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Discourse Analysis—What Speakers Do in Conversation


Discourse analysis is sometimes defined as the analysis of language 'beyond the sentence'. This contrasts with types of analysis more typical of modern linguistics, which are chiefly concerned with the study of grammar: the study of smaller bits of language, such as sounds (phonetics and phonology), parts of words (morphology), meaning (semantics), and the order of words in sentences (syntax). Discourse analysts study larger chunks of language as they flow together.

Some discourse analysts consider the larger discourse context in order to understand how it affects the meaning of the sentence. For example, Charles Fillmore points out that two sentences taken together as a single discourse can have meanings different from each one taken separately. To illustrate, he asks you to imagine two independent signs at a swimming pool: "Please use the toilet, not the pool," says one. The other announces, "Pool for members only." If you regard each sign independently, they seem quite reasonable. But taking them together as a single discourse makes you go back and revise your interpretation of the first sentence after you've read the second.

Discourse and Frames

'Reframing' is a way to talk about going back and re-interpreting the meaning of the first sentence. Frame analysis is a type of discourse analysis that asks, What activity are speakers engaged in when they say this? What do they think they are doing by talking in this way at this time? Consider how hard it is to make sense of what you are hearing or reading if you don't know who's talking or what the general topic is. When you read a newspaper, you need to know whether you are reading a news story, an editorial, or an advertisement in order to properly interpret the text you are reading. Years ago, when Orson Welles' radio play "The War of the Worlds" was broadcast, some listeners who tuned in late panicked, thinking they were hearing the actual end of the world. They mistook the frame for news instead of drama.


Conversation is an enterprise in which one person speaks, and another listens. Discourse analysts who study conversation note that speakers have systems for determining when one person's turn is over and the next person's turn begins. This exchange of turns or 'floors' is signaled by such linguistic means as intonation, pausing, and phrasing. Some people await a clear pause before beginning to speak, but others assume that 'winding down' is an invitation to someone else to take the floor. When speakers have different assumptions about how turn exchanges are signaled, they may inadvertently interrupt or feel interrupted. On the other hand, speakers also frequently take the floor even though they know the other speaker has not invited them to do so.









Listenership too may be signaled in different ways. Some people expect frequent nodding as well as listener feedback such as 'mhm', 'uhuh', and 'yeah'. Less of this than you expect can create the impression that someone is not listening; more than you expect can give the impression that you are being rushed along. For some, eye contact is expected nearly continually; for others, it should only be intermittent. The type of listener response you get can change how you speak: If someone seems uninterested or uncomprehending (whether or not they truly are), you may slow down, repeat, or overexplain, giving the impression you are 'talking down.' Frederick Erickson has shown that this can occur in conversations between black and white speakers, because of different habits with regard to showing listenership.

Discourse Markers

'Discourse markers' is the term linguists give to the little words like 'well', 'oh', 'but', and 'and' that break our speech up into parts and show the relation between parts. 'Oh' prepares the hearer for a surprising or just-remembered item, and 'but' indicates that sentence to follow is in opposition to the one before. However, these markers don't necessarily mean what the dictionary says they mean. Some people use 'and' just to start a new thought, and some people put 'but' at the end of their sentences, as a way of trailing off gently. Realizing that these words can function as discourse markers is important to prevent the frustration that can be experienced if you expect every word to have its dictionary meaning every time it's used.

Speech Acts

Speech act analysis asks not what form the utterance takes but what it does. Saying "I now pronounce you man and wife" enacts a marriage. Studying speech acts such as complimenting allows discourse analysts to ask what counts as a compliment, who gives compliments to whom, and what other function they can serve. For example, linguists have observed that women are more likely both to give compliments and to get them. There are also cultural differences; in India, politeness requires that if someone compliments one of your possessions, you should offer to give the item as a gift, so complimenting can be a way of asking for things. An Indian woman who had just met her son's American wife was shocked to hear her new daughter-in-law praise her beautiful saris. She commented, "What kind of girl did he marry? She wants everything!" By comparing how people in different cultures use language, discourse analysts hope to make a contribution to improving cross-cultural understanding.


Deborah Tannen

What's the Difference between Speech and Writing?

William Bright

When we talk about 'language', sometimes we mean speech (spoken language), sometimes writing (written language). How are they different? Of course, speech is spoken and heard, while writing is written and read. But there are many other differences:


Age. Speech goes back to human beginnings, perhaps a million years ago. Writing is relatively recent, however; it was first invented by the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia, around 3200 B.C. Since then, the idea of writing has spread around the world and different writing systems have evolved in different parts of the world.

Universality. Humans everywhere can speak. But before the Sumerian invention, people were nonliterate. Even now there are many nonliterate groups (e.g. in New Guinea), and many nonliterate people in officially literate societies.

Acquisition. People everywhere start speaking during the first two years of life; many of the abilities involved are probably inborn rather than learned. Learning to write typically builds on learning to speak.

Levels of Structure. Speech consists of two types of basic units: 'Phonemes' or units of sound, which are themselves meaningless, are combined into 'morphemes', which are meaningful units; so the phonemes /b/, /i/, /t/ form the word 'bit'. Alphabetic scripts work the same way. In a different type of script, the syllabary, the basic unit, corresponds to a spoken syllable; Japanese and Cherokee use this system. In logographic script, e.g. Chinese, each character corresponds to an entire morpheme (usually a word). (For further information on scripts, see Daniels and Bright 1996.)

Interdependence. Most literate people can convey the same messages in either speech or writing, but speech typically conveys more explicit information than writing. Hebrew and Arabic scripts indicate consonants but often omit symbols for vowels. In Chinese, the symbols that correspond to words may give no indication of pronunciation, or only partial cues. The spoken and written forms of a given language tend to correspond on one or more levels and may influence each other—as when 'through' is spelled 'thru'. Conversely, in spelling pronunciation, people may come to pronounce the 't' in 'often' even though historically it had been lost. Some formal literary styles, like Classical Chinese, acquire a life of their own in written form and have little direct relationship to speech.

Retrievability. Until the invention of magnetic recording, speech could not be captured or preserved, except by fallible memories and by writing. But writing can be preserved for millennia. Its permanence has made possible such human institutions as libraries, histories, schedules, dictionaries, menus, and what we generally call 'civilization'.

Literary Use. Nonliterate societies have traditions—songs, rituals, legends, myths—composed orally and preserved by memory. Such texts may be called oral literature. By contrast, writing permits what is more often called 'literature', i.e. bodies of text which are much larger and more codified than memory permits. Yet even in literate societies, dramatic performance and reading aloud remain important traditions.

Prestige. Written language is associated with political and economic power, admired literature, and educational institutions, all of which lend it high prestige. In literate societies, people often come to think of their written language as basic; they may regard speech as inferior. Nevertheless, writing can be perceived as colder or more impersonal than speech.

Standardization. Spoken languages have dialects—forms varying across geographical areas and social groups. But in complex societies that use writing, the needs of communication encourage moves toward a single written norm, codified by governmental, educational, and literary institutions. The prestige of the written standard is then likely to influence speech as well.

Formality. Communication may be formal or casual. In literate societies, writing may be associated with formal style and speech, with casual style. In formal circumstances (oratory, sermons), a person may 'talk like a book', adapting written style for use in speech. Formal and informal styles may be very distinct, e.g. in Arabic, and can virtually be different languages.

Change. Spoken language, everywhere and always, undergoes continual change of which speakers may be relatively unaware. Written language, because of its permanence and standardization, shows slower and less sweeping changes; the spelling of English has changed much less than its pronunciation since Chaucer's time. This in turn is linked to the factors of formality and prestige.

Suggested Readings

Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell encyclopedia of writing systems. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The writings systems of the world. Oxford: Blackwell.

Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright (eds.). 1996. The world's writing systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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