Figure and ground

FIGURE and GROUND are complementary terms borrowed by cognitive linguistics from the Gestalt psychology to explain  various linguistic phenomena. In cognitive linguistics the terms are employed in the context of Construal and Perspectivization (Viewpoint).

The notion of Gestalt (from German Gestalt – “organized whole” or “structure” ) indicates not only the holistic perception of objects, but also the influence of mental processes on perceptual images [Jackendoff 1984: 56-58]. Thus, in famous Joseph Jastrow’s picture  “duck-rabbit ” we selectively see a rabbit or a duck depending on the meaning that we assign to the picture. This example illustrates the law of Relationship in Gestalt psychology that is expressed by the formula “figure and ground”. This feature of human perception and interpretation of reality means that when we perceive  a scene, one of the components is brought to the forefront and is seen as an object with well-defined and relatively stable boundaries (Figure). The rest of the scene is perceived as a fuzzy continuum behind the figure (Ground). The distinction between Figure and Ground is essential for perception, which is explained  by the difference in their perceptual characteristics [Кубрякова 1997: 11]

In linguistics the relation “Figure-Ground” was introduced by L. Talmy [Talmy 1978 ], who pointed to the asymmetry of predicative constructions, such as to be near. For example, the conceptual  difference between the sentences (1) The bike is near the house and (2) The house is near the bike is explained by the differences in the division of the described scene into Figure and Ground. I general, the Figure is similar to objects: it’s firm, discrete, well-defined, is placed among other objects; it has clear boundaries, relatively small size; it is the centre of attention and has significance for the speaker. The Ground is, on the contrary, shapeless, fuzzy, unformed, less defined, unstructured, freely organized, boundless, open, has larger volume, distant, is located under, behind or under the Figure. It is relatively stable and therefore is is situated outside of centre of attention and is considered to be less significant [Warwick 2004: 105]

The properties of objects that are perceived as the Figure and the Ground explain why statement (2)  is less possible than statement (1): the former violates the natural Figure-and-Ground relations..

Further reading

Кубрякова Е. С. Категоризация мира: пространство и время: вступительное слово // Категоризация мира: пространство и время: мат-лы науч. конф / Под ред. Е. С. Кубряковой, О. В. Александровой. — М.: Диалог-МГУ, 1997. — С. 3–14.

Jackendoff R. Sense and Reference in a Psychologically Based Semantics // Talking Minds: The Study of Language in Cognitive Science / Ed. by G. Bever, J. M. Carroll, L. A. Miller. — Cambridge, Mass., London: The MIT Press, 1984. — P. 49–72.

Talmy L. Figure and Ground in complex sentences // Universals of human language. Vol. 4. Syntax / Ed. by J. Greenberg. — Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,1978. — P. 625–649.

Wårvik, B. What is foregrounded in narratives? Hypotheses for the cognitive basis of foregrounding // Approaches to Cognition through Text and Discourse / Ed. by T. Virtanen. — Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. — P. 99–122.

Natalya Petrova

Translated by Varvara Kurylova