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What is a discourse?
The term ‘disourse’ comes from a Latin word ‘discursus’ which means ‘running to and from’. A discourse denotes both written and spoken communications. It is basically the conceptual generalization of a conversation within each context. Therefore, Discourse = Language + Context (that is, contextualised language).
Foucault defines a discourse as “an entity of sequences, of signs, in that they are statements in a conversation.” A discourse is made up of a sequence of signs. Hence, the analysis of a discourse examines connections among language, structure, and agency. In simple terms, one may say that a discourse is a body of text meant to communicate a specific data, information, or knowledge. The scope of a discourse is that it is influential and aims at the construction of knowledge.
In this way, a discourse is a system of statements through/within which we understand the world. It helps one to make sense of the reality and the world we are surrounded by. A discourse can be defined as an authoritative writing on any specific topic or subject. The network of statements that form a discourse may vary from being linguistic units (of say ten to fifteen lines) to having wider historical, social, or cultural contexts.
In other words, a discourse is the totality of codified language, or vocabulary, used in a given field of social practice, for instance, legal, medical, or religious discourse. For example, various religious institutions have their own discourses of salvation and ideal living, et cetera. There can also be political, secular, or progressive discourses. Also, a single sentence is not a discourse, rather it comprises of complete communication. An example of recently generated discourse is how texting is affecting language (rather simplifying it for easier comprehension), the meta-language thus generated, due to newer linguistic and non-linguistic patterns over the internet, gives way to what we may call the ‘discourses of decay’.
These contexts can be simplified as being a various point of views. Clearly, they are also not complete realities, which implies that more contexts give rise to more discourses. For example, a particular social discourse among Hindus may take red as a holy color, while Catholics may understand it in a negative context as a sign of passion and sin. Mikhail Bakhtin said, while defining a novel as a form of writing, that it is not just a tool of reflection, rather it also shapes the social conditions. A discourse has a similar relationship with the society. For instance, there are various dominant discourses that are naturalized to the extent that people conform to them without much skepticism; like the various tags given to the different kinds of clothing – ‘formals’ and ‘traditionals’. These dominant discourses also give birth to various newer symbols.
A discourse does not exist per say, rather one discourse is related to many others. Julia Kristeva highlights this intertextual nature of ideas. She says that every text is a reflection of many other texts, therefore no text exists in isolation. A similar idea can be applied to discourses because they are influenced by one another at the very basic level. This can be supported by the fact that the body of a text, or a discourse, is structured by rules that are outside the control (or the awareness) of the author and the reader. In other words, the structure of a text, or a discourse for that matter, is outside the control of anybody. Rather it constitutes as well as shapes the subject (the speaker). In this way we are affected by the discourse more than the discourse is shaped by us.
One knows that language provides a system of communication, words, signs, and sounds. In fact, theorists like Saussure first distinguished between written language and speech. Saussure also studied the representative nature of language, and that it is an instrument of control, a tool to dominate. It can be said that the aim of language (culturally speaking) is to engage in a discourse; in other words, all roads lead to a discourse; and this applies to both, written and spoken languages. Consequently, language reflects, prepares, and supports ideologies as well.
Language and discourse
Discourse variation: Whatever the structures we use, and whatever the uses we employ, the end of language is to engage in discourse, in which all aspects of structure combine to produce monologues or dialogues in real situations. All roads lead to discourse. The discourse here is used in its broadest sense, applying to speech as well as writing. Some give the term text a similarly broad application and talk about text linguistics where others talk about discourse analysis. The emphasis is different, but the intent is the same to move away from the analysis of individual words and sentences to the realities of monologue and dialogue in any mode of transmission.
The monologue/dialogue distinction introduces a different kind of classification from what we have seen above. Under the heading of monologue, we include such varieties as lectures, speeches, commentaries, sermons and legal submissions. Under dialogue, we find such varieties as interviews, council meetings, phone-ins, tutorials, and (the norm) everyday conversation. Each raises interesting points of detail, such as the use of comment clauses in conversation. Items such as you know are more subtle than is acknowledged by popular opinion.
What factors help shape a discourse? Most obviously, the number of participants and the relationship that exists between them. This will condition, for example, the formality level of the interaction, as well many specific features, such as terms of address and use of taboo words. Awareness of audience is a specific concern in movements such as the Plain English Campaign and the notion of political correctness. Discourse characteristics will also be shaped by psychological and educational factors. Chief among psychological factors is personality, which includes our individual likes and dislikes. For example, some e-mailers are cavalier in their use of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling; others are strict in following traditional conventions.
Educative factors include the way we have been taught about language, which includes opportunities to be literate, the kind of teaching materials we were given, and the attitudes we assimilated from our teachers, especially the level of their prescriptivism (caring or not caring about such matters as split infinitives or sentence-initial And). An analogy with clothing can help us understand the notion of discourse competence. If we have a range of dress options in our wardrobe, we are in a position to choose appropriate clothing to suit the social circumstances in which we find ourselves. Similarly, if we have a range of linguistic options in our brains, we are in a position to choose the appropriate language (ie languages, dialects, varieties and styles) to suit the social circumstances in which we find ourselves.
New discourses All roads lead to discourse, and a language is always extending its wardrobe of discourses, as can be seen in the evolution of a language in speech, writing, print, telephony, broadcasting and the Internet. Each stage introduces new discourses related to the opportunities introduced by new technology. Novel constraints will produce innovation, as seen vividly in text-messaging and tweeting. Twitter well illustrates how unpredictable and fast-moving discourse variation can be. Thanks to electronic technology, we are living through a period of remarkable discourse innovation, as seen in the range of outputs (web, chat, blog, etc) which have become commonplace since 1990.
Anonymous contributions motivate a different kind of language from signed ones. Single authorship is replaced by multiple authorship in wikis, resulting in an unprecedented level of stylistic heterogeneity. Electronically mediated communication has also motivated new forms of linguistic creativity, such as text-messaging poems and novels. The medium offers a fresh literary experience as a poem or story unfolds on screen. We cannot see the whole text on a mobile phone screen, for example, so poem length is an ongoing discovery and prose reading on iPads and Kindles motivates less skimming.
A comparative discourse analysis is still in its infancy, but it is important to adopt a broad linguistic perspective, studying as many languages as possible. How do languages adapt to electronic communication (eg using similar text-messaging strategies)? Professional translators know that there are many differences in approach and tone when translating texts (eg humor often does not travel). Languages vary in their use of puns, first-person narrative, and so on.
Ultimately, whether our interest is pure or applied, the aim is to master the subject of language. It is Lewis Carroll’s conclusion too when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make a word mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
Culture and language
As Raymond Williams observed, the concept of culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language. Culture has been variously described as ‘cultivation’, as a ‘whole way of life’, as ‘power’. That is, the abstraction culture covers a variety of ways of looking at human conduct and can be used for a range of purposes.
Language constitutes material objects and social practices as meaningful and intelligible, it structures which meanings can or cannot be deployed under circumstances by speaking subjects. The relationship between language and culture is a complex one due largely in part to the great difficulty in understanding people’s cognitive processes when they communicate.
Language does not exist apart from culture, that is from the socially inherited assemblage of practices and beliefs that determine the texture of our lives. In a sense, it is a key to the cultural past of a society, a guide to social reality. Edward Sapir in his studies recognized the close relationship between language and culture concluding that it is not possible to understand or appreciate one without the knowledge of another.
The structure of language determines the way in which speakers of that language view the world, the structure does not determine the worldview but is still extremely influential in predisposing speakers of a language towards adopting their worldview. The idea that language, to some extent, determines the way we think about the world around us is known as linguistic determinism, with strong determinism stating that language actually determines thought and weak determinism implying that our thought is merely influenced by our language. While there is no definitive conclusion to exactly how language and culture are related, it is evident through the linguistics choices that people employ that a relationship exists. The culture of people finds reflection in the language they employ because they value certain things and do them in a certain way, they use language in ways that reflect what they value and what they do. Culture has a direct effect on language, in fact, language and culture are closely correlated and interrelated. Language is the symbolic presentation of a nation or a specific community. In other words, language is a symbolic presentation of a culture.
The relationship between culture and discourse through language
The Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, as usually formulated, searches for isomorphism between grammar and culture and views language as either providing the means for thought and perception, or, in its stronger form, conditioning thought, perception, and worldview. In this presentation, we shall consider discourse to be the concrete expression of language-culture relationships. It is discourse that creates, recreates, focuses, modifies, and transmits both culture and language and their intersection, and it is especially in verbally artistic and playful discourse, such as poetry, magic, verbal dueling, and political rhetoric, that the resources provided by grammar, as well as cultural meanings and symbols, are activated to their fullest potential and the essence of language-culture relationships becomes salient.
Like culture, society, and language, different people define discourse in different ways. In my view, discourse is a level or component of language use, related to but distinct from the grammar. It can be oral or written and can be approached in textual or socio-cultural and social-interactional terms. And it can be brief like 0 greeting and thus smaller than 0 single sentence or lengthy 11ke 0 novel or narration of personal experience and thus larger than o sentence and constructed out of sentences or sentence like utterances.
Taking a discourse-centered approach to the language-culture relationship enables us to reformulate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Instead of asking such Questions as does grammar reflect culture or is culture determined by grammar, we rather start with discourse, which is the nexus, the actual and concrete expression of the language-culture-society relationship. It is discourse which creates, recreates, modifies, and fine-tunes both culture and language and their intersection, and it is especially in verbally artistic discourse that the potentials and resources provided by grammar, as well as cultural meanings and symbols, ore exploited to the fullest and the essence of language-culture relationships, become salient.
Both linguists and anthropologists have traditionally treat discourse as on invisible glass through which the researcher perceives the reality of grammar, social relations, ecological practices, and belief systems. But the gloss itself, discourse and its structure, the actual medium through which knowledge is produced, conceived, transmitted, and acquired, by members of societies and by researchers is given little attention.
Language, culture, society, and the individual, all provide resources in a creative process which is actualized in discourse. In our discourse-centered approach, discourse is the broadest and most comprehensive level of linguistic form, content, and use. This is what is meant by saying that discourse and especially the process of discourse structuring is the locus of the language-culture relationship.
The relationship between gender and discourse, vis-a-vis language
Gender identity is understood as an internalization (through socialization and social learning) of the gendered organization of society. At a discursive level, language about men and women, and the language that men and women speak are both aspects of one process- the social construction of gender. The term discourse is variously used in the language and gender, it may be used in a linguistic sense to refer to language beyond that of words, or it may be used in a post-structural sense to refer to broad systems of gender as a social construction.
In the past few decades, research has moved from language to discourse by considering how language in use reflects and perpetuates gender stereotypes. The point to be highlighted is that sexist language is not just a matter of negative words for women, but of how language in a variety of everyday contexts constructs gender in stereotyped ways that ultimately disadvantage or demean women. An important aspect of the discursive turn is that it moves away from the idea of language as simply a representation, towards the notion of language as a discourse, where discourse is used in the constructionist sense, that is, the categories in language don’t just reflect the world, but constitute it as well. Thus, gender is not just reflected in language but the concept of gender is itself constituted by the language used to refer to it.
As Ann Weatherall states in her seminal book ‘Gender, Language, and Discourse’ and I quote, “Gender can be understood as a discourse because it is an integral part of the social life that is produced through everyday language and talk.” Thus gender is not a stable set of traits residing within an individual psyche and reflected in behavior. Gender has no fixed or stable meaning; rather gender is a social process, it is created and renegotiated in interpersonal relationships and encouraged and maintained through social structures. Language is the most important tool used for communication as it not only reflects the reality of society but also has various functions that of strengthening social existence.
Given such a view, language does mirror the gendered perspectives and can also impact and contribute to changing people’s perception of gender over time. Thus, feminists and sociolinguists, for a very long time, have shown interest in describing the difference in language use between men and women, and studies of the cultural roles ascribed to gender.
Gender is a social construct; gender division is a fundamental aspect of society, as it is deeply embedded in the social organization and taught to individuals from early childhood to adulthood stages. For instance, in some cultures, it sometimes is considered very rude for a woman to enter into a discourse without the invitation from a man. In other cultures, more effort is taken to create gender equality through language and thereby encourage different rules of discourse engagement, such as the integration of gender-neutral pronouns.
Society’s distinction between men and women is reflected in their language. It is realized that there is a specific “language” used by men and women. If a male tends to speak the “language” used by women, he is considered to be crossing the boundary and is oriented by the opposite gender.
The gender difference is not only a reflection of the speech between male and female but also a reflection of their different living styles and attitudes. For example, it is considered that males are more concerned with powers and desire to be leaders, while females are considered to be satisfied with their subordinate status. Another instance of such differentiation in living styles is the assumption that men speak directly but females speak indirectly, implicitly and mildly.
Certain reasons for these differences can be:
1. Men and Women are biologically different and that this difference has consequences for gender differences in language use.
For example, women are predisposed psychologically to be involved with another and to be mutually supportive and noncompetitive. While men are innately predisposed to independence and power.
2. Social Organizations are built upon a hierarchical set of power relations: for instance, men have the ascendancy in such systems, which women usually don’t.
Language behavior reflects the social dominance of men. Like, men take control, specify topics and interpret while women feeling powerless, let them get away with it.
3. Men and women as social beings have learned to act in certain ways: Language behavior is largely a learned behavior. The difference can be a result of the socialization and acculturation patterns and gender assigned activities.
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