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Context Is Fundamental To Discourse Analysis English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2646 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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First and foremost, we need to take a look what discourse analysis is before we analyze what context is and how context is related to discourse analysis. According to Van Dijk (2001), discourses may be very abstract, for instance when they are talking about drugs or abortion in general however, discourses often are specific, about specific people, acts and settings, as is the case for most everyday conversation, as well as for the news. This is typically the case in the news and in various forms of everyday storytelling. Zellig Harris has introduced the term discourse analysis in 1952 as a way of analyzing connected speech and writing where the examination of language beyond the level of the sentence and the relationship between linguistic and non linguistic behaviour are the two main concerns (Paltridge, 2006). Discourse analysis is a study of the relationship between language and contexts in which it is used. It examines how stretches of language, considered in their full textual, social and psychological context, become meaningful and unified for their users. Back in the year 1960s and early 1970s, discourse analysis grew out of work in several of branches including linguistics, semantics, psychology, anthropology and sociology. All kinds of written text and spoken data, from normal conversation to highly institutional forms of talk been used by discourse analysts to study language. Dell Hymes (1964), Austin (1962), Searle (1969), and Grice (1975) were the influential linguistic philosophers back then.

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The statement ‘context is fundamental in discourse analysis’ is highly supported by several researchers. Jinadu (2006) has claimed that there are three main points in discourse analysis. First, discourse analysis deals with the notion of the sentence in grammar as the basic level from which grammatical or semantic meanings derive. Secondly, in discourse analysis, message and shared experience become interactive. Thirdly, there is the concept of context. He also added that discourse analysis emphasizes that ‘the complete meanings of discourses’ can be validated from the context rather than from the sentence alone hence illustrating the importance of context in discourse analysis. Context is essential because it helps to understand how language functions and it is also a central understanding between what is said and what is understood in spoken and written discourse. According to Paltridge (2006), knowledge about the language beyond the word, clause, phrase and sentence needed for successful communication and patterns of language across texts are the focuses in discourse analysis. Besides that, he also added that in discourse analysis, it takes into account the relationship between language and the social and cultural contexts in which it is used. The term contexts are constantly used in the book as context plays an important role in discourse analysis. It is supported by Paltridge (2006) as he has stated that:

Discourse analysis considers the relationship between language and the contexts in which

it is used…

(Paltridge 2006: 3)

In addition, he also added that an understanding of how language functions in context is essential to an understanding of the relationship between what is said and what is understood in spoken and written discourse. There are good arguments to limit a manageable field of study; but it is also true to say that the answer to the question of what gives discourse its unity maybe impossible to give without considering the world at large: the context (Cook, 1989). Therefore it can be deduced that context is fundamental to discourse analysis and the explanations of this assertion will be discussed.

What is context? Simply put, context is the conditions in which something exists or occurs. Linguistically, this is the part of a discourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation. People will know how to interpret what someone says from the situation they are in. If an air traffic controller says to a pilot “the runway is full at the moment”, it probably means that it is not possible to land the plane at the moment. However, when a person says “the runway is full at the moment” to a person who is waiting for someone at the airport, it is the explanation of why the plane is late, not an instruction to land a plane. The runway is full at the moment has a particular meaning in a particular situation and may mean something else in different situation. The context of situation of what someone says is vital to understanding and interpreting the meaning of what is being said which also includes the physical context, the social context and the mental words and roles of the people involved in an interaction.

According to DeVito (2010), contexts have four aspects: physical context, the social context, social-psychological context and temporal context. However, according to Jinadu (2006), four types of relevant contexts that are often identified by discourse analysts are situational context, social context, cognitive context and cultural context. Situational context or context of situation is one of the recognized contexts which take into account the physical environment of the discourse. In this way, the formal context for example an official meeting with the board directors or an inaugural lecture will be different from an informal context like a chat in a restaurant or a living room. Besides that, there is also social context that operates among interlocutors which concerns the interpersonal and interactional relationships. In discourse analysis the social classes or positions of both the speaker and the hearer are very important signals. The cognitive context, which deals with the message that goes on from the speaker to the hearer functions between their shared experiences. Cultural context involves the worldview of both the speaker and the hearer which may be interpreted in terms of cultural beliefs and practices of the people.

There are several reasons why context is vital in discourse analysis. First, meanings are context based. Therefore, it is wrong to separate the context from discourse analysis. By using the previous example, when someone says, “The runway is full,” it indicates that the flight is delayed in normal person/ passenger context but, the meaning will be totally different when it comes to aviation context. To a pilot, it means that the runway cannot be used to land the plane. OIC in a chat room is interpreted as ‘Oh I see’ but OIC in newspapers might interpret as ‘Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)’. If someone says ‘The bus is late,’ they might want to complaint, they might also want to explain why they are late or they doing something else. Different context creates different meaning and understanding. This shows that, it is impossible to interpret meaning of a message taken out of context because contextual meaning is part and parcel of the overall meaning.

According to Van Dijk (2001), people subjectively represent the social situation in which they now verbally participate for instance, a chat with a relative at home, a lesson at school, reading the magazine on the train, participating in a group discussion, or in a service encounter in a shop, among many others. He also added that these subjective, mental representations of the communicative event and the current social situation as it constrains current discourse will be called context models, or simply contexts. In other words, contexts are not ‘out there’, but ‘in here’. They are mental constructs of participants that is, ‘subjective definitions of the communicative situation’ in the sociocognitive notion of context models that are made explicitly. In fact, contexts are ‘individually variable interpretations of the ongoing social situation’ (Van Dijk ,2001) .These models dynamically control all language use, make sure that discourses are appropriate in the communicative situation and hence are the basis of pragmatics. In a simple explanation to summarize this point, people are the participants in a discourse and they represent context of situation which controls the language use in the discourse. Thus, it is appropriate to say that context is fundamental in discourse analysis.

In context models, the critical notion of relevance is they define what for the discourse participants is now relevant in the social situation (Van Dijk, 2001). A conception of the communicative event by a context model is crucial because without it participants are unable to adequately contribute to ongoing discourse. Several consequences might take place as a result of it for instance participants would be unable to produce and understand speech acts, would be unable to get used to topics, lexical items, style and rhetoric to the current social event, and they would not even be able to convey what the recipients already know, so that they do not even know what content to express in the first place. Certainly, without context models, adequate, contextually sensitive discourse is impossible. Thus, this shows how context plays a role in discourse analysis.

My claim is that context permeates language, that contextual assumptions affect how

we understand language, and that contexts of speech have to be better understood to

develop realistic theories of language and of language learning.

(Susan Ervin-Tripp, 1996: 21)

Based on Ervin-Tripp’s (1996) statement, this explicitly proves how context is crucial in discourse analysis because patterns of language are part of discourse analysis. Indeed, my point is that whatever language users attend to in discourse is largely dependent on their model of the communicative situation. In fact, this is supported by Van Dijk (2001) as he has stated that the very function context has in the first place is to define the functions of language use. Besides, context also influences what kind of language and how language is used. Every person is born in a culture and surrounding culture. For example, in a Malay culture, the children are expected to use polite words when they speak to the elder. In Malay culture, if someone says, “Hi Fatimah!” and that person happens to be younger than Fatimah, it is a very impolite greeting. This situation is varying from English culture whereby the children can call their parents by the first name but it is not impossible for the Malay children to call their parents by the first name if the whole family has adapted the English culture. The context here is the culture. This demonstrates that if the context/ culture change, the use of language will be changed. The culture itself projects the way the person in a culture uses spoken and written discourse. From the spoken language, we can determine which culture, region, race or religion a person is in. For example, a person has received a call from an unknown number. From the conversation, we normally can tell whether the person is a Kelantanese, Chinese or Indian by their accents even they do not use their mother tongue in the conversation.

In addition, context is important because it determines, to a large extent, the meaning of any verbal or non-verbal message (DeVito, 2010). The same words or behaviours may have a totally different meaning when they occur in different contexts. For example, saying ‘hello’ to a friend at a busy street versus to a friend who is just admitted at the hospital. The greeting “How are you?” means “Hello” to someone you pass regularly at the street but, it means “Is your health improving?” to a friend in the hospital. Both situations have the same message but the way the message is conveyed and interpreted is different. Likewise, a wink to a beautiful lady in the street means something that is completely different from a wink while telling a story to make up a lie. A nod means nothing in Indian culture but ‘yes’ in most cultures. It is difficult to interpret the intended meaning by just examining the signals. Therefore it is proven that context is essential in discourse analysis.

In analyzing the relationship between discourse and context, the Systemic Functional Linguistic (SFL) is also need to be considered particularly by considering SFL’s use of Context of Situation (COS) (Jinadu, 2006). The concept of COS is used to show that any piece of language or discourse is more meaningful in the context in which it functions. Halliday (1981) claimed that the structures of discourse are to be defined in terms of the main dimensions of the context of situation, which they call field (ongoing activity, subject matter), tenor (participant relations) and mood (the role discourse plays in the ongoing activity). Therefore, we should be able to make sensible predictions about the semantic properties of discourse based on an adequate specification of semiotic properties of the context and this has shown that context and discourse analysis rely much on each other.

One of the famous sociolinguist, Dell Hymes has introduced a valuable model which is the SPEAKING model as a way to promote the analysis of discourse as a series of speech events and speech acts within a cultural context. In his view, one needs not only to learn its vocabulary and grammar in order to speak a language correctly, but also the context in which words are used. By using the acronym, S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G for the speech components, he grouped the sixteen components within eight divisions. The categories are so productive and powerful in analyzing various kinds of discourse.

S : setting and scene

P : participants

E : ends

A : act sequence

K : key

I : instrumentalities

N : norms

G : genre

According to Hymes (1989), speech does not occur in a vacuum, but rather within a specific context, and ‘when the meaning of speech styles are analyzed, we comprehend that they entail dimensions of participant, setting, channel, and the like, which partly govern their meanings’. Hymes (1989) has stated that speech cannot be considered separate from the sociological and cultural factors as it helps to shape linguistic form and create meaning. Hymes’s SPEAKING model primarily focuses on context in the analysis of discourse which proves that context is crucial in discourse analysis.

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In a nutshell, based on the points given above it can be deduced that context is fundamental to discourse analysis and it is highly supported by several researchers. Context controls aspects of text and talk that are relevant for the participants. Besides that, context is essential because it helps to understand how language functions and it is also a central understanding between what is said and what is understood in spoken and written discourse Van Dijk (2008) stated:

Contexts are like other human experiences – at each moment and in each situation

such experiences define how we see the current situation and how we act in it. It is a

fundamental task for the humanities and social sciences in general, and for discourse

studies in particular, to show how exactly our text and talk depends on – and influences

– such contexts.

Van Dijk, T. A. (2008).

The context model which is discussed previously dynamically controls all language use and ensuring that discourses are appropriate in the communicative situation and hence are the basis of pragmatics. Thus, context and discourse analysis highly correlates with each other.


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