meaning - When did "text" come to be defined as something other than words?

  • tylerharms

    I think the answer to this question may be in the OED, but I don't have access to the service. I am discussing "texts" using definitions (from like this:

    text: any theme or topic; subject.

    and this

    text: anything considered to be a subject for analysis by or as if by methods of literary criticism.

    Within the context of cultural anthropology I'm having a discussion with my students about how the definition of a text has expanded over the years to include not just texts comprising words but also visuals (e.g., images in advertisements).

    I've come across the latter usage of text in certain educational books:

    "Like written texts, visual texts have been carefully constructed by their composers to shape meaning, and to affect and influence the viewer."


    "This resource covers how to write a rhetorical analysis essay of primarily visual texts with a focus on demonstrating the author’s understanding of the rhetorical situation and design principles."

    An ngram search for "visual texts" doesn't have many results before the 1960s, and some of the results refer to visual texts in single or double quotes to highlight the non-standard usage.

    "visual texts"


    visual "texts"

    My question is:

  • Answers
  • Neil D

    'Text' is commonly used to describe things other than words in fields such as the history of art, literary theory and so on.

    According to Wikipedia (

    In literary theory, a text is any object that can be "read," whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message's content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

    I suspect it's only been commonly used this way since the 1960s. Wikipedia ( states:

    From the 1960s and 1970s onward, language, symbolism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoretical foundation for the humanities, through the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, George Herbert Mead, Noam Chomsky, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and other thinkers in linguistic and analytic philosophy, structural linguistics, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, semiology, linguistically oriented psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan, Alfred Lorenzer), and deconstruction

  • Adam Schultz

    It is not only common to refer to any object of interpretation as a text at the collegiate level, it is written into the very course catalog descriptions. For example, one of the aesthetics courses I took in grad school was called "Reading Texts: Developing Cultural Fluency" and the main text for that course was Performance Studies: The Interpretation of Aesthetic Texts. Certainly this usage dates from at least Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1975) and is inferred by Roland Barthes in "The Photographic Message," no. 1, Communications (Paris, 1961). While Barthes wrote that "(t)he photographic image (...) is a message without a code," he did speak of the reading the photographic image as parallel with the reading of its caption and title.

    So, if I were you, I would likely argue that the 1961 article represents the archetypal--if not originating--use of "text" to refer to non-written objects of interpretation.

  • Related Question

    history - Why did English become a universal language and when?
  • Mohamed Saligh

    As we all know, English is the universal communication medium. Now we know how powerful it is to convey our thoughts. When did it become a common language? Why did they opt for this language?

  • Related Answers
  • Eldroß

    English became the lingua franca around WWII, but it was already used all through the British Colonial Empire, establishing it in North America and Australia among others. here is a citation of Wikipedia:

    It[English] has replaced French as the lingua franca of diplomacy since World War II. The rise of English in diplomacy began in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles was written in English as well as in French, the dominant language used in diplomacy until that time. The widespread use of English was further advanced by the prominent international role played by English-speaking nations (the United States and the Commonwealth of Nations) in the aftermath of World War II, particularly in the establishment and organization of the United Nations.
    When the United Kingdom became a colonial power, English served as the lingua franca of the colonies of the British Empire. In the post-colonial period, some of the newly created nations which had multiple indigenous languages opted to continue using English as the lingua franca to avoid the political difficulties inherent in promoting any one indigenous language above the others. The British Empire established the use of English in regions around the world such as North America, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, so that by the late 19th century its reach was truly global, and in the latter half of the 20th century, widespread international use of English was much reinforced by the global economic, financial, scientific, military, and cultural pre-eminence of the English-speaking countries and especially the U.S. Today, more than half of all scientific journals are published in English, while in France, almost one third of all natural science research appears in English, lending some support to English being the lingua franca of science and technology. English is also the lingua franca of international Air Traffic Control communications.

  • PyroTyger

    This is a difficult question to answer because so many of the terms are vague. Even the term "English" is mutable, as there are many dialects and variants used regionally which are quite distinct from one another, with their own grammatical quirks and entirely unique vocabularies.

    However, I would say that it was England's massive colonial expansion and the post-colonial retention of English for trade and negotiation that are mostly responsible for it's prevalence - in turn caused by England's naval superiority for many centuries. The aggressively prolific production of English-language media in the early- to mid-twentieth century (Hollywood et al) resulted in prolonged global exposure, and a significant proportion of research and diplomacy was already taking place in English. Nobody can say exactly when its usage gained "critical mass," but I would agree that it was somewhere in the early 20th century.

    There are many other universal-communication languages in use (a notable drive in S E Asia to promote "Mandarin" Chinese as a lingua franca is underway) but as you say, none of them so prevalent as English.

  • Wayne

    I agree with the other answers which emphasize: a) the British empire, and b) the dominance of the US in business/science in the post-WWII era. I might also add that its simple alphabet (non-calligraphic, no accents, etc) was very useful in the early computer era when coding and printers were simple.

    On a biased note, it's my impression that English is more dynamic than many languages (quick to adopt foreign words and to coin phrases), and while it has a lot of irregular verbs it has also undergone trade-language-like simplifications, such as the dropping of noun gender and less inflection. I've been told that english has more synonyms than some languages, which also makes rhyming easy. Last, perhaps the US's history of immigration also helped spread exposure.

  • RedGrittyBrick

    The BBC News magazine has an article on "How English evolved into a global language"

    As the British Library charts the evolution of English in a new major exhibition, author Michael Rosen gives a brief history of a language that has grown to world domination with phrases such as "cool" and "go to it".

    It refers to a free exhibition at the British Library: "Evolving English - One Language, Many Voices"

  • Benjol

    Not really related, but I couldn't resist:

    It's not that they're wicked or naturally bad
    It's knowing they're foreign that makes them so mad
    The English are all that a nation should be
    And the pride of the English are Donald and me

    The English the English the English are best
    I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

    Full lyrics here.

    EDIT On a slightly more serious vote (erm, freudian slip, I meant note!), I think that apart from the geopolitical aspect, another element in the success of English is its flexibility and openness to evolution.

    If you contrast with a protectionist language like French that has a 'magisterium' which has to decide on all things new (l'Académie Française), there is much less liberty to improvise or adapt. In English, it's often been a case of 'If you can't beat them, join them', and we liberally import any new and useful words we come across.

    So in one sense, English hasn't so much beaten other languages as absorbed them.

  • Antony Quinn

    English may now be the world's lingua franca, but according to a review of Nicholas Ostler's latest book in The Economist the future looks quite different:

    English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not as a mother tongue. More than 1 billion people speak English worldwide but only about 330m of them as a first language, and this population is not spreading. The future of English is in the hands of countries outside the core Anglophone group. Will they always learn English?

    Mr Ostler suggests that two new factors—modern nationalism and technology—will check the spread of English.


    English will fade as a lingua-franca, Mr Ostler argues, but not because some other language will take its place. No pretender is pan-regional enough, and only Africa’s linguistic situation may be sufficiently fluid to have its future choices influenced by outsiders. Rather, English will have no successor because none will be needed. Technology, Mr Ostler believes, will fill the need.

    This argument relies on huge advances in computer translation and speech recognition. Mr Ostler acknowledges that so far such software is a disappointment even after 50 years of intense research, and an explosion in the power of computers. But half a century, though aeons in computer time, is an instant in the sweep of language history.

  • Kris

    Usually the nation with the biggest power spreads its culture and language. Take the Greeks or Romans for example, when they were in power, the world spoke their language. As simple as that.

  • terdon

    I am very surprised that none of the answers has mentioned the obvious: English is simple. Speaking English at the basic level needed to order a meal or direct a taxi is by far easier than any other language I know. Speaking English well is another matter entirely but the lingua franca does not require great ability.

    English has the following features that make it very easy to speak it well enough to be understood:

    • No gendered nouns. Compare to any Latin language for example.
    • No declinations. Compare to German or Greek.
    • The conjugation of the overwhelming majority of verbs is trivial, almost non-existent. For example compare the verb to find, in English and French:

      I find                     je trouve
      You find                   tu trouves  
      He/She finds               il/elle trouve       
      We find                    nous trouvons  
      You find                   vous trouvez  
      They find                  ils/elles trouvent     

      In English, only the third person singular changes and that by a single character. This is the case for most verbs.

    • No infinitive, the name of the verb is the same as the verb itself with an added to. For example, the verb to go (first person singular I go). Compare to, say, Spanish, where the verb is ir and the first person singular is yo voy. Let alone french where the first person singular of aller is je vais.

    • English, like all European languages, uses a phonetic alphabet. This will make it much easier for foreigners to learn since there are only 26 (in English), unlike languages like Chinese where writing requires the memorization of hundreds of characters.

    • English has no accents.

    Now, I want to stress that the chaotic nature of English makes it a very difficult language to speak well. However, its basic simplicity makes it a very easy language to speak just well enough to be understood. I think that this is a very important factor to consider when thinking of the language's current popularity.

    Obviously the historical, geopolitical and economic considerations mentioned in the other play a major role. Greek has none of these points in its favor yet was the lingua franca of the Byzantine world for centuries. Simplicity is not essential for a language to become widely spoken but it does help.