DEFINITIONS OF DISCOURSE
In this introductory unit we are going to look at a number of definitions of discourse and to try to define some key terms used in discourse analysis, with the aim of clarifying its scope in such a way that it can deal with a wide range of problems and phenomena, but in a more systematic and coherent way.
Discourse analysis refers, in a very basic sense, to talk. What most people do most of the time is talk, because to do anything requires talk and, often, texts, both in private and public spheres. However, until recently, little attention has been given to what people actually say and do in particular everyday circumstances. People talk ...view middle of the document...
Those who practise the formalist approach to language analyse discourse to find constituents that have certain relationships with one another and occur in a number of arrangements (the sort of linguistic analysis at the level of phonetics, morphology and syntax). We may call this type of approach to the analysis of language ‘sentence linguistics’, and it will not be included in the scope of our course for reasons to be explained further down.
The latter approach defines discourse analysis as ‘language in use, for communication’ (Cook, 1989). Its view is that analysis of discourse cannot be restricted to the description of linguistic forms independent of the purposes/functions which they are designed to serve.
Another definition is that ‘discourse is utterances’ (D.Schiffrin, 1994). Discourse is seen as ‘above’ the sentence (larger than other units of language). In other words, the utterance (not the sentence) is considered the smallest unit of which discourse is comprised, meaning that discourse arises as a collection of inherently contextualised units of language use. We are looking at the construction of meaning, i.e we are talking about ‘utterance meaning’ and ‘speaker meaning’ (and also about how the hearer interprets the meaning of an utterance).
Examples of this view of language are the Speech act approach (based on the philosophy of language), the Ethnography of communication, and pragmatics (the study of meaning in use). The question that such scholars ask is: What gives stretches of language unity and meaning?
Let’s now look at the differences between ‘sentence linguistics’ and ‘discourse analysis’ from the point of view of the types of data they use when analysing language (cf. Cook, 1989).
Differences between ‘sentence linguistics’ data (which applies rules of semantics and grammar) and discourse analysis data:
Sentence linguistics data Discourse analysis data
-isolated sentences - any stretch of language felt to be unified
- grammatically well-formed - achieving meaning
- without context - in context
- invented or idealised - observed
From Cook, 1989:12
Here are, according to Cook (1989) some arguments concentrating on artificially constructed sentences in relation to language teaching and linguistics:
• They are the best for the study of a foreign language because they isolate it from context
• Actual language is ‘degenerate’ and deviates from the rules of grammar (Chomsky)
• The treatment of language in terms of sentences has been successful in revealing how language works (by giving examples of grammatically correct, but somehow peculiar sentences such as: ‘Sincereity may frighten the boy’ – Chomsky, 1965:63).
Now, here are some arguments for studying language in use, in context, on which the present course relies:
• It is more to producing and understanding meaningful language (to communicating) than knowing how to make or recongnise correct sentences
• Being a...