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What is a Text?

image of written word text

At a recent lecture on ‘Editing Skills for Research‘, presented by Dr Donna Maria Alexander and Mr Paul O’Shea, in UCC, the discussion began with the question “What is a text?”.  The ensuing conversation produced a wide variety of answers, which made me realise, I couldn’t decide on a definitive answer, on what is a text.

According to the Collins Dictionary, a text, is:

The main body of a printed or written work as distinct from commentary, notes, illustrations, etc

According to our Editing Skills discussion, a text could be any of the following:

word clound of words that could define a text

Most discussions of “text” revolve around interpretation of “texts”, rather than a definition of the term itself. From our lecture, we can see that everyone’s definition of a text is different. From a piece of writing, to a narrative element, to visual language.

The word “text” comes from the Latin texere, to weave. Deriving from the Latin, most definitions place “text” as a linguistic structure woven out of words or signs.

Roland Barthes describes text as “…a tissue, a woven fabric”.¹ In his article ‘Image, Music, Text’, he expresses his dislike of the latest fashion of the use of text instead of work. He refers to text as a language, that “…only exists in the movement of discourse”.

mind map of Roland Barthes idea of what a text is

Mindmap of Roland Barthes thoughts on ‘text’ in his article ‘Image, Music, Text’.

Barthes has woven a complex theory out of defining what a text is, and how the idea of text relates to interpretation. If ‘text’ is a process, an activity, then it is also an expression. One of my contributions to the discussion, was to describe ‘text’ as a form of mark-making. Mark making is an artists term. It describes the application of marks, as in lines, dots, patterns, scratches, etc, to surface material. Mark making can be in response to something seen or something felt, a visual mark of expression.

So, could a text be visual signs or marks, made with the intention of expression? The most common modern form of signs is though the written word, in other words, language. Words, phrases, lines or sentences.

A text contains meaning which is open to interpretation.

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur defines a text as “… every utterance or set of utterances fixed by writing ”.² In his article “What is a Text”, he believes text has “has no outside, but an inside, no transcendence”. There are two actions; the act of writing and the act of reading. The act of writing a text preserves discourse or speech, and makes it an “archive available for individual and collective memory.” Reading becomes a concrete act in which the destiny of the text is accomplished”. Text, therefore needs to be written, and to be read. The writer is not connected to the reader, and vice versa. There is no dialogue: no exchange between them. Is it the writing of the text, or its being read that makes it a text? Ricoeur believes “…reading is that concrete act in which the destiny of the text is accomplished”. The linguistic structure that is a text not just allows for interpretation, but needs it.

Tapestry by unknown weaver - The Bayeux Tapestry (detail) - WGA24163

By Unknown Weaver, English (active c. 1080) (Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a former weaver, I am naturally curious about the connections between textiles and language. They are so often interwoven (excuse the pun!) into our lives and language. If a text is a discourse, or signs, a woven fabric of words or signs, then we can interpret an amount of folk textiles as text. For example, The Bayeux Tapestry, is a text, a discourse on the Norman conquest of England. The textile industry was the most prominent industry around the world for centuries, which explains why so many of our words care derived from it.

In ‘Weaving the Word’, Kathryn Sullivan Kruger examines the link between written texts and woven textiles. Kruger asserts that before written texts could record and preserve the stories of a culture, cloth was one of the primary modes for transmitting social beliefs and messages.

Anthropological evidence suggests that weaving and cloth were not incidental to culture but were vital forces in establishing, homogenizing and perpetuating many societies”.³

As our textile industry declines, or at least, loses it prominent status, to digital industries, so too are we losing the meanings of our words. Ask any child or teenager today, “What is a Text?”, and they will say its a message you send on your mobile phone. It is no wonder we are unable to fully understand terms such as ‘text’ when the industry and society from which it came are vanishing. Our words and language are losing their point of origin, which it has held onto for centuries.

When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.

Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE)

As we become more digitised ,we are losing the context of our words. We are becoming so removed from act of creating and making, of weaving, it’s no wonder we can’t interpret the terms. When the average person has never actually seen a cloth being woven, how can they relate it to and event, and translate it to a written form of language? Will we lose the richness of our language or will it be transferred to the new technologies?

To quote Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek, ” Take us to Warp, Lieutenant”.


  1. Barthes, Roland. “Image Music Text” Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath Fontana Press London1977 English translation Stephen Heath 1977
  2. Ricoeur, Paul. “What is a Text?” From Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation. Paul Ricoeur, John B. Thompson. Cambridge University Press, 31 Aug 1981
  3. Weaving the word : the metaphorics of weaving and female textual production. Associated University Presses. 01 Jan 2002





  • Reply Orla |

    The weaving metaphor is very powerfully textural – and used beautifully by Alan Liu (an English Professor in the University of California at Santa Barbara since he first started to put links together on the web in 1994.

    I started to “teach” about searching and research and discovery online at about that time, and had taken a course where the text about Tereus and Philomela was taught.

    The idea of the “Voice of the Shuttle” (vos) is a gorgeous one http://vos.ucsb.edu/myth.asp

    The resource is here: http://vos.ucsb.edu/

    • Reply admin |

      Such a lovely title ‘Voice of the Shuttle’. Once upon a time, I was a weaver, both tapestry and loom, and I can still feel the quietness of the shuttle while tapestry weaving, or the noise from the loom shuttle. Something so primitive, yet powerful in creating woven fabric. Its hard to describe.

      I am very interested in social textiles, methods or materials that tell a silent story. Examples such as Chilean Apilleras, or Esther Krinitz Holocaust Stitched Stories, to modern day yarnbombing. Even the modern use of knitted animation for storytelling. It adds such a different dimension and texture to normal animation.

So, what do you think ?