples. The authors clarify the concepts of coherence and expand the scope of the research by focusing on a variety of internal and external factors, such as psycho-cognitive and socio-cultural factors. Moreover, the authors propose that the new theoretical paradigm can be applied to a range of other disciplines, including translation and foreign language teaching.

This title has been one of the most cited works on cohesion and coherence in China. Students and scholars of discourse analysis, linguistics, and language education will find this an invaluable reference.

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Part I
Theoretical research

1 Text coherence: retrospect and prospect

1.1 Introduction

Text coherence is a well-known concept. What we say and write must be coherent in order to be understood, so it is a basic skill that we need to develop when we learn to speak or write. However, existing literature indicates that research on the concept of text coherence is rare. This may be due to the fact that people think that text coherence is too general a concept to be studied or that people think the sentence is the largest unit of research in grammar.
The degree of text coherence often serves as a criterion for evaluation directly or indirectly in language learning, language use, and composition. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many linguists, writers, and philosophers have studied the concept of text coherence and made remarkable achievements, but at the same time, there still exist some problems. This chapter is mainly intended to give a general survey of the achievements and the existing problems in the research on text coherence to find out what we should do in future research.

1.2 Theoretical development

In the 1960s and 1970s, some scholars, such as Jakobson (1960), Harweg (1968), van Dijk (1972, 1977), Kintsch (1974), Halliday & Hasan (1976), Coulthard (1977), Widdowson (1978, 1979), Enkvist (1978) (See Miao, 1998), began to study text coherence. Among them, Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) Cohesion in English attracts the greatest attention of scholars to study text coherence. By the 1980s and 1990s, research on text coherence had been studied in-depth and developed into many theoretical models. They include: Halliday and Hasan’s register-and-cohesion model, van Dijk’s macrostructure model, Widdowson’s illocutionary speech act model, Mann and Thompson’s rhetorical structure theory model, Brown and Yule’s cognitive frame model, as well as Danés and Fries’ thematic progression model.
Halliday and Hasan’s Register and Cohesion Model Halliday and Hasan (1976, p. 23) say:
“The concept of COHESION can therefore be usefully supplemented by that of REGISTER, since the two together effectively define a TEXT. A text is a passage of discourse which is coherent in these two regards: it is coherent with respect to the context of situation1, and therefore consistent in register; and it is coherent with respect to itself, and therefore cohesive. Neither of these two conditions is sufficient without the other, nor does the one by necessity entail the other. Just as one can construct passages which seem to hang together in the situational-semantic sense, but fail as texts because they lack cohesion, so also one can construct passages which are beautifully cohesive but which fail as texts because they lack consistency of register - there is no continuity of meaning in relation to the situation. The hearer, or reader, reacts to both of those things in his judgment of texture.”
Externally, it means a cohesive text should be consistent with the context of situation where it occurs; internally, it should be connected by cohesive ties.
Van Dijk’s Macrostructure Model van Dijk proposes two layers of coherence in Text and Context (1977): “linear or sequential coherence” and “the global or overall coherence”, that is, the coherence at the level of “macrostructure”. Linear or sequential coherence refers to “the coherence relations holding between propositions expressed by composite sentences and sequences of sentences.” (van Dijk, 1977, pp. 95), which is manifested in three aspects: (a) the discourse ordering for facts or events, including the normal discourse ordering; (b) the degree of meticulousness and explicitness of the statement of facts or events; (c) the organization and development of information in the text and the interaction of Given with New. The macrostructure of a text refers to the semantic structure represented by the topic of discourse. It can be formed by using two deletion rules and two generalization rules to hierarchically and recursively condense the meaning (van Dijk, 1977, pp.144-146). The resulting macrostructure is entailed by the microstructures that constitute it.
Widdowson’s Illocutionary Acts Model Widdowson believes that cohesion is concerned with the propositional development between sentences or parts of sentences, while coherence is concerned with the illocutionary function of these propositions. He says (Widdowson, 1978, pp. 52), “Whereas cohesion, then, has to do with the way propositions are linked together by a variety of structural operations to form texts, coherence has to do with the illocutionary function of these propositions, with how they are used to create different kinds of discourse: reports, descriptions, explanations, and so on. The reader realizes coherence by recognizing that the propositions in the form and in the order in which they appear can be associated with illocutionary values which he accepts as appropriate”.
Mann and Thompson’s Rhetorical Structure Theory Model Mann and Thompson introduced the Rhetorical Structure Theory (RST) they developed in the latter part of the 1980s (Mann & Thompson, 1987). They believe that a text is composed of spans that have various functions. RST treats a text as consisting of functional spans at different levels by employing the concepts of hierarchy and rank in systemic functional linguistics. A larger functional span is made up of smaller ones. Each functional span has its special function, which is represented by a rhetorical relationship, such as background, means, motivation, evidence, elaboration, contrast, restatement, and sequence. The rhetorical relationship in low-level spans modifies the rhetorical relationship in the larger functional span in which it is located. If these low-level functional spans form a unity when they constitute a larger functional span and jointly realize the communicative intention of the author, the text is coherent. It can be seen that coherence is expressed as the functional unity of text spans.
Brown and Yule’s Cognitive Frame Model Brown and Yule (1983) emphasize the importance of the speaker’s knowledge of the world for the coherent interpretation of the text. The background knowledge exists in the form of cognitive models, such as frame, schemata, script, scenario, and plan. They believe that a text is coherent if the meaning expressed by the speaker fits these models and can be interpreted as an interconnected whole. However, they did not strictly define coherence, considering it a popular concept instead of a theoretical one.
Danés and Fries’ Thematic Progression Model Danés (1974) and Fries (1983) both relate text coherence to thematic progression. They believe that the continuity of thematic progression represents the degree of text coherence. To form a particular type of thematic progression, the units related to each other must be connected by similar elements. Without such a connection, discontinuities in the thematic progression process will cause a breakdown in text cohesion, which leads to incoherence. The difference between the two is that Danés only emphasizes the importance of the thematic progression for text coherence, while Fries also emphasizes the importance of text development methods when he discussed the formation of thematic progression coherence.
Each of the above six theories has formed its own complete theoretical framework based on a certain linguistic theory. But each has its own drawbacks, so they need to be further improved and developed.
Halliday and Hasan’s theory of text coherence proposed the formal mechanisms of text coherence, the lexical and grammatical resources for cohesive ties, and the register consistency theory, which determines these formal mechanisms to be cohesive ties. They did not make a detailed description or analysis of how register consistency governs text coherence. However, this is more important than only enumerating the examples and types of cohesion. Besides, there is also a lack of research on other cohesive mechanisms, such as phonological features, intonation, tense, voice, and transitivity realizing cohesion. The cohesion in recently developed multimodal text and hypertext is not heeded either. Van Dijk’s macrostructure theory uses a pattern similar to immediate constituent analysis, but it is at the semantic or discursive level, so his analysis is basically limited to the text itself and failed to include factors such as socio-cultural factors, the context of situation, and cognitive models which actually affect the text coherence. Widdowson’s illocutionary act theory is very concise and theoretical, but it is too general. In specific research, it is necessary to study the theoretical framework concerned, the specific levels of the related theoretical aspects, and the analytic methods. Mann and Thompson’s rhetorical structure theory is similar to van Dijk’s macrostructure theory. Although its function in the text determines its rhetorical structure, its research is limited to the analysis of the internal components of the text. Brown and Yule’s cognitive frame theory is a good supplement to the above theories. It proposed social and cultural knowledge as a key element in text coherence, but it failed to become a complete theoretical model for text coherence analysis. The thematic progression theory of Danés and Fries also mainly studies text coherence from within the text. Moreover, it is only one of the many factors affecting text coherence, so it cannot act as an overall theoretical framework for the analysis of text coherence.
In summary, these theories touched upon all the aspects of text coherence, but they all lack a complete, concrete, and operative theoretical model or analytical framework. This is what we attempt to construct or improve a theoretical framework for the analysis of text coherence here.

1.3 Conditions for text coherence

From the above analysis, it can be seen that the study of text coherence actually involves the entire process and almost all aspects of discourse analysis. Although it is expressed or realized by form (cohesive mechanisms of various types), it is not a feature at the formal level but at the semantic level, which is manifested as the semantic connections or semantic consistency of the whole text. And this semantic connectivity or consistency is not determined by the formal and semantic features of the text itself but by factors outside the language. These factors belong to what Halliday called “behavioral potential” in the context of culture (Halliday, 1973). It is related to the common practices and habits of people from the same cultural background. It also includes a set of rules and principles (e.g., those for the formation of generic structure, etc.) for speaking and writing. These conventionalized social behavioral characteristics, seen from an individual’s perspective, can be described as cognitive patterns, such as schemes, frameworks, scripts, psychological models, and plans.
All language activities take place in a certain context of situation. The context of situation will directly or indirectly affect the choice and communication of the meaning of text, as well as the choice of language forms (such as ellipsis, implication, etc.). From a psychological perspective, the situational environment can be manifested as the thought pattern and communicative intention of the communicator. Systemic functional linguistics carries out a relatively systematic study of the context of the text and proposes a theory of the context of situation, including three variables: field, tenor, and mode. Determined by the above factors, the semantic relations are realized by the linguistic features at various levels and ranks, such as non-structural cohesive devices, thematic structure, information structure, transitivity, mood, phonetics, phonology, and intonation. They are briefly described below.

1.3.1 The context of culture

As he grows up in a certain cultural environment, the speaker’s words and behaviors (way of thinking, behavior, habitual communication, taboos, etc.) will inevitably leave imprints of his cultural background, which was called by Bronislaw K. Malinowski (1923) “the context of culture”. The context of culture in which a person grows up will directly affect what he himself wants to say and his understanding of what others say. If what others say is consistent with his way of thinking and speaking, it is natural for him to interpret other’s words as coherent discourse and give positive evaluations. At the same time, it is also conducive for him to take the text produced in the communicative process as being coherent. Otherwise, misunderstanding, communication breakdown, or even something unpleasant may happen.
Constrained by the context of culture, relatively stable patterns of the communication process or semantic structures are formed in each speech community as a result of daily social communications. These stable communicative patterns are conducive to the members of the speech community to communicate with each other. In English, this kind of semantic structure is represented by genre, which originally means “type” in French, and it is called “a type of language” (yulei) in Chinese (Fang, 1998). The generic structure is at the highest-level macrostructure of a text. If the elements of the text structure are not consistent with those of the genre, the coherence of the text will be damaged.

1.3.2 The cognitive models

From the perspective of the individual, the stabilized cultural features in the context of culture, such as customs, habits, and behavioral patterns, can become knowledge structures in the individual's mind through education. This kind of knowledge structure is both static, existing in the form of a particular model, and at the same time dynamic, being under constant change. It has both the features of passively wa...

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