Discourse Analysis – or DA – is all about examining and analyzing spoken or written language (and to a lesser extent, sign language).
It’s about taking language, putting it under the microscope and looking at it closely to see how it works and then taking it out and looking at it again in the wider world.
A bit like examining a coin from the time of Julius Caesar and then going on to talk about how it fits into the the economy of Rome.
So discourse analysis is about examining language and then asking questions about how that language is used. Questions like:
- Why is this word used instead of that word?
- How did this speaker know when to interrupt that speaker?
- Is it true that women use question tags more than men?
- How do we change our speech in different circumstances?
- etc, etc
In other words, it’s about analyzing how we use language in the widest possible sense.
The Raw Material for Analysis
To begin with, DA needs something to analyze. It needs language samples.
Unlike some grammatical analysis for example, DA does not invent examples to look at but instead always uses real life examples from real people – ideally people who do not know that what they say will be analyzed later on!
The start of DA, then, is collecting samples of language.
With spoken language these will be audio recordings. These could be two people talking in the pub; a newsreader giving an announcement on the radio; kids talking during break at school; a manager explaining their business to a group of investors… anything really.
However, once it’s been recorded it will then be transcribed. When this happens it’s not only the words which are written down but also the interruptions, interjections, pauses, turn-taking and so on.
A transcription could look something like this:
A: I was… was comin’ out out of the shop when-
B: Before I saw-
A: [pause] Yeah, I was comin’ out the shop when you called-
B: Ha, yeah.
A: But it weren’t what you-
B: I know! I know!
A: Yeah, you didn’t-
And so on. Although this is a simple transcription, it tries to show interruptions, who is speaking, something of the dialect and so on.
NB Some transcriptions will use IPA notation, time stamps, markup – grammatical notation – and so on.
But as well as the actual language produced, DA also needs to know the context of how and when it was produced.
- Was it in an informal setting, e.g. the pub or a more formal setting such as an interview?
- Did the speakers know they were being recorded?
- Who were the speakers? What was their relationship?
- When was it recorded?
When it comes to written language, as you can probably imagine these come from all kinds of sources: newspapers, books, Twitter, phone texts, learned periodicals and so on.
Importantly though context – again – plays a major part and you need to know who wrote the text, when they wrote it and why. For example a newspaper article might have been written for a left-wing newspaper in order to persuade people to vote a certain way in an election. A love letter, on the other hand, is written with a different purpose in mind.
So context plays a part and the wider world needs to be thought about.
DA in Action
Once you have the source material it is time to analyze it.
This will mean going through the material very carefully and working out not only exactly what was said and why plus also how it was said and how it relates to the context.
This will involve looking at various elements of language which can include:
One interesting aspect of DA is turn-taking, that is how one speaker knows when another speaker has finished and it is acceptable to interrupt. Or how we stop someone from interrupting us when we want to continue speaking.
Does it matter who the speakers are their relationship? Does it matter where the conversation is taking place?
These are words and sounds which don’t really add to the content of the conversation but nonetheless are useful in helping to keep it going. Words like:
uh, um, er, well, ok, like…
So why do people use them? Is it to keep their turn and stop the other person from speaking? Do different classes of speaker use different discourse markers?
This is all about not what someone says, but what they mean.
For example who uses question tags the most and why? Who gives or receives compliments the most and what this means.
It also includes the sub-text of the language and how people can say or suggest without actually saying or suggesting out loud.
Is this your cup?
That might mean:
Are you the owner of this cup?
It’s dirty, you go and wash it now!
Why is my cup in your bag?
And so on.
choice of vocabulary
Why did a certain newspaper describe someone as a terrorist while another newspaper used the term freedom fighter? What dictates our choice of words in any particular circumstance?
The Results of Discourse Analysis
After a lot of analysis a linguist might decide they have enough evidence to suggest a generalization.
These might be along the lines of:
- Women use question tags more than men.
- Women give and receive compliments more than men.
- Political discourse often includes metaphors about movement.
- Dominant white groups display their racial prejudices in the language they use.
Then the linguists will go off and analyze some more and either decide that the generalization is quite good or it’s not and they’ll argue about it some more.Image © NTNUmedicine