You are in the room with a friend. The room is very warm. Your friend is sitting next to the fan switch. You say, “It is really warm in here”
Your friend wants to know whether he should meet you in your room or at the canteen to discuss an assignment. You say, “It is really warm in here”
Again, discourse analysis is an analytic activity where it studies spoken, signed and written languages that are focusing aspects of linguistic behaviour. Discourse analysis also studies patterns of pronunciation, sentence structure, semantics and how one actually produces and organizes their speech production. Besides that, discourse analysis has total influence in the social science chain which includes linguistics, sociology, anthropology, social work, cognitive phonology, social psychology, international relations, human geography, communication studies and translation studies.
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Discourse Analysis and Context
An understanding of how language functions in context is central to an understanding of the relationship between what is said and what is understood in spoken and written discourse. The context of situation of what someone says is therefore, crucial to understanding and interpreting the meaning of what is being said (Paltridge 2006). These include the physical context, the social context and the mental worlds and roles of the people involved in the interaction.
When we think of a text, we naturally think of a piece of written complete in itself and of some significant extent: a legal document, a brochure, a newspaper article, a recipe, and so on. Though this view of text may be reasonable, there seem to be a difficulty when we have to define units of language which consists of a single sentence, or even a single word, which are all also considered as text because they meet the basic condition of developing a meaningful entirety in their own right. Usual examples of such small-scale text are public notices like ‘NO SMOKING’, ‘W.C’, and ‘TURN RIGHT’ and ‘BUMP AHEAD’.
It is clear that these short texts are significant in themselves, and therefore do not need a particular structural patterning with other language units. Concisely, they are whole in terms of communicative meaning. So, if the meaningfulness of texts does not rely on their linguistic size, what does it depend on?
Consider the road sign ‘BUMP AHEAD’. When you are driving a car and see this sign, you interpret it as a warning that there will be a small bump on the road in front of you and that it is thus sensible to slow down when you drive over it. From this, it can be concluded that you recognize a piece of language as a text, not because of its length, but because of its location in a particular context. And, if you are accustomed with the text in that particular context, you know what the message is intended to be.
Suppose you see the same road sign in a legal piece of advice for instance, of course, you still know the original meaning of the sign, but because of its dissociation from its usual context of traffic control, you are no longer able to act on its original intention. Furthermore, prompted by its strange situational context, you might be tempted to think up some peculiar meaning for the otherwise familiar symbol. From this example of dissociation of the usual context we can then conclude that, for the assignation of its meaning, a text is dependent on its use in an appropriate context. The study of meaning in relation to the context in which a person is speaking or writing is called pragmatics (Paltridge, 2006).
According to Paltridge (2006), four kinds of context are taken into account when analyzing the relationship between meaning and context. These context include social, situational, textual and background knowledge context. The social context involves the relationship of the speakers in a discourse, or the formality of the situation and the norms of a group or an organization. Situational context is the condition where and when the discourse takes place. Textual context is the function of the text. Background knowledge context is the shared knowledge between the speaker and hearer about each other and the world.
Why is context fundamental to Discourse Analysis?
Context helps us understand indirect speech
Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) as cited in Paltridge, 2006 argued that we perform acts by using language. That is we use language to give orders, to make requests, to give advice or warnings. An important issue which underlies this is the relationship between the literal meanings of what someone says and what the person intends by what they say. For example, when someone says “I can’t concentrate”, he is not only referring to his state of affairs but may also be requesting someone to do something, most of the time it has literal meaning and illocutionary meaning (Paltridge,2006).
To retain a good relationship with the society means that we need to have a good communication skill. Understanding and responding appropriately to indirect speech like the example above enable us to show our cooperation with other people in our social actions. There are times though, when implicit messages are much harder to decode. This is where the importance of contexts comes into view. In analyzing such discourse, knowing the context of the discourse can be very helpful. It is because context helps us to understand speech acts.
Carter: Can I speak to Professor Holmes?
Professor: Is that you, Carter? You were supposed to see me two days ago.
Carter: Uh, yes sir, I’m sorry about that. Can I uh…May I come to see you tomorrow at 2 pm?
Professor: I’ve meeting at 2. Make that 10 am. Is that ok with you?
A lot can be inferred from Excerpt 1. Most people would agree that the conversation occurs over the telephone and not face-to-face. The situation calls for the speaker to ask the receiver whether he is speaking to the right person. This would not be necessary if the conversation takes place in a different context, like a face-to-face conversation. The importance of social context can be seen here too. Even if ‘Professor’ is omitted from the dialogue, we can still concur that there is a power difference between the speakers. Carter is using terms like ‘sir’ and politeness strategies (hedging and asking permission) when making requests. Most likely this would not be the case if he was speaking to his father or his colleague.
Going back to our earlier discussion, there is an example of indirect speech embedded in the dialogue. When Professor Holmes said ‘you were supposed to see me two days ago’, not only did he make a statement, he also reprimanded carter for breaking his promise and expected him to apologize. Carter understood these implicit messages and thus apologized. How did he know? He knows through the context of background knowledge; that is what people know about each other and the world around them. He knows that breaking a promise is wrong and apologizing is what he should do after doing something wrong; all through the norms and expectations of the discourse community. Hence, in analyzing discourse, it is imperative those contexts are being taken into account in order to comprehend why people say what they say.
Context helps establish and accumulate presuppositions
In discourse analysis, presupposition is the assumptions the hearer makes about what the speaker has said based on the knowledge about the situation and the world (Paltridge, 2006).
Carter: I went to my aunt’s wedding yesterday.
Bill: Huh? How old is she?
Bill: How old is her husband?
Carter: Forty-one. Hey, take it easy. That man is madly in love with her.
From Excerpt 2, we can say that a) logically presuppose that Carter has an aunt. This is a concept of presupposition in linguistics. We can say that Carter treats the information that he has an aunt as presupposed and Bill, in his question, indicates that he has accepted this presupposition automatically. How does Bill automatically accept the presupposition? It is the general knowledge of the world and context that helps him. Since Carter initiates to talk about the private affairs of one of his family members to Bill, Bill must be intimate friend. Carter really wants to talk something about his aunt and her new husband who are strange in the eyes of many people. It is unnecessary for Carter to do so, if he has no aunt in the first place. That is why, that Carter has an aunt, is self explanatory to Bill. As a discourse goes on, the speaker will not continuously repeat the old information about the subject (like Carter saying he has an aunt repeatedly every conversational turn), but talk about more information in order to keep the communication going. As soon as information occurs, the hearer must add them to his own accumulation of presupposition (VEnnman,1975), so that he will not always be having question about the same detail.
Context helps us detect conversational implicature
Conversational implicature is used by Grice to account for what a hearer can infer from what the speaker literally says and it is deduced on the basis of the conversational meaning of words together with the context, under the guidance of the Cooperative principle and its maxims (Paltridge, 2006). The four maxims are (Grice,1975):
Quantity: make our contribution as informative as is required
Quality: Say something that we believe to be true.
Relation: Be relevant.
Manner: Be clear and avoid ambiguity when communicating.
When people converse with each other, they do not always hold to the four maxims (Paltridge, 2006). The breaching of a maxim may result in the speaker transmitting, in addition to literal meaning of his utterance, and extra meaning, which is conversational implicature.
Carter: Should we go watch late night movies?
Bill: I got a 7.30 class tomorrow.
Apparently, Bill’s answer in Excerpt 3 has nothing to do with Carter’s question. He seems to be breaching the maxims of relevance. In reality though, Bill is actually sticking to the Cooperative Principle and means something more than literal meaning. The other meaning, that is conversational implicature; is that he has a class at 7.30 am tomorrow, so he refuses the invitation in case he would be too tired to attend tomorrow’s class. Knowing context enables Carter to implicate this meaning; in this case, textual context. Based on the discourse, Bill assumes that Carter will (based on the maxim of relation) search for the relevance of what he had said and derived an intended meaning.
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