Mk 10:21

CWestf5155 at CWestf5155 at
Wed Aug 30 17:18:06 EDT 2000

In a message dated 08/30/2000 12:49:46 PM Mountain Daylight Time, 
c.s.bartholomew at writes:

>  How can we go about testing the notion that "the present tense involves
>  foregrounding?" Can this notion be falsified? If not, why should we accept
>  it? 
>  If you can test the proposition "the present tense involves foregrounding"
>  then there must be some independent means of determining what is in the
>  foreground and what is in the background of a discourse. By independent, I
>  mean some means that is not connected with verb marking.
>  The only way I can see to test this proposition is to look in high level
>  semantic structure of the discourse for information about what is in the
>  foreground and what is in the background.  You must begin by presuming that
>  you can obtain reliable indicators of foreground and background in the
>  semantic structure COMPLETELY INDEPENDED of verb marking before you can run
>  your test on the present tense.
>  If this is the case, then you have essentially admitted (implicitly) that
>  the high level semantic structure of the discourse contains adequate
>  information for determining what is in the foreground and in the 


Just a couple of short observations.

First, the test of whether presents are foregrounded involves two things that 
I can think of.  A foregrounded feature ought to have some further 
development that can be either formal or semantic--probably both in most 
cases.  I would expect to see key figures or states/actions/processes receive 
some kind of expansion.  Also, a kind of a test is the theoretical backing 
from the discussions on figure and ground.  I suggest that the present 
tense's link with present time shows that the tense conveys immediacy, 
imminency, or in other words and "here and now" element, which is 
prominent/emphatic compared to a "then and there" element.

Second, I detect an assumption (maybe false) that you are assuming that I'm 
saying that presents must be foregrounding at the level of discourse.  I 
don't think that.  I think that a present is foreground within a certain 
domain or context.  I'm thinking that it won't usually go beyond what we have 
called a paragraph--often less. So, in a conversation, the domain of 
prominence or context would be one given speaker's turn.  In Jesus' statement 
in Mk. 10:21, it would be ludicrous to say that the present verb is 
foregrounded at the discourse level.  

Thirdly, the present tense is one of many elements that signal the kind of 
relative prominence that are associated (or will be associated) with 
foregrounding--that is that it is the second to the highest in prominence in 
its system.  So call it foreground within its system, but when it is combined 
in patterns with other elements, the planes of discourse become more complex 
than a flat background, foreground, frontground model--there is a lot of 
contouring in there.  In other words, when a perfect pops up, I assume that 
it is as emphatic as a verb can be, but I don't automatically assume that it 
dominates its paragraph.  Prominence at that level often involves a 
confluence of markers.  

>  But the high level semantic structure is not something that can be reduced
>  to a "bean counter" research paradigm. It is a subjective business 
>  high level semantic structure and so all the people who want to stick with
>  the objective quantifiable questions (formal language features) get caught
>  playing a double game. They end up using (implicitly) this subjective high
>  level semantic structure to prove propositions like "the present tense
>  involves foregrounding." And then they proceed to tell us that they are 
>  relying on the "hard data," the so called formal language features, to 
>  their conclusions. 
>  Will this kind of thinking stand the light of day?

The Hallidayan model (Systemic Linguistics) has a firm middle ground on this. 
 Halliday says something like the divorce of meaning and form is a heresy.  
What this means is that semantic and pragmatic analysis is as valid as the 
day is long, but it cannot be divorced from form because meaning is also 
conveyed through the form.  Thus, I say don't let your interpretation 
override the formal features.  Rather, let the formal features inform (or 
even frame) your interpretation.  It's kind of like having the checks and 
balances of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

My analyses or even choice of concentration in hermeneutics probably start in 
my mind as pragmatic and semantic--but my 'proofs' have formal features as 
the starting point.  They form an anchor for interpretation (and 

Now I'm really going to stop writing posts and work on my thesis.  Right now 
I'm reading a tasty book on pragmatics and relevance theory.  Don't you wish 
you were here?

Cindy Westfall
PhD Student, Roehampton

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