Basic Concepts of Discourse Analysis

Seminar Paper, 2004

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I.) Introduction

II.) What is Discourse Analysis?
II. a) What is Discourse?
II. b) What is Text?
II. c) Some Attempts to Define Discourse Analysis

III.) Concepts and Aspects of Discourse Analysis
III. a) Context
III. b) Coherence
III. c) Background Knowledge
III. d) Differences between Spoken and Written Language

IV.) The Application and Social Relevance of Discourse Analysis

VI.) Bibliography

I.) Introduction

This paper refers to the introductory course to language and language learning, parts I. and II. during winter term 2003/2004 and summer term 2004. The issue discourse analysis is “not a simple enterprise”, as Dijk already points out (1985:10), and its complexity forces me to make a specific choice of extracts from the whole field. I will try to provide an efficient overview of theoretical discourse analysis by investigating the following questions:

- What is discourse analysis? – Defining the difference between the terms ‘text’ and ‘discourse’ and ‘discourse analysis’ itself
- What are the basic concepts and aspects of discourse analysis? – Taking a closer look at context, coherence, the importance of background knowledge and the differences between spoken and written language
- Finally: What are the uses of discourse analysis? – Investigating on the problem of application and social relevance of discourse analysis

II.) What is Discourse Analysis?

II. a) What is Discourse?

According to Nunan, the expression discourse is being used in a number of different ways and there happens to be disagreement on its use. But at least we can say that it needs to be distinguished from the expression text1 (cf. 1993:6). Here are two attempts to define discourse:

1. “discourse: A continuous stretch of (especially spoken) language larger than a sentence, often constituting a coherent unit, such as a sermon argument joke or narrative” (Crystal 1992:25)
2. “discourse: stretches of language perceived to be meaningful, unified and purposive” (Cook 1989:156)

II. b) What is Text?

Crystal and Cook offer one definition each on the term ‘text’:

1. “text: A piece of naturally occurring spoken, written, or signed discourse identified for purposes of analysis. It is often a language unit with a definable communicative function, such as a conversation, a poster.” (Crystal 1992:72)
2. “text: a stretch of language interpreted formally, without context” (Cook 1989:158)

So the two key terms ‘discourse’ and ‘text’ seem to be interchangeable for some commentators, while others draw a strict line between them. Nunan states that “discourse brings together language, the individuals producing the language, and the context within which the language is used.” (1993:6). It needs to be added that some linguists tend to avoid using the term discourse, whilst preferring the term text for all recorded instances of language in use.

According to Nunan, a piece of discourse consists of more than one sentence and the sentences necessarily have to combine to form a meaningful whole to be called a piece of discourse (1993:6). He also claims the existence of so-called text-forming devices, (highlighted and underlined in the text excerpt below) to be responsible for connecting sentences together to form a meaningful whole and to distinguish them from random sentences. Discourse analysts also study these text-forming devices. Some of them are anaphoric,2 like ‘work’ and ‘it’ in the following discourse taken out of Oscar Wilde’s The picture of Dorian Gray, and some of them (like ‘the Grosvenor’) work as indicating one single matter spoken of in two (or more) different sentences:

"It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done," said Lord Henry languidly. “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. [...] The Grosvenor is really the only place." (Wilde 1891:18)

Nunan’s concluding definition of text and discourse is as follows:

“Text refers to a written or taped record of a piece of communication, whereas discourse refers to the piece of communication in context.” (1993:20)

II. c) Some Attempts to Define Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis, in particular, describes investigating the structural mechanisms a writer has to deal with when articulating his message. A speaker, in contrast, once getting the turn3 has to organise what he intends to say, consider what the other participants of the conversation know and do not know, as well as sequence everything in a coherent way (Yule 1996:83). But when writing a message down instead of talking to other people, the speaker (who is now the writer) has to consider the absence of the listeners’ immediate interactive feedback, which makes his message more complex to organise.

“In this expanded perspective, speakers and writers are viewed as using language not only in its interpersonal function,4 but also in its textual function,5 and also in its ideational function.”6 (83)

In its full richness discourse analysis involves all the levels and methods of analysis of language, cognition, interaction, society and culture (cf. Dijk 1985:10).


1 also see II. b.) of this paper

2 anaphoric backward referring words like in: John came in and he lit a fire. He refers to what ever John refers to (Example taken from Levinson 1983:67).

3 The usual conversation between two people follows the common pattern ‘I speak – you speak – I speak – you speak’. There is a general right to speak; making use of this right to speak, ‘taking over the control’ so to say, is called a turn. Anyone involved in the conversation can attempt to take over that control. This taking over is called turn-taking (cf. Yule 1996:72).

4 language in its interpersonal function, e. g. taking part in social interaction

5 language in its textual function, e. g. creating well-formed and appropriate text

6 language in its ideational function, e. g. representing thought and experience in a coherent way

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Basic Concepts of Discourse Analysis
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Introduction to Language and Language Learning
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Basic, Concepts, Discourse, Analysis, Introduction, Language, Learning
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M.A. Alexander Täuschel (Author), 2004, Basic Concepts of Discourse Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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