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Review of  Viewpoint in Language

Reviewer: Simone C. Bacchini
Book Title: Viewpoint in Language
Book Author: Barbara Dancygier Eve E. Sweetser
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Ling & Literature
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 23.5317

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The theme explored in this volume is “viewpoint” or “perspective”. The two terms are very common: the former is often associated with literary and linguistic studies whilst the latter is familiar in the figurative arts. Both imply that any act of representation, linguistic or otherwise, necessitates a sentient entity doing the “viewing” as well as a “viewed”. These observations are not new but the somewhat novel idea that lies behind this new volume is that viewpoint is much more pervasive in human cognition and language than has been hitherto acknowledged. “Subjectivity”, meaning the particular position and embodied perspective from which a cognitive and encoding (e.g. through language) act is performed, is crucial and shapes forms of communication. Furthermore, it can be argued that communication itself (in its broadest sense) exists to encode and allow the expression of viewpoint. As mentioned, literary (or narrative) viewpoint has been explored extensively. However, the volume’s editors argue that more work is needed to explore the relations between simple and complex viewpoints. In addition, there is also a need to further explore and question the relationship between physical viewpoint and more abstract ones, such as the one we find in narrative. “Viewpoint in Language” takes a multidisciplinary, multimodal approach by bringing together researchers from different scholarly communities and working within different fields to explore and highlight the centrality and pervasiveness of viewpoint.

The book is divided into four parts: Part One deals with “intersubjectivity and subjectification”; Part Two addresses “gesture and processing of visual information”; Part Three contains contributions on “multiple viewpoints in American Sign Language; and Part Four deals with “constructions and discourse”. One of the editors, Eve Sweetser, provides an introduction, whilst the conclusion, “multiple viewpoints, multiple spaces”, is by the other editor, Barbara Dancygier. Part one contains three contributions each, whilst parts two, three, and four contain two each.

The chapters in Part One, “Intersubjectivity and Subjectification”, explore the ways in which speakers weave complex viewpoints by simultaneously evoking and appealing to contrasting, even conflicting, spaces.

Chapter 1, by Vera Tobin and Michael Israel, offers a novel analysis of irony, both situational and literary. They argue that irony naturally follows from the narrative mind, from the possibility of encoding anything that we encounter, both as something which simply occurs and something that is represented, thus relying on viewpoint. The authors argue that irony is pervasive but that its functioning and interpretation are cognitively demanding processes. They rely on the ability to connect with a single all-viewing mental space, i.e., an “all-knowing viewer”. The authors argue for the existence of close and natural relations between different types of “verbal, situational, and structural ironies” (p. 44), which make it difficult to explain why irony is often unsettling.

Chapter 2 is by Lilian Ferrari and Eve Sweetser. It offers an analysis of historical processes of semantic subjectification by resorting to the notion of viewpoint relations within a complex and dynamic network of mental spaces. Among the examples they deal with are the cases of deictic markers morphing into articles and the emergence of epistemic meanings from deontic ones encoded by modals. They argue that the result of this inclusion reveals higher subjectivity, since the incorporated meanings are located in higher mental spaces, further apart from the real-world content being described.

Chapter 3, by Barbara Dancygier, deals with concepts of negation in the context of the mental space framework (MSF). By developing the concept of an “alternativity of negation”, the author argues that negation is a device for marking viewpoint and signalling stance. The author considers some constructions that involve negation in order to explain its intersubjective role and shows how this is used to negotiate multiple viewpoints which are made available by a specific context. This approach, the author argues, can help clarify problematic areas such as the interpretation of Neg-Raising and metalinguistic negation.

Chapter 4, by Fey Parrill, is concerned with viewpoint in multimodal language, i.e., “speech and speech accompanying gestures” (p. 97) (if the version in the text contains single quotes, please put double quotes around the single quotes). The author separates viewpoint into three distinct -- although interconnected -- phenomena: conceptual, linguistic, and gestural. She argues that considering viewpoint as seen in co-gesture can help bring together and harmonise general notions of viewpoint and views of it as understood by the ‘blending and conceptual integration framework’, a theory of cognition according to which elements from various scenarios are subconsciously ‘blended’. According to the theory, this process underlies thinking and speech processes. The author describes an experimental study involving twenty-four university students. They were each accompanied by a friend and, after watching three cartoon stimuli, had to describe them to their friend. Each of the participants watched the cartoon in one of two conditions: the ‘shared knowledge condition’ and the ‘control condition’. In the former, the participant watched the stimuli with his/her friend, while in the latter he/she watched alone. The study helps to shed light on the ways in which the two modalities of speech and gestures are connected.

Chapter 5, by Shweta Narayan, continues the exploration of gesture in conversation, although this is done within the context of spoken language rather than signed language, as in the previous chapter. In this chapter, the author shows how interactants create meaning collaboratively thanks to their ability to shift viewpoints as evidence of erroneous interpretations of previous interactions emerge. By looking at how interactants “align” their gestures, she is able to show that they are able to show viewpoint, thus cognitively aligning themselves. with their interactants.

Chapter 6, by Barbara Shaffer, is a further contribution to our understanding of sign language (specifically, American Sign Language (ASL)) from the point of view of Cognitive Grammar.. The author analyses one of the ways in which ASL users incorporate viewpoint in their discourse. In particular, she looks at how reported speech is marked in ASL and concludes that the ways in which evidentiality is marked and grammaticised in ASL is in many aspects similar to the ways this is done in spoken language.

Chapter 7, by Terry Janzen, investigates yet another aspect of ASL discourse. He describes a strategy used by ASL users that depends on imagining a 180-degree rotation of the signer’s body. This allows him or her to alternate between physically representing one of the participants in a reported conversation, and then the interlocutor, who is facing him/her. It is this shift in imagined viewpoint, the author argues, which is based on the interactants’ cooperation, that enables the correct interpretation of messages and thus allows effective communication.

Chapter 8 is by Niki Nikiforidou. Leaving signed language behind, the opening contribution to the last section of the volume brings the discussion back to more familiar grounds, namely, narrative viewpoint in literary texts. Nikiforidou explores the use, in English, of the past tense with a proximal deictic ‘now’ (e.g. ‘they were NOW listening to him attentively’). She argues that its implications are twofold. First, it signals a change of perspective from ‘outside’ to ‘within’ the narrated event. Secondly, this narrative strategy should be viewed on par with other discourse-grammatical constructions of a high-level type.

Chapter 9 is by Lieven Vandelanotte. In it, the author argues that a more nuanced account of reported speech and thought phenomena is possible -- and, in fact, desirable -- if the area between direct and indirect speech (or thought) is not considered as belonging to a single area of free indirect forms. The author identifies a separate type of indirect speech: “distancing direct speech and thought” (p. 198). This maintains the deictic centre and particular viewpoint aligned with the quoting speaker, whilst incorporating the quoted speaker’s speech.

The volume concludes with a chapter by Barbara Dancygier called ‘Multiple viewpoints, multiple spaces’. In it, the author draws together the various strands explored in the volume and one again highlights how, contrary to what some might think, the linguistic and gestural structures examined by the various contributors are far from simple. She also suggests further avenues of exploration, such as more detailed explorations of the “mechanisms yielding the configurations of viewpoint” (p. 228) addressed by the contributors to the volume.


Due to its multidisciplinary approach and multimodal orientation, ‘Viewpoint in Language’ is likely to appeal to diverse audiences, most likely at the post-graduate level. Indeed, a fundamental strength of the volume is that it coherently brings together strands of research that are frequently pursued separately.

The various contributors to this volume convincingly show the centrality of viewpoint in human cognition and its ubiquity across a range of communicative modes. Crucially, they also show to what extent human cognition and communication are profoundly embodied phenomena.

The section on signed communication is -- in this reviewer’s opinion -- important and effective in this respect. Perhaps because of their ‘physicality’, or their more obviously embodied nature, signed languages can be especially useful in highlighting interlocutors’ need (and ability) to take into account other people’s -- as well as their own -- unique viewpoint in the encoding, decoding, and transmitting of a linguistic message. Although studies of signed languages are by no means rare, the existing ones still do no justice to the importance of close analysis of signed languages, both for its numerical relevance in terms of users, and for its relevance for a deeper understanding of both cognitive and communicative processes.

The editors of this volume acknowledge that the study of viewpoint, and an appreciation of its pervasiveness in human communication, are not new. What this collection of essays adds is a clear example of the ways in which a multimodal approach enhances our understanding of the cognitive processes involved in communication. This is because such an approach is better at picking up clues that would not be entirely accessible if only a single mode -- such as the study of written literary fiction, for example -- is considered. One of the major strengths of this volume, therefore, is that it deals with the implications and manifestation of subjective viewpoint holistically, as shown by the aforementioned sections on American Sign Language.

The papers published in this volume are not informed by new theories. As the editors say it is “a contribution to the study of language in the context of embodied (or grounded) cognition” (p. 3). It makes use of the MSF and, more generally, insights gained from Cognitive Grammar. However, the papers presented in the volume present new case-studies or revisit topics that have been the object of considerable attention in a new light. Such is the case with irony (Tobin and Israel, pp. 25-46), viewed as a viewpoint phenomenon and as a “figure of subjectivity” (p. 44).

The final section of the volume (Constructions and Discourse, pp. 177-218) will be of particular interest to, and -- in this reviewer’s opinion - greatly appreciated by, literary scholars. As stated, literary narrative is perhaps the field that has had the longest familiarity with viewpoint and subjectivity. However, Nikiforidou’s and Vandelanotte’s essays bring a more nuanced examination of the linguistic machinery that underpins the encoding of viewpoint in narrative and literary texts. Like the other contributions, but perhaps even more so -- given the aforementioned familiarity of literary and narrative studies with viewpoint -- these two essays exemplify how the interdisciplinary and multimodal approach exemplified in, and exemplified by, this volume truly represents a step forward in our understanding of subjectivity.

The ability with which the editors have been able to give shape to a coherent approach is to be applauded. It is likely that a number of researchers now working separately in different areas on viewpoint will be encouraged to carry on with their work enlightened and inspired by this volume. Indeed, the bringing together of linguistics, cognitive science, and literary studies by a unifying concept of subjectivity as an embodied phenomenon is a major and needed achievement.
Simone Bacchini has recently been awarded a PhD in linguistics, having defended a thesis on the linguistic encoding of the experiences of physical pain and chronic illness through the lexicogrammar of Italian. His research interests include sociolinguistic, Systemic Functional Grammar and discourse analysis. As a result of his doctoral research, he has developed and interest in health communication and the use of language in medicine and medical settings. He is currently researching the encoding of ‘affect’ in doctor-patient communication, with particular attention to the role of the interpreter in situations when medical professionals and patients do not speak the same language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781107017832
Prices: U.K. £ 60.00
U.S. $ 99.00