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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor William Downes

“I found the intellectual richness of Durham a marvellous experience. ”

Professor William Downes, of East Anglia, and Glendon College, York University

IAS Fellow at Hatfield College, Durham University (October - December 2014)


William Downes is a Senior Fellow in the School of Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K., and Adjunct Professor of English and Linguistics at Glendon College, York University, Toronto. Born in Canada and educated at Queen’s University, the University of Toronto and University College London, he has taught at York University, Toronto, and in England at the London School of Economics and the University of East Anglia. He has been a Northrop Frye Fellow at Victoria College and Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto. He divides his time between Norwich, England, and Ontario, Canada.

Professor Downes is the author of numerous articles and a major sociolinguistics textbook, Language and Society (1998), Cambridge University Press. His most recent book is Language and Religion: A Journey into the Human Mind (2011) also from Cambridge.

Committed to inter-disciplinarity, he bridges the sciences, linguistics and cognitive science, and the humanities, especially literature, philosophy and history. He believes that the concept of ‘the two cultures’ is problematic, itself an object of study within the overall philosophy and history of disciplined inquiry.

His long term research aim has been the use of the linguistic sciences, broadly understood to include cognition and communication, as a method for the study of culture. This is a study of the nature of the representation of information in all its forms; in cognition and the mind-brain, in social action and by language in all its diverse varieties and contexts of use. Theories of language and representation provide the method; how texts are comprehended the empirical basis.

The method was employed in a study of religious cognition and its representations in ‘world religions’, resulting in the 2011 volume. This ongoing project is now investigating how religious thought and feeling is made manifest in context by cognitive registers like prayer, which enable ‘felt experience’. As part of this research, he has been contributing to the study of how cultural representations emerge and disseminate, employing Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory,but also by developing a new mathematical concept of relevance. A first approach to this was the subject of his recent plenary address to Taiwan’s National Linguistics Conference, ‘Complexity, relevance and the emergence of culture’, Downes, 2012 (in Investigating language at the Interface, ed. M-Y Tseng, Kaohsiung, Centre for the Humanities, National Sun Yat-sen University).

At the IAS in Durham, Professor Downes will continue his research into cultural emergence and apply his method to the 17th century emergence of the ‘plain style’ in written English. This is the norm that requires that, in most uses, a text must have clear, easily accessible, interpretations - neither rhetorical nor employing ineffable mysteries. To-day, this is the hegemonic style, demanded in most contexts, otherwise known as ‘good writing’. This ‘sociolinguistic attitude’ is closely related to both language standardization and the rise of science. But how and why did such a norm emerge? And how does it relate to religious thought and feeling?

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Emergence of the 'Plain Style' in 17th Century England

21st October 2014, 17:30 to 18:30, The Birley Room, Hatfield College
Does today’s idea of ‘good writing’ in English have an historical source? We look at the complexity of inter-acting cultural concepts in a turbulent 17th century England, which lead to the emergence of a new imperative for expository writing, the ‘Plain Style’. This is now the standard unquestioned way we learn to write English in most non-specialist contexts and situations. But what was this innovative norm a reaction against? What does it actually mean to be ‘plain’? How does this style relate to thought? We use linguistics as a tool to look at some of the features of this and contrasting styles of writing, with examples drawn from the 16th to the 18th century. We ask the philosophical question about how language use may shape what is cognitively available, or publically sayable in context. We ask the historical question, does it also have a social meaning, derived from its historical origins? The use of a linguistic approach to culture and communication provides an innovative way to approach these questions.

Professor William Downes Publications

IAS Insights Paper


Linguistic pragmatics studies how language is used in situations. Within this field, the concept of relevance accounts for how participants communicate. Sperber and Wilson (1995) developed a cognitive theory of communication: a technical concept of relevance, which I will call ‘cognitive relevance’. In this essay, I propose another mathematical concept of relevance within information theory (Cover and Thomas, 2006). This concept of ‘algorithmic relevance’ governs how the mind-brain works as an information processing system. But it might also explain the emergence of the higher functional levels where cognitive relevance applies. Using the two approaches to relevance, we can better relate cognitive, informational and physical descriptions of brain functioning, especially with respect to language and communication.

Insights Paper