Language, Comics, & Context: Part 1

The way we speak through abstract concepts in Western society seems inherent, but ancient rhetoricians initially defined these communication methods. They’ve debated for centuries how to use language to share complex ideas and persuade others, but more recent pragmatists strayed from debate and returned to basics, studying how language acquires meaning. I.A. Richards, who became relevant in the early twentieth century, formulated theories about language and meaning that carry implications outside of language. By examining Richards’ theories and connecting his notions on words to icons, we see that Richard’s linguistic theories on context logically precede modern notions of meaning in comics.

Technical Context

I.A. Richards interrogated how we communicate through abstract concepts. In Richards’ view, the “old rhetoric” focuses too heavily on persuasion and neglects exposition, which means clarifying the words we use to persuade (Richards 24). Richards says that context is key to interpreting words that act as symbols and represent abstract concepts because they gain meaning through context. Humans individually assign meanings to words based on their past experiences with them, which he deems “technical context” (Golden 261-263). We constantly use technical context when we communicate. For example, imagine a frazzled parent in a PTA meeting declaring, “Our children need bus drivers who actually discipline the bullies!” Every adult in the room will picture different images for “children,” “drivers,” and “bullies.” Most parents would picture their own children, the bus driver who picks up their children, and past bullies.

Literary Context

Technical context explains how people interpret words individually, but Richards asserts that, societally, we use “literary context” to clarify the meaning of words that represent abstract concepts. Words depend on each other for meaning (Golden 265). Imagine the parent from the earlier example instead said, “My child, Johnny, deserves better. The driver on Bus #9 does nothing when Billy makes fun of him!” Fellow parents would all picture a similar scenario because the speaker added context to the abstract concepts of “child,” “bus driver,” and “bully.” In The Philosophy of Rhetoric, Richards claims that, “all thinking from the highest to the lowest–whatever else it may be–is sorting,” (30). Technical and literary context are mental sorting mechanisms that humans employ to organize abstract concepts and communicate through them.

Want to see how these theories connect to comics and cartoons? Come back for part 2 tomorrow! Thanks for reading!

Works Cited

Golden, James, et al. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 10th ed., Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2011.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford UP, 1936.


One response to “Language, Comics, & Context: Part 1”

  1. […] Recap of part one: Rhetorician I.A. Richards explored how we communicate primarily through abstract concepts. Individually, we assign meaning to words based on our personal experiences with them; Richards called that “technical context.” Societally, we understand each other’s use of words representing abstract concepts through “literary context,” where we specify the meaning of words by surrounding it with other words. Full post with examples available here: Language, Comics, & Context: Part 1. […]


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