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The Windowpane Theory of Language: I ts Roots and its Continuing Hold. Alan Jones Department of Linguistics Macquarie University. content versus form. The ability to ‘mean’ is generally seen as an essential component of an individual’s ‘face’ – their publicly projected self-image

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the windowpane theory of language i ts roots and its continuing hold

The Windowpane Theory of Language:Its Roots and its Continuing Hold

Alan Jones

Department of Linguistics

Macquarie University

content versus form
content versus form
  • The ability to ‘mean’ is generally seen as an essential component of an individual’s ‘face’ – their publicly projected self-image
  • There is a deep-seated aversion to focusing on the medium or process of communication rather than on a speaker’s message/meaning/intention
  • The medium is foregrounded when attention is given to the form of an utterance or the process of producing an utterance
  • Criticism of the form, etc., rather than the content of a message foregrounds the medium and threatens the face of everyone involved
linguistically mediated communication
linguistically mediated communication

In its essence, linguistically mediated communication is

  • a defining condition of human existence
  • a defining ability of an individual
  • an arena for the public projection/negotiation of private self-images – interpersonal relationships

Recently in human history linguistically mediated communication has come to function as

  • a badge of identity – a criterion enabling judgements to be made about the inclusion or exclusion of individuals in/from groups
  • as register/discourse, it is the learned ability of some individuals to make certain kinds of meanings, and in this way to acquire status, property and power
metaphor or theory
metaphor or theory
  • The windowpane theory is not the same as the conduit ‘metaphor’ – though this implies a theory.
  • We can say that the conduit theory of language (also known as the transmission theory) is expressed/realised as a set of commonly used metaphors:

I can’t quite put it into words …

I can’t seem to get it across to him …

She can’t find the words to express it.

  • However, the windowpane theory has no linguistic realization; it is an enacted theory, and an attitude (only the name is metaphorical!).
entailments of a conduit theory
Entailments of a conduit theory
  • Language is a conduit – i.e., a vehicle for the conveyance of – meanings;
  • meanings are tangible, containable, movable;
  • words are containers for/movers of meanings.
  • Words are separate from meanings; form is separate from content.


  • Words should faithfully reflect meanings; form & content are thus interdependent.
the windowpane theory
The windowpane theory

While people use the conduit theory to talk about language, thought and meaning, they interact on the basis of an assumed windowpane theory – a theory of communication (or ‘natural attitude’) entailing that:

  • Language is/can/should be a “clear window” on meaning and experiential reality – made up of objective, testable “facts”;
  • Linguistic communication is ‘joint, spontaneous involvement’.

Other, less obvious entailments:

  • Form and content are inextricably/dialectically interrelated;
  • Focus on matters of form or process (rather than on a speaker’s meaning/intention) is face-threatening.
complexity uncertainty anxiety calls for a plain language
complexity/uncertainty/anxiety > calls for a ‘plain language’
  • Waves of new words, coined or borrowed, in 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, were followed by calls for a return to plain English (‘Inkhorn controversy,’ etc.)
  • Scientists, from Bacon to Newton, and on, while they developed a new and more complex register for science and technology, regarded the language of science as ‘plain’ and ‘clear’ (see Sprat, 1667.)
  • The Reformation was accompanied by calls for plain language Bibles (German, English, etc.) that individuals could interpret for themselves
  • The complexities of trade (price-setting, etc.) that followed the ‘floating’ of metal currency and the colonial expansion of trade produced a reaction in favour of plain dealing (Foucault, 1970; Burnham, 2000)
interactional consequences of foregrounding form process
Interactional consequences of foregrounding form/process

When the entailments of the conduit theory are taken seriously, and the form of a message is treated as being separate from meaning, meanings are down-graded, meaning-making is seen as a sophistry, scientists as technicians, and indeed the foundations of Intersubjectivity are threatened. In Goffman’s terms (1967) ‘alienation from interaction’ is inevitable.

Paul Seedhouse (1997) showed that language teachers bend over backwards to avoid telling students they have ‘made a mistake’ (‘The case of the missing “No”’). He claims teachers contradict their explicit theory of/attitude towards student errors – a la CLT – by importing the involvement obligations of the interaction order and the avoidance of face-threatening speech acts into pedagogical contexts.

Focus-on-form as face-threat

conversational preferences asymmetric preference structure
Conversational preferences:asymmetric preference structure
  • Sequential organisation – two examples:

a) assessment → agreement/disagreement

b) error (fact/form) → self-repair/other-repair

  • Conversation analysis shows that speakers strongly disprefer

a) disagreement (… over agreement)

b) other-initiated repair (… over self-initiated repair)

the individual is never secure in an encounter
“The individual is never secure in an encounter …”
  • To be awkward or unkempt, to talk or move wrongly, is to be a dangerous giant, a destroyer of worlds. (Goffman 1961: 81)
  • When an incident occurs and spontaneous involvement is threatened, then reality is threatened. (Goffman 1967: 135)
paul seedhouse 1997 on contradictions inherent in language teaching
Paul Seedhouse (1997) on contradictions inherent in language teaching.
  • The pedagogical message:

it’s okay to make linguistic errors

This is directly contradicted by …

  • The interactional message:

linguistic errors are terrible faux pas

invisibility and visibility of language
Invisibility and visibility of language

People in ‘pre-literate’ cultures often have little concept of ‘a language’ as a singular and relative construct, emblematic of group membership.

  • A language as such is most often conceptualised simply as a ‘way of speaking’ - this may vary from place to place, or from speaker to speaker
  • Verbal communication is described in terms of communicative functions (‘speech acts’?)
  • Verbal processes become visible in contexts of play, art, failed communication, and deception
  • Verbs and nouns denoting verbal processes are typically used and often grammaticalised to express semantic-intentional communicative functions typically carried out in verbal communication (> ‘speech acts’ – ‘conduit metaphors’)
mean intend think say

One verb meaning ‘mean-intend-think-say’:

Motu toma, Kuni koma, Mekeo oma

O-mai ke-oma

  • They said “You must come”
  • They said we should come
  • They want/wanted us to come
  • They thought/believed we should come
hear understand know obey

A noun meaning ‘voice-meaning-will’ –

Mekeo aina-

A verb meaning ‘hear-understand-know-obey’

Mekeo -longo-

Aina-u mo-longo

1) Listen to > hear my voice

2) Understand, know my meaning

3) Accept my will, obey my command

invisibility of language in use passive bilingualism
Invisibility of language-in-use:‘passive bilingualism’
  • In many parts of the world and in many social situations, individuals develop the ability to comprehend but not produce varieties of language that differ from the one(s) they themselves most naturally speak
  • Passive bilinguals ignore massive amounts of ‘code noise’, focusing solely on the meanings-intentions of a speaker
  • Canadian universities officially recognise passive bilingualism in students = ‘basic comprehension’

See the example on the following slide:

A-lao mo, inei ke-ngopo-kae ke-lao ke-io, ngaina laa-kae la-isaisa-i.

1PL-go just, bird 3PL-fly-up 3PL-go 3PL-alight, that upon 1SG-see.RED-3PL

We went along a bit, birds flew up, alighted, I kept watching them, like that, above.

Muni-ai e-pea e-mai: “Ala-pitsi-na ala-peni-o.”

Behind-OBL 3SG-come 3SG-come

He walked up behind me: “I’ll shoot it and give (it) to you.”

Maua? [Akaikia?]


Was it a big one?

Mm. Unga’a, ‘e’ele laa’i. [Mm. Ungaka, bebela aibaia.]

Mm. Crown.Pigeon, small not

Mm. It was a Crown Pigeon, it wasn’t small.

‘Ungaka’ ge-baina. [‘Ungaka’ ke-paina.]

‘ungaka’ 3PL-say

They say ‘ungaka’

Ngaina e-pitsi-nia ke la-pua-isa. [Ngaina e-bitsinia ge a-bua-ia.]

That 3SG-shoot-3SG and 1SG-carry-3SG

That’s what he shot and I carried it.

conclusion meaning makers
Conclusion: ‘meaning-makers’
  • Meaning-making (and/or sense making) is a distinctively human trait.
  • Form and content are not seen as distinct for most everyday purposes.
  • Form and content are often first distinguished in the context of communication breakdown: misunderstanding or deception.
  • However, we use many metaphors where

words, speech > thoughts, meanings,

intentions; we use the conduit metaphor.

  • Burnham, Michelle.2000.Merchants, Money, and the Economics of "Plain Style" in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. American Literature, Vol. 72, No. 4.
  • Defoe, Daniel. 1724. The Complete English Tradesman. London 1726, Edinburgh 1839.
  • Eubanks, Philip. 2001. Understanding Metaphors for Writing: In Defense of the Conduit Metaphor.College Composition and Communication, Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 92-118.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1970 The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1970), 63, 43.
  • Gusfield, J. (1976) The Literary Rhetoric of Science, Comedy and Pathos in Drinking Driver Research. American Sociological Review, 41, 16-34.
  • Jones, A. 1998. Towards a lexicogrammar of Mekeo: An Oceanic language of western Central Papua. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Longo, Bernadette. 2000. Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing. SUNY Press.
  • Miller, Carolyn R. 1979. A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing. College English 40: 610-17.
  • Reddy, M.J. (1979) The Conduit Metaphor – A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language. In A..Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought. CUP.
  • Schegloff, E. A., Jefferson, G. and Sacks, H. (1977). The Preference for Self-correction in the Organisation of Repair in Conversation. Language 53, 361-82.
  • Seedhouse, Paul. The Case of the Missing “No”: The Relationship between Pedagogy and Interaction. Language Learning 1997, 47(3), 547-583.
  • Sprat, Thomas. 1667. The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London: T. R.