Presented To

Department of English and Linguistics

International Journal of Language and Linguistics ISSN 2374-8850 (Print), 2374-8869 (Online) Vol. 1, No. 2; December 2014


Graphological Foregrounding in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus

Ebi Yeibo

Niger Delta University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English and Literary Studies

Wilberforce Island

Bayelsa State

Comfort Akerele

Stanbic IBTC Bank

Victoria Island



There is a symbiotic relationship between language structure and language function, which is particularly

exploited by literary artists to relate language forms deployed in their texts to their intended messages and

visions. This is possible because of the inherent elasticity or malleability of language as a communicative tool

which can be shaped or conditioned by the social or discourse situation. With M.A.K Halliday’s Systemic

Functional Grammar as the analytical template, this study, therefore, discusses the paralinguistic devices such as

length of the text, paragraph structure, punctuation marks, topography, etc, utilized by Chimamanda Adichie to

complement verbal signifiers and foreground critical and strategic aspects of meaning in relation to context of

situation and textual function in her Purple Hibiscus. The study adumbrates the fact that paralinguistic resources

of language have pragmatic force, in the sense that they help writers to capture contextual or stylistic meaning,

enhance textual appeal, and also aid scholars/readers to conveniently comprehend and interpret the ideological

contents or propositions contained in their texts. It, therefore, concludes that any explication of the meaning of

literary texts without due and careful recourse to the subtle nuances of graphological patterning, is less than


Keywords: Graphological foregrounding, Purple Hibiscus, Systemic functional grammar, Stylistic meaning,

Social context


Essentially, writers deploy diverse ways not only to encode and disseminate their artistic vision and message, but

also to achieve formal beauty in their texts. This is because the hallmark of a good writer, that is, what makes him

to stand out from the crowd, is contingent both on the ideological content and propositions of his work as much as

his stylistic peculiarities or distinctions and the extent to which both aspects (i.e content and container) relate.

This thesis explains why writers take advantage of the elasticity of language in sundry ways in their discourses, in

the sense that “language implies the availability of an internal structure which makes it possible for the writer or

speaker to construct texts that are not only coherent but also situationally appropriate” (Adeyanju, 2008:87). In

addition, the thesis also explains why writers employ various paralinguistic devices to complement linguistic

choices, make meaning more precise and graphical, as well as enhance the aesthetic texture and appeal of their


Amongst the latter set of stylistic resources highlighted above (i.e paralinguistic devices), are graphological

elements or patterns which are of the visual dimension of language use, such as italicization, capitalization,

punctuation, indentation, etc. These paralinguistic resources help writers to capture particular pragmatic senses in

texts and aid the readability, comprehension and interpretation of linguistic forms in given situational or textual

contexts. According to Adegoju (2008:160), Graphology concerns such matters as spelling, capitalization,

hyphenation, a text’s layout, lists, font choices, underlining, italicization, paragraphing, colour, etc which can all

create different kinds of impact, some of which will cause the reader to react differently.

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Ngara (1982:17) echoes a similar viewpoint when he observed that graphology covers such areas as the layout of

the text, colour, shape of the printed marks, punctuation, paragraphing and spacing, etc. Short (1996:54-57) adds

that splitting of a word to separate letters, writing all words together without orthographical spaces, etc, are also

graphological patterns or symbols. Etymologically, the term has Greek roots-‘grapho’ meaning writing and

‘logos’ meaning word and, in its more known sense, it focuses on or deals primarily with handwriting. The term

has, however, become very crucial and strategic in linguistic circles, particularly in descriptive stylistics and its

use has extended to the study of all subtly meaningful symbols and signs, including pictorial devices, which help

authors and writers to communicate messages. It is apparently most effective and applicable to an ideophonic

language like English whose writing system largely depends on a set of symbols and signs.

According to Alo (1998:5), the descriptive study of style rests on the analysis of language resources which can be

found at the various levels of language description including the following:

i. Phonology (sounds/sound effects)

ii. Lexis (word usage and diction)

iii. Grammar (word and sentence structure)

iv. Semantics (units of meaning)

v. Graphology (orthography or writing system)

vi. Pragmatics (language for action or getting things done).

Graphology is, thus, a level of linguistic analysis which focuses on the layout of texts, the size or shape of words

and any other feature that is graphical or orthographical. It is a fundamental and crucial way of paying close

attention to the visual images and diagrams in a text which help to encode, extend or modify its signification. In

other words, it is a paralinguistic approach to the explication of textual meaning, since it focuses essentially on

non-verbal aspects of texts, such as form and visual appearance which carry pragmatic force, that is, which yield

their meaning by distinctive situational use within a particular social framework.

Foregrounding, on the other hand, refers to any attention-catching device in a text, including lexical or structural

repetition, coupling, collocation etc, which makes parts of a text to stand out in specific contexts. The term

traverses the entire gamut of discourses and presupposes any deliberate device, linguistic or paralinguistic, which

authors and writers deploy to emphasize or make prominent a particular aspect of a text. It is a major component

of arts criticism, helping arts scholars to distinguish between the background and foreground of paintings.

According to the Online Wikipedia, the term was first associated with Paul Garvin in the 1960s, who used it as a

translation of the Czech word ‘aktualizace’, a concept that was introduced by the Prague School structuralists of

the 1930s. Instructively, the latter see it as the major distinguishing element between poetic language and nonpoetic

language, in the sense that it makes a text to be unique and catchy. According to Leech (1969),

foregrounding manifests in linguistic parallelism and linguistic deviation and can be studied from lexical,

grammatical, phonological, semantic and graphological angles. Leech and Short (2007) are of the view that there

are essentially two kinds of foregrounding viz: quantitative foregrounding, which deals with frequency of

occurrence of a particular textual feature; and breaking the language code or rule. Yankson (1987:3) alludes to the

latter kind of foregrounding (i.e violation of language codes) when he defined the concept as “… the aesthetically

intentional distortion of the linguistic components of a text.” According to this scholar (Ibid), “the normal

language code is the background. Any deviation from the norm-the code- is the foreground, because it brings the

message to the forecourt of the reader’s attention”. In the same vein, Halliday (1973:98) describes the term as

“motivated prominence” given to a particular textual feature, in the sense that it covers all the linguistic and

paralinguistic strategies used by literary artists or other authors to make parts of a text prominent which contribute

substantially to their cumulative meaning, and attract the attention or close scrutiny of scholars and readers alike.

According to this scholar (Ibid), there are two main types of foregrounding: parallelism can be described as

unexpected regularity while deviation can be seen as unexpected irregularity. As the definition of foregrounding

indicates, something can only be unexpectedly regular or irregular within a particular context. This context can be

relatively narrow, such as the immediate textual surroundings (referred to as a ‘secondary norm’).

No doubt, foregrounding is a relevant, even indispensable, strand of textual texture, particularly of literary texts,

by its very nature and function, as outlined above. Babajide (2000:131) highlights the relevance of foregrounding

in graphological analysis inter alia: Foregrounding is a major device in the graphological aspect of a text. This

simply means bringing a certain item to the fore. Foregrounding manifests in different forms such as

capitalization, italicization, asterism, underscoring and all sorts of signs and symbols used to demand attention.

International Journal of Language and Linguistics ISSN 2374-8850 (Print), 2374-8869 (Online) Vol. 1, No. 2; December 2014


Specifically, therefore, the present study focuses on graphological elements which have been deliberately

deployed by Chimamanda Adichie to draw attention to critical and strategic aspects of meaning in her Purple

Hibiscus. The idea or rationale, as we have highlighted above, is to demonstrate the fact that there is an “intrinsic

connection between visual appeals and meaning interpretation” in texts and that, The appropriation and

interpretation of meaning in discourse are not entirely dependent on the use of formal linguistic elements.

Graphological elements also serve as visual aids to the encoding and decoding of the meaning of linguistic units.

(Adegoju, 2008:157).

In other words, the present study discusses the graphetic patterns deployed in Adichie’s text to show their

communicative or stylistic value as elements of foregrounding, in the sense that there is a semantic link or bond

between linguistic elements and the visual or graphological elements used in the text, as both complement each


Theoretical Foundations

Over the years, the linguistic style of writers has been a subject of intense enquiry by scholars. The Russian

formalists and Prague school of the 1920s, for instance, saw style in literature as linguistic foregrounding i.e. they

placed a high premium on the language of literary texts (Hawkes, 1977; Bennet, 1979; Lemon and Reis, 1965).

The structuralists of the 1960s also emphasized the various linguistic devices used by writers to foreground

aspects of meaning. According to Fowler (1990), linguistic formalism promotes the view that there is a special

poetic language which is distinct from “Ordinary” or “scientific” language. Chomsky’s (1957) Transformational

Generative Grammar (TGG) also delineates the peculiarity of the style of writers in terms of deviation i.e. the

style of a writer or speaker is marked by constant violation of linguistic norms.

However, since this study focuses on a functional use of language, we shall adopt M. A. K Halliday’s systemic

functional grammar as the theoretical model for analysis. The interest of this grammar is not only in describing

the structure of language, but also in explaining the properties of discourse and its functions. It revolves around

the work of J.R. Firth in general and M.A.K. Halliday in particular. In Hallidayan (1971) perception, a formal

feature is stylistic if it has a particular meaning, effect or value. This notion emphasizes how language functions

in texts and the nexus between language and what it is used for, or to achieve. The critical point here is that,

whatever linguistic resource that is worth describing must be put to use, in the sense that the description and

interpretation are necessarily based on the situational variables that prompted its use. Hence Oha (1994:730)

posits that the approach recognizes the interdependency of style, meaning and context of situation and that the

latter should not be subjected to second fiddle position, or ignored, in the analysis of style.

In Systemic Functional Grammar, language structure is analyzed along semantic, phonological, lexical and

grammatical lines. Language function, on the other hand, is examined from three angles viz: ideational,

interpersonal and textual. These are referred to as the metafunctions of language. The ideational metafunction of

language is synonymous with the field of discourse i.e. the subject matter or propositional content of the text and

the context of language use i.e. is it a religious or socio-political subject? According to Adeyanju (2008:86), it “…

implies that language serves as an instrument for the encoder (speaker, writer) to express and articulate his idea

and experience internally”. The interpersonal or interactional function, at another level, refers to the tenor of

discourse i.e. the social relationship that exists among participants in a specific discourse situation, which can

influence or shape language use. According to Ogunsiji (2001:77), it “… helps to establish and sustain social

relations”. The textual aspect is particularly germane to the present study. It is concerned with the mode; the

internal organization and communicative nature of a text. Leech and Short (1985:209) see Halliday’s textual

functions of language as “… ways of using language to organize, understand and express information for effective

communication”. In Adeyanju’s (2008) view, it suggests “… the availability of an internal structure which makes

it possible for the writer or speaker to construct texts that are not only coherent but also situationally appropriate”

(p.87). The main point is that, the textual metafunction relates what is said in a text to ideas outside the discourse,

as we shall demonstrate in the present study.

Brief Biography of the Author

Purple Hibiscus captures the complex political and religious struggles occurring in Nigeria It highlights the

country’s history and cultural experiences from her independence times Nigeria attained her independence in

1960 This was followed by instability and series of coups which caused a great turmoil The turmoil in the

country resulted in corruption which caused further instability and successive coups Political unrest, chaos and

violence rage as military coups unfurl subjecting the society to tyranny This is highlighted in the text under

“leader, Big Oga” which echoes the atmosphere of the time, symbolized by the reign of General Sani Abacha,

who took over Nigeria in 1993 During this time, there were incessant arrests and jails of critics and activists and

foremost intellectuals and educators fled the country to avoid rising autocratic rule, intimidation and deteriorating

social services It was at this time that a celebrated writer, Ken Saro Wiwa was executed with other human rights

activists and Nigeria was suspended from the commonwealth of Nations This is the backdrop or context against

which the story of “Ogechi Nwankiti” in the text is crafted Abacha died in 1998 and was succeeded by General

Abdul Salam Abubakar, who attempted to restore democracy A former General, Olusegun Obasanjo became the

elected President of Nigeria and was inaugurated in 29th May, 1999

Adichie also touches on the rich diversity of her people and their traditions, the variety of their religious beliefs

and philosophy She explores Western versus African cultures by contrasting the legacy of colonization – its

religions, language and customs with traditional cultural values Devout Africans (traditionalists) who are

unfamiliar with the peculiar religious practices of others (especially |Christians) tend to be seen from a detached,

ironic point of view in Nigeria The contemporary Nigeria has a variety of religious beliefs – christians, muslims

and practitioners of traditional religion These are the relevant contextual situations which inform linguistic

patterning in the text

Textual Analysis

We have already established that, in its broadest sense, graphology refers to the visual medium of language It

describes the general resources of the written system of language, including punctuation, spelling, typography,

alphabet, paragraph structure, etc Apart from this, as we have earlier mentioned, it can also be extended to

incorporate any significant pictorial and symbolic devices which supplement the written system Specifically, the

present study investigates the length of the text, paragraph structure, punctuation, and typography as a result of

their strategic stylistic value as elements of signification, aesthetics and foregrounding in the text

International Journal of Language and Linguistics ISSN 2374-8850 (Print), 2374-8869 (Online) Vol 1, No 2; December 2014


Length of the Text

In Adichie’s text, the consecutive sequence of four parts is three hundred and seven pages The first part,

“BREAKING GODS: Palm Sunday,” and the last part, “A DIFFERENT SILENCE: The Present” are the smallest

parts of the four sections, and both have equal pages of sixteen each The second part, “SPEAKING WITH OUR

SPIRITS: Before Palm Sunday” is the largest part of the text with two hundred and thirty seven pages; and the

third part, “THE PIECES OF GOD: After Palm Sunday” has thirty eight pages What immediately attracts

attention in this graphological device is the manner in which Adichie uses key synonymous phrases ie “breaking

God’s …” and “ the pieces of God…” and the antonymous words and concepts: “speaking” and “silence” in the

heading as the backdrop against which actions are delineated in the novel The obvious fact is that this mode of

graphological patterning depicts the kernel of meaning and the contradiction or conflict that pervades the entire

text, a contradiction that borders on repression, hypocrisy and freedom The aim of this justaposition of

antonymous lexemes is clearly to foreground the battlefield of social-cultural and socio-political values and

events in the text which is rife with abuse and despair, for as Mullany and Stockwell (2010:46) put it,

“foregrounding can be analysed stylistically as a feature of textual organization”

Paragraph Structure

Adichie’s text also overtly uses paragraph structure and development for stylistic effect The best or most visible

creative use of this device lies in her deformation of standard paragraphing Adichie, in the opening paragraph of

the text, begins with the indenting of the first two lines; where the indenting of the first line of a paragraph is the

norm Subsequently, all of her topic sentences begin with the indenting of the first two lines of the paragraph

This device clearly reflects what has been referred to as a deliberate distortion of language or textual conventions

or codes (see Leech, 1969; Yankson, 1987; Leech and Short, 2007) The following excerpts from the beginning of

the first three chapters of the text confirm this pattern of paragraph structuring:

i Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to the communion and Papa flung his

heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere We had just returned from church Mama

placed the fresh palm fronds, which were wet with holy water, on the dining table and then went upstairs to


ii I was at my study desk when Mama came into my room, my school uniforms piled on the crook of her arm

She placed them on my bed She had brought them in from the lines in the backyard, where I had hung them to

dry that morning Jaja and I washed our school uniforms while Sisi washed the rest of our clothes We always

soaked tiny sections of fabric in the foamy water first to check if the colors would run, although we knew they

would not…(19)

iii In the following weeks, the newspaper we read during family time sounded different, more subdued The

Standard, too was different; it was more critical, more questioning than it used to be Even the drive to school

was different The first week after the coup, Kevin plucked green tree branches every morning and stuck them

to the care lodged above the number plate, so that the demonstrators at Government Square would let us drive


Another interesting part of this device is the use of upper case for the first few words of the opening sentence of

most of her paragraphs which should normally have been restricted to only the first letter of the opening word

This is obviously a violation of the graphological convention or practice One significant stylistic effect of this

technique is that it gives deliberate prominence to those words in the upper case The analysis of the extract below

will amplify the underlying point:

THE POWER WENT OFF that evening, just before the sun fell The refrigerator shook and shivered and then fell

silent I did not notice how loud its non-stop hum was until it stopped Obiora brought the kerosene lamps out to

the verandah and we sat around them, swatting at the tiny insects that blindly followed the yellow light and

bumped against the glass bulbs (220/221)

Relating the use of upper case in written language to the spoken form, though, never absolute, will project the

speaker (narrator) as loud The clear point is that Adichie deploys capitalization, what Davy (1969:174) refers to

as “ graphetic highlighting”, to imbue or invest key aspects of meaning in the text with the appropriate or required

prominence or emphasis In the passage above, emphasis is then laid on such words with upper case which

decidedly makes them louder and thus, more attention is naturally focused on them than the others in the same


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It is, therefore, a design by Adichie to emphatically and strategically capture the deteriorating infrastructure in the

country which are recurring experiences and characterize the social fabric in Nigeria Adichie liberally employs

this device throughout the text For exemplification, see below three more extracts selected randomly from the

text that depicts that this design:

i WE LEFT ABBA right after … The wives of the Umunna took the leftover food, even the cooked rice and

beans that Mama said were spoiled, and they knelt in the backyard dirt to thank Papa and Mama The gate man

waved with both hands over his head as we drove off … (103)

ii THE PHONE RANG EARLY, before any of us had taken a morning bath My mouth went dry because I was

sure it was about Papa, that something has happened to him The soldiers had gone to the house; they had shot

him to make sure he would never publish anything again… (147)

iii I DID NOT GET a chance to tell Jaja about the printing until the next day, a Saturday, when he came into my

room during study time He wore thick socks and placed his feet gingerly one after the other, as I did…(197)


Punctuation marks generally make for organized structure as well as effective thought flow in any piece of written

text, which facilitates meaningful and efficient reading Our analysis in this section, therefore, demonstrates that

punctuation is also a marked or significant graphological feature in the text, as it helps in foregrounding the

overall or cumulative meaning of the work In other words, the mode or pattern of punctuation in the text is

meaning-laden in the sense that it is suggestive or reflective of the given content or proposition in specific

contexts The full stop, for instance, is a technique generally used at the end of a sentence in writing In the text,

we notice that there is a deliberate investment of this technique to create the background for specific and general

meanings As a grammatical pause, Adichie employs this technique throughout the text which is significant for

meaning, especially, through the use of declarative sentences and to mark longer pauses The extract below

illustrates the point:

You have to do something with all these privileges Because God has given much, he expects much from you He

expects perfection I didn’t have a father who sent me to the best schools My father spent his time worshipping

gods of woods and stone I would be nothing today but for the priests and sisters at the mission I was a houseboy

for the parish priest for two years Yes, a houseboy Nobody dropped me off at school (47)

Used as a grammatical pause, it inevitably slows down the reading pace The underlying idea of the passage

above is that the road to success is tasking or demanding and compels hardwork and focus if we are to make any

meaning out of life Thus, the slow process of reading imposed on the passage by the full stops matches the idea

of the passage and foregrounds the meaning of the text This pattern or punctuation and its effect beautifully

matches form with message In other words, the text is clearly constructed to relate content to form

The comma is another punctuation mark that is deployed to foreground stylistic meaning in the text

Conventionally, it is used for a variety of purposes – separate main clause from subordinate clause; introduce a

direct speech, etc In the words of Adeyanju(2008:89), a comma “is a graphological device used to separate items

in a list and to create a slight pause in the unit of thought…” Its main function in the text is essentially to show

where Adichie would naturally pause so as to allow her message to be absorbed and also, to separate items in a

list The extract below illustrates this technique which is a prominent part of Adichie’s stylistic choices:

At Ninth Mile, Papa stopped to buy bread and okpa Hawkers descending on our car, pushing boiled eggs, roasted

cashew nuts, bottled water, bread, okpa, agidi into every window of the car, chanting: “Buy from me, oh, I will

sell well to you” Or “Look at me, I am the one you are looking for” (54)

The critical point is that a grammatical pause like the full-stop, the comma forces the reader to pause nine times in

the extract; and would naturally force down the pace of reading The theme of the extract is the struggles for

survival One must go to the roadside, wait, approach car owners, go round and round the car windows, and then

chant in order to make a living It is a difficult and a slow process; and it is this slow process of eking out a living

that is enacted by the slow pace of reading the text through the use of commas The critical fact that emerges from

this style is that grammatical pause serves as a technique for foregrounding the meaning of the text

The question mark is used to suggest that an expression is a question meant to elicit information from the

addressee The use of the question mark in the text is, apparently, also stylistically significant

International Journal of Language and Linguistics ISSN 2374-8850 (Print), 2374-8869 (Online) Vol 1, No 2; December 2014


In other words, Adichie’s deployment of question mark in this text has intrinsic stylistic value in the sense that it

is deliberately used to foreground or draw attention to crucial aspects of meaning and to create directions in the

mind of the reader This extract exemplifies this point: “Sole administrator must go… head of state must go…

Where is running water? Where is light? Where is petrol?” (228) The critical point to note in this context is that

question marks carry with them a rising intonation, and the natural attitude associated with a rise in tone suggests

the semantic feature/ + critical/ The design in the context is, therefore, to reflect the critical social conditions

under corrupt leaders and which the people are forced to protest against The central concerns in the passage are

serious and the contradictions curious The question marks are, therefore, a deliberate effort to mean, to

interrogate the system: why the so much lack of basic amenities in Nigeria or any post-colonial African country,

when there is so much resources and potential?

The stylistic technique of quoting conversation is also stylistically foregrounded in Adichie’s text It is mainly

used to know characters by what they say especially in the novel genre which is inherently narrative This is

clearly in tandem with Campsall’s (2008) observation that graphological features of a text determine subtle and

important aspects such as genre and ideology Adichie’s novel is, in fact, replete with this style marker and it is

achieved graphological through the use of quotation marks The most significant or critical point about the use of

this device is the shortness of most of the quoted speeches of conversations and, in fact, its liberal use in the text

makes it almost a drama piece in format:

“… I talked to Philipa the other day, She said

“Oh? How is she, how is oyinbo land treating her?”

“She is well”

“And life as a second-class citizen in America?

“Chiaku, your sarcasm is unbecoming”

“But it is true All my years in Cambridge, I was a monkey who had developed the

ability to reason”

“That is what they tell you Everyday our doctors go there and end up washing plates

for oyinbo because oyinbo does not think we study medicine right Our lawyers go and

drive taxis because oyinbo does not trust how we train them in law” (244)

As can be gleaned from the extract above, the fundamental stylistic point here is that, through this device, Achidie

makes her characters express critical opinions that are critical and strategic to our understanding and interpretation

of the text The short speeches make the points sharp, pungent and penetrating - they make the points to sink in

seamlessly and thus, the reader can artistically relate to a common bitter experience of the blacks ie “I was a

monkey who had developed the ability to reason” portrays an existing but sensitive racial phenomenon which

continues to confront the black man in the white man’s land


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