DABHVSinP – Part 2: Foreground and Background

In this series of posts, I am interacting with Alviero Niccacci’s attempt to explain the BH verbal system in poetry by a discourse-pragmatic method. See the introductory post here. My goal in this post is to introduce the concepts of foreground and background information in general before discussing how they may be applied to biblical poetry.

The distinction of foreground from background information was first developed in the analysis of narrative. The idea began with Labov, among others, who sought to distinguish between narrative and non-narrative clauses within a text where narrative clauses contain the events of the story which are temporally sequenced. The terms foreground and background (taken from Gestalt Theory) were introduced by Hopper and Thompson. Foreground refers to the sequential events which are presented on the primary storyline of the narrative, while background is everything else that is presented off-line (Labov’s “non-narrative” material). Longacre includes the criteria that the sequential events must also be contingent upon each other. In the following example the foregrounded verbs are given in CAPITALS, while the backgrounded verbs are in italics:

(1) Yesterday I WENT to the grocery store. (2) It was the Kroger down the street. (3) I SAW my neighbor John there, (4) and he SAID that (5) our friend Bob had been hit by a car. (6) While we were talking, (7) Bob WALKED UP on crutches. (8) We ASKED him (9) how he was doing (10) and he SAID (11) he was okay.

Note that the foregrounded verbs are simple past tense, as is common in most languages for narrative, and that they all occur in main independent clauses. Descriptive and equative clauses such as (2) are naturally off the storyline since they do not narrate an event. Subordinate clauses also tend to report events that are off the main storyline as in (5). Lastly, durative and progressive forms such as (6) tend to be circumstantial, providing context for other punctual events.  

The relationship between foreground and background material is not strictly binary, and scholars have argued for a scalar approach with degrees of “backgroundedness”. If you think of a narrative as a painting, foregrounded information would appear closer to you while background material is further and further off in the distance. Note the subtle shift happening here. Foreground and background information were originally based on temporal ordering, but it seemed natural that the foreground information was also the most important in the discourse while background information was secondary. Keeping with the analogy of the painting, what is in the foreground is also largest and therefore most prominent. In linguistic jargon this is usually also referred to as salience. Along with coherence (the way that the individual pieces of information relate to one another) salience is one of the more important features of a discourse.

How then does an author “move” information from the background to the foreground? Hopper and Thompson argued that the transitivity of a clause was related to its prominence in discourse with high transitivity related to foregrounding and low transitivity related to backgrounding. They offered ten parameters associated with transitivity that can be used to mark prominence (adapted from pg 252):

Parameter High T Low T
1. Participants 2 or more, A(gent) and O(bject) 1
2. Kinesis Action Non-action
3. Punctuality Punctual Non-punctual
4. Volitionality Volitional Non-volitional
5. Affirmation Affirmative Negative
6. Mode Realis Irrealis
7. Agency A high in potency A low in potency
8. Affectedness of O O totally affected O not affected
9. Individuation of O O highly individuated O non-individuated

I do not have room to explain each parameter, but in general the assumption is that storylines seem to be advanced by events in which characters perform actions that change things, ie a backbone of cause –> effect relationships. However, some scholars have debated whether this correlation is dependent on the discourse context or the natural semantics of the clause. Lakoff arrived at a similar list to describe transitivity, but argued that the parameters were primarily derived from semantics rather than discourse, and Tomlin also criticized the conclusions since 39% of high transitivity clauses were actually in the background, a red flag if transitivity is supposed to mark foreground (See Delancey’s paper in the volume edited by Tomlin). This is always an issue with discourse analysis and one which we will return to later – what is the best direction of explanation? Do discourse concerns drive the morpho-syntax, are semantics primary, is there a reciprocal relationship between the two, or perhaps some third thing that both are co-dependent on?

Longacre largely built his salience scheme on Hopper and Thompson, to whom he adds the parameter of sequentiality. This accounts for an action that may be highly transitive but off the main storyline since it does not occur in sequence as in clause (5) in the example above (I am not sure though how much of the 39% this accounts for). Drawing also from Grimes, he posits 7 bands for English narrative (adapted from pg 24-25):

Band 1. Storyline simple past tense, contingent sequence, main clause
Band 2. Background past progressive
Band 3. Flashback pluperfect
Band 4. Setting intransitive verbs with inanimate subjects
Band 5. Irrealis negatives and modals/futures
Band 6. Evaluation Past tense, gnomic present
Band 7. Cohesion repetition, back reference

There are two things to note at this point. First, the TAM (Tense/Aspect/Mood) of the verb has a strong correlation with the discourse role of the clause, but it is also not the only parameter and it can be modified by other parameters in certain cases. For instance, in clause (5) I could have said “Bob WAS HIT by a car” using the simple past rather than pluperfect, but it would still be off the main storyline since it is in a subordinate clause and does not occur in sequence. Longacre gives the example of the use of the punctiliar adverb ‘suddenly’ in English as a way to promote information onto the storyline. In the following example, “I couldn’t see” is technically irrealis, and thus should be in Band 5, but it is given a punctual aspect and placed onto the main sequence by the adverb:

Yesterday I was walking in the park when I SAW dark clouds approaching. Suddenly, I COULDN’T SEE a thing and I RAN back to my car blindly before the deluge could soak me. 

Items can also be demoted from the main storyline by being placed in a subordinate clause, as Thompson notes (See  her ‘”Subordination” and Narrative event Structure’ in the Tomlin volume). Consider the following example:  

Yesterday I MADE some toast for breakfast. It was cinnamon and sugar toast like I used to make when I was a kid. After I cleaned the dishes, I TOOK my shower…

“I cleaned the dishes” is punctual and occurs sequentially and contingently between the events of making toast and taking a shower. However, it is placed in a fronted adverbial clause which is a cohesion device used here to reorient the reader to the main storyline after a digression. This would place it in Longacre’s Band 7, the lowest level of salience. 

The other thing to note is that so far we have only discussed narrative discourse, and the ordering principle of narrative discourse is sequence. It seems natural that these principles can be extended to other types of discourse that rely on either temporal or logical sequence, and indeed Longacre has also discussed prophecy and procedural discourse (step by step instructions). But, the question remains how the foreground :: background distinction applies to discourse which is organized differently, say thematically instead of sequentially. Obviously this will be important when we turn to poetry.

Some Bibliography:

Grimes, Joseph. The Thread of Discourse. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Hopper, Paul, “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse,” In Discourse and Syntax, Syntax and Semantics vol 12.  Edited by T. Givón. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

Hopper, Paul and S.A. Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse.” Language 56 (1980): 251-99

Labov, William, and Joshua Waletzky, “Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.” In Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts, Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967.

Longacre, Robert. The Grammar of Discourse, 2nd Ed. New York: Plenum Press, 1996.

Tomlin, Russel (Ed.). Coherence and Grounding in Discourse, Typological Studies in Language, Vol 11. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1987.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Poetic Structure, Semitic Verbal System

4 Comments on “DABHVSinP – Part 2: Foreground and Background”

  1. I’ve just read Cook’s “The Semantics of Verbal Pragmatics,” which was a helpful introduction for me into these matters. I can e-mail it to you if you haven’t read it [philsumpter at hotmail dot com].

  2. John Hobbins Says:

    It might be helpful, before moving on to poetry, to show how a taxonomy of this kind works on an example of ancient Hebrew narrative. What kind of explanatory power does it have? What insights, if any, does it yield?

  3. Peter Bekins Says:


    That’s where I’m heading next, just give me a little more time :).

  4. [...] Part 2: Foreground and Background [...]

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