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Discourse analysis (DA), or discourse studies, is a general term for a number of approaches to analyzing written, spoken or signed language use.

The objects of discourse analysis—discourse, writing, talk, conversation, communicative event, etc.—are variously defined in terms of coherent sequences of sentences, propositions, speech acts or turns-at-talk. Contrary to much of traditional linguistics, discourse analysts not only study language use 'beyond the sentence boundary', but also prefer to analyze 'naturally occurring' language use, and not invented examples. This is known as corpus linguistics; text linguistics is related.

Discourse analysis has been taken up in a variety of social science disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, sociology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, international relations andcommunication studies, each of which is subject to its own assumptions, dimensions of analysis, and methodologies.


Topics of interest

Topics of discourse analysis include:

The following are some of the specific theoretical perspectives and analytical approaches used in linguistic discourse analysis:

Although these approaches emphasize different aspects of language use, they all view language as social interaction, and are concerned with the social contexts in which discourse is embedded.

Often a distinction is made between 'local' structures of discourse (such as relations between sentences, propositions or turns), and 'global' structures, such as the overall topics and the schematic organization of the discourse or conversation as a whole. For instance many discourse types begin with some kind of 'summary', for instance in titles, headlines, leads, abstracts, and so on. Although each approach emphasizes different aspects of language use, they all view language as social interaction, and are concerned with the social contexts in which discourse is embedded.

Recently, this technical tool has started to be used by other fields. For example, there are some applications of "Discourse Analysis" in applied linguistics.

A system devised to analyze a text is called a text grammar.


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The term discourse analysis first entered general use in a series of papers published by Zellig Harris beginning in 1952 and reporting on work from which he developed transformational grammar in the late 1930s. Formal equivalence relations between sentences of a coherent discourse are made obvious and explicit by using sentence transformations to regularize the text to a canonical form. Words and sentences with equivalent information then appear in the same column of a binary array (table). This work continued over the next four decades (see references) into a science of sublanguage analysis (Kittredge & Lehrberger 1982), culminating in a demonstration of the information structures in texts of an immunology sublanguage of science (Harris et al. 1989) and a fully articulated theory of linguistic information content (Harris 1991). During this time, however, most linguists pursued a succession of elaborate theories of sentence-level syntax and semantics.

Though Harris had mentioned the idea of analyzing whole discourses, he had not worked out a comprehensive model as of January 1952. A linguist working for the American Bible Society, James A. Loriot/Lauriault needed to find answers to some fundamental errors in translation of Quechua in the Cusco area of Peru. He took the idea, recorded all of the legends and, after going over the meaning and placement of each word with a national; he was able to form logical, mathematical rules that transcended the simple sentence structure. He then applied the process to another dialect of Eastern Peru: Shipibo. He taught the theory at Norman, Oklahoma in the summers of '56 and '57, and entered University of Pennsylvania in the interim year. He tried to publish a paper Shipibo Paragraph Structure, but it was not published until 1970 (Loriot & Hollenbach 1970). In the meantime, Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, a professor at University of Michigan Ann Arbor, taught the theory. and one of his students Robert E. Longacre was able to disseminate it in a disertation.

Harris's methodology was developed into a system for computer analysis of natural language by a team led by Naomi Sager at NYU which has been applied to a number of sublanguage domains, most notably to medical informatics. The software for the Medical Language Processor has been made publicly available on SourceForge.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, and without reference to this prior work, a variety of other approaches to a new cross-discipline of DA began to develop in most of the humanities and social sciences more or less concurrently with, and in relation to, other new (inter- or sub-) disciplines, such as semiotics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics. Many of these approaches, especially those influenced by the social sciences, favor a more dynamic study of (spoken, oral) talk-in-interaction.

In Europe, Michel Foucault was one of the key theorists on the subject, mainly referring to discourse in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Some prominent discourse analysts

Robert de Beaugrande, Jan Blommaert, Adriana Bolivar, Diana Boxer, Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard, Wallace Chafe, Paul Chilton, Guy Cook, Malcolm Coulthard, Paul Drew, Alessandro Duranti, Brenton D. Faber, Norman Fairclough, Talmy Givón, Charles Goodwin, Art Graesser, Michael Halliday, Zellig Harris, John Heritage, Janet Holmes, Paul Hopper, Gail Jefferson, Barbara Johnstone, Walter Kintsch, Richard Kittredge, Adam Jaworski, William Labov, George Lakoff, Stephen H. Levinson, James A. Loriot/Lauriault, Robert E. Longacre, Jim Martin, Elinor Ochs, Jonathan Potter, Harvey Sacks, Naomi Sager, Emanuel Schegloff, Deborah Schiffrin, Michael Schober, Stef Slembrouck, John Swales, Deborah Tannen, Sandra Thompson, Teun A. van Dijk, Theo van Leeuwen, Jef Verschueren, Henry Widdowson, Carla Willig, Ruth Wodak, Michel Foucault, Margaret Wetherell, Ernesto Laclau,Chantal Mouffe among many others.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Jaworski, A. and Coupland, N. (eds) (1999) The Discourse Reader Routledge: London.
  • Austin, J. L. (1962) How to do Things with Words, Oxford University Press.
  • Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, G., and George Yule (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carter, R. (1997). Investigating English Discourse. London: Routledge.
  • Gee, J. P. (2005). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. London: Routledge.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1952a). "Culture and Style in Extended Discourse". Selected Papers from the 29th International Congress of Americanists (New York, 1949), vol.III: Indian Tribes of Aboriginal America ed. by Sol Tax & Melville J[oyce] Herskovits, 210-215. New York: Cooper Square Publishers. (Repr., New York: Cooper Press, 1967. Paper repr. in 1970a, pp. 373-389.) [Proposes a method for analyzing extended discourse, with example analyses from Hidatsa, a Siouan language spoken in North Dakota.]
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1952b.) "Discourse Analysis". Language 28:1.1-30. (Repr. in The Structure of Language: Readings in the philosophy of language ed. by Jerry A[lan] Fodor & Jerrold J[acob] Katz, pp. 355-383. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964, and also in Harris 1970a, pp. 313-348 as well as in 1981, pp. 107-142.) French translation "Analyse du discours". Langages (1969) 13.8-45. German translation by Peter Eisenberg, "Textanalyse". Beschreibungsmethoden des amerikanischen Strakturalismus ed. by Elisabeth Bense, Peter Eisenberg & Hartmut Haberland, 261-298. München: Max Hueber. [Presents a method for the analysis of connected speech or writing.]
  • Harris, Zellig S. 1952c. "Discourse Analysis: A sample text". Language 28:4.474-494. (Repr. in 1970a, pp. 349-379.)
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1954.) "Distributional Structure". Word 10:2/3.146-162. (Also in Linguistics Today: Published on the occasion of the Columbia University Bicentennial ed. by Andre Martinet & Uriel Weinreich, 26-42. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York, 1954. Repr. in The Structure of Language: Readings in the philosophy of language ed. by Jerry A[lan] Fodor & Jerrold J[acob] Katz, 33-49. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964, and also in Harris 1970.775-794, and 1981.3-22.) French translation "La structure distributionnelle,". Analyse distributionnelle et structurale ed. by Jean Dubois & Françoise Dubois-Charlier (=Langages, No.20), 14-34. Paris: Didier / Larousse.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1963.) Discourse Analysis Reprints. (= Papers on Formal Linguistics, 2.) The Hague: Mouton, 73 pp. [Combines Transformations and Discourse Analysis Papers 3a, 3b, and 3c. 1957, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. ]
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1968.) Mathematical Structures of Language. (=Interscience Tracts in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 21.) New York: Interscience Publishers John Wiley & Sons). French translation Structures mathématiques du langage. Transl. by Catherine Fuchs. (=Monographies de Linguistique mathématique, 3.) Paris: Dunod, 248 pp.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1970.) Papers in Structural and Transformational Linguistics. Dordrecht/ Holland: D. Reidel., x, 850 pp. [Collection of 37 papers originally published 1940-1969.]
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1981.) Papers on Syntax. Ed. by Henry Hiż. (=Synthese Language Library, 14.) Dordrecht/Holland: D. Reidel, vii, 479 pp.]
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1982.) "Discourse and Sublanguage". Sublanguage: Studies of language in restricted semantic domains ed. by Richard Kittredge & John Lehrberger, 231-236. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1985.) "On Grammars of Science". Linguistics and Philosophy: Essays in honor of Rulon S. Wells ed. by Adam Makkai & Alan K. Melby (=Current Issues in Linguistc Theory, 42), 139-148. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1988a) Language and Information. (=Bampton Lectures in America, 28.) New York: Columbia University Press, ix, 120 pp.
  • Harris, Zellig S. 1988b. (Together with Paul Mattick, Jr.) "Scientific Sublanguages and the Prospects for a Global Language of Science". Annals of the American Association of Philosophy and Social Sciences No.495.73-83.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1989.) (Together with Michael Gottfried, Thomas Ryckman, Paul Mattick, Jr., Anne Daladier, Tzvee N. Harris & Suzanna Harris.) The Form of Information in Science: Analysis of an immunology sublanguage. Preface by Hilary Putnam. (=Boston Studies in the Philosophy of, Science, 104.) Dordrecht/Holland & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, xvii, 590 pp.
  • Harris, Zellig S. (1991.) A Theory of Language and Information: A mathematical approach. Oxford & New York: Clarendon Press, xii, 428 pp.; illustr.
  • Jaworski, A. and Coupland, N. (eds). (1999). The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge.
  • Johnstone, B. (2002). Discourse analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Kittredge, Richard & John Lehrberger. (1982.) Sublanguage: Studies of language in restricted semantic domains. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Loriot, James and Barbara E. Hollenbach. 1970. "Shipibo paragraph structure." Foundations of Language 6: 43-66. The seminal work reported as having been admitted by Longacre and Pike. See link below from Longacre's student Daniel L. Everett.
  • Longacre, R.E. (1996). The grammar of discourse. New York: Plenum Press.
  • Renkema, J. (2004). Introduction to discourse studies. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Sager, Naomi & Ngô Thanh Nhàn. (2002.) "The computability of strings, transformations, and sublanguage". The Legacy of Zellig Harris: Language and information into the 21st Century, Vol. 2: Computability of language and computer applications, ed. by Bruce Nevin, John Benjamins, pp. 79-120.
  • Schiffrin, D., Deborah Tannen, & Hamilton, H. E. (eds.). (2001). Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Stubbs, M. (1983). Discourse Analysis: The sociolinguistic analysis of natural language. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Teun A. van Dijk, (ed). (1997). Discourse Studies. 2 vols. London: Sage.


  • Johnstone, L. & Frith, H. (2005). Discourse analysis and the experience of ECT. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 78,189-203.

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