Linguistics Theories and Discourse Analysis Essay

Pages: 7 (1863 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Communication - Language

Linguistic Theories and Discourse Analysis

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language, which, it turns out, is a highly complex system. Linguists come up with theories to represent and account for the structure and the functioning of human language (Akmajian, Demers, Farmer & Harnish 2010, 3). How then does linguistic theories relate to discourse? Discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking that encompasses not just what we say and how we say it, but also what we do not say. Discourse gives a set of words, symbols, and metaphors that give us the ability to create and communicate whatever our interpretation of our environment is. Discourse originated in the field of linguistics. It originally referred to the whole units of speech and the speech community in which these units were communicated; however, Foucault changed the concept of discourse from its linguistic formulation and applied it to the social sciences, identifying and typologizing the structures of discourses, and focusing on how discourses affect everything in our society while remaining nearly unobservable. Discourse analysis then can be defined as the analysis of language in use, which goes beyond the mere sentence. Modern linguistics emphasizes the study of grammar, smaller parts of language (e.g., sounds -- phonetics and phonology), parts of words (morphology), meaning (semantics), and the order of words (syntax). "A text has a prosodic phonological structure, which consists of sounds, organized into syllables, organized into words, organized into phonological phrases, and so on" (Fabb 1997, 26). Discourse is about the bigger parts of language as they all come together. Whereas many linguists may focus on determining the formal properties of a language, discourse analysts want to know what the language is used for (Brown 1).

Language and Context in Discourse: The "context" of an utterance is an expandable notion (Akmajian et al. 2010, 388). Sometimes the relevant context is linguistic -- just the previous and anticipated utterances in the discourse or conversation. Context can also extend to the immediate physical and social environment as well and it can encompass general knowledge. Each of these concentric circles of "context" can play a part in the interpretation of an utterance. How we play a part in a conversation can reflect and affect the linguistic and nonlinguistic context of an utterance (2010, 388).

Akmajian et al. (2010, 388) note that our comments can reflect features of the context of utterance because we often "watch our language" by staying away from certain phrases or certain words. In a more subtle way, language has structural devices -- stylistic variants as they are often called -- that allow people to merge into the flow of discourse. Our comments in a conversation can also affect the context by making it appropriate for the speaker to say something specific about something as opposed to something else. For example, it would be appropriate for a speaker to tell a joke if he had just asked the hearer if he had heard the one about the three ministers who walked into a bar. or, if a speaker said that they just had an amazing experience, it would be appropriate for him to go on and explain what this amazing experience was or tell the story of the experience. Thus, it is easy to see how language structure can both reflect and affect the structure of discourse by just one speaker.

Brown (25) asserts that the idea that a linguistic string (a sentence) can be fully analyzed without taking context into account has been seriously questioned. If the "sentence-grammarian" wants to make claims about the "acceptability" of a sentence in determining whether the strings created by his grammar are correct sentences of the language, he is implicitly appealing to contextual considerations (25). Therefore, a discourse analyst will always have to take context into consideration. The most obvious of these linguistic elements that require contextual information for their interpretation, according to Brown, are the deictic forms: for example, here, now, I, you, this, and that (). The minimum one would have to know is who the speaker and the hearer are and where they are when they are speaking to each other.

Taking Turns: Linguists have come up with the theory that speakers have come up with a way in discourse -- or conversations -- to know when to speak and when not to speak. There are theories that point to such elements as intonation, pausing and phrasing which give clues to another as to when he should speak. When people interrupt each other, it is because they have a different idea about what signals tell them it is time to speak. For example, if someone pauses in a very clear way, a speaker might understand that it is now time for him to speak. However, another person might think that when a person seems to be slowing down in whatever they are saying, it is then time for the other to speak. These differences in the way people interpret signals are what causes interruptions.

Just as speakers get signals from another in the conversation, listeners also get signals and these signals mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think that one is only really paying attention to what is being said when there is a good amount of verbal feedback taking place -- for example, a lot of "oohs" and "uh-huhs" (Tannen 2011). Another person might think that nodding is a sign of attentive listening. If someone is hearing more verbal feedback while speaking than they expect, then they might get the impression that the listener isn't really interested in what is being said or that they are trying to get the speaker to be quiet. It is the same thing with eye contact (2011).

In his book "Using Language," Clark (1996, 3) suggests that language use is really a form of joint action. That is, language use is an action that is carried out by an ensemble of people acting in coordination with one another. As an ensemble activity, discourse consists of a joint action and the individual actions by the conversational participants that constitute the joint action. Joint activities necessitate the coordination of both the content and the activity and the process by which the activity moves forward. The source of the groups' ability to coordinate is their common ground, according to Clark, which is their set of knowledge, beliefs and suppositions that they believe they share.

Brown (1983, 230) notes that there are some easily recognizable regularities in the ordering of two-turn units, which are called 'adjacency pairs.' They can come in the form of greetings, for example, or in question-answer. Some examples given by Brown are: A: Hello, B: Hi, a: How are you? B: Fine, and you? (1983, 230). When looking at the examples, it is easy to see how the idea of having a "turn" seems quite logical. However, as noted above, all exchanges are not created equally and thus it might be difficult at times to know when one's turn is because there are several utterances occurring and thus the adjacency pairs are unclear or not easily identifiable.

Schegloff (1972; Brown 1983, 230) notes that an adjacency pair can be interrupted sometimes by an 'insertion question.' Here is the example that he gives:

George: Did you want an ice lolly or not?

Zee: What kind have they got?

George: How about orange?

Zee: Don't they have Bazookas?

George: Well here's twenty pence + you ask him.

The insertion question has delayed the answer to one question part of a pair until another has been answered to a different question that has been offered. This offers an interesting look into discourse. "The most that the discourse analyst might gain from the conversational interaction approach to an example such as the one provided earlier is that its coherence depends partially on our expectation that (according to adjacency pair formula) we should get an answer form the question asked immediately before (1983, 231).

Discourse Markers: This is a linguistic theory that has to do with words like "oh" and "well" -- among others (Tannen 2011). These are the words that break up speech patterns and also relate two different parts of speech. These words are important in discourse, according to linguistic theory, because they give the listener an idea of what to expect from the speaker. For example, if a speaker starts off by saying "oh," the listener might expect that the speaker is going to say something that perhaps they forgot to mention before or something that might be a bit surprising to hear. If someone uses the word "but," they are likely going to say something that is in opposition of what they just said. For example, "I wanted to go to the party, but then I realized I wouldn't know anybody there, so I decided against it."

Tannen (2011) notes that discourse markers are special because they are words that are used in ways that cannot be defined by how… [END OF PREVIEW]

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