Unit 1 - Introduction


This unit sets out to introduce you to the ways in which language varies according to contextual factors such as setting, participants and purpose. In order to illustrate such variation, it focuses on address forms, and in particular on alternation and co-occurrence. More generally, it discusses the concept of community as used in linguistic contexts and compares the related concepts of speech community and discourse community, commenting on their relevance to language teaching.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

• explain why and how language varies;

• give examples illustrating the importance of context in influencing language choice;

• provide examples of alternation and co-occurrence other than those provided in the unit;

• state the rules relating to the use of address forms in a situation with which you are familiar;

• outline the definitional problems associated with the concept of a speech community;

• explain how the concept of a discourse community differs from that of a speech community.


Language and choice

If using language boiled down to simply applying a set of precisely formulated rules, language teaching would be fairly straightforward — and monumentally boring. Fortunately, life is more complicated than that, and one of the challenges which faces us is that of trying to establish what the relevant ‘rules’ and considerations of language use might be. Consider the following utterances, for example:


Would you mind passing the salt, please.

It isn’t necessary to spell out the contexts in which these occur or the rules which influence their form. The surgeon’s request for a scalpel in the operating theatre is the most efficient way of getting the job done, and it reflects a perfectly proper professional relationship with the theatre nurse. However, what’s professionally acceptable around the operating table is socially disastrous around the dinner table.

The richness of language means that there is always more than one way of saying something, and our choices are never random and the first TEXT (‘A Japanese woman...’) provides an example of very precise rules governing the choice of linguistic form. Language is rarely used to convey only propositional information; what we say and the way we say it provides clues to how we position ourselves relative to specific groups in society and to those we are addressing.

When people use language, they do more than just try to get another person to understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. At the same time, both people are using language in subtle ways to define their relationship to each other, to identify themselves as part of a social group, and to establish the kind of speech event they are in. (Fasold, 1990: 1)

In addition, the choices we make play their own small part in the evolution of linguistic practice. When the surgeon chooses “Scalpel” this not only reflects an understanding of the relevant rules but reinforces them, but if enough surgeons started to say “Could you pass the scalpel, please” this might eventually become the norm. We often see this in action at a social level. When I arrive at work, walk into the office and say “Hi, Sue” this utterance not only arises from the context (this is the appropriate thing to do) but reinforces the context (the more I do it, the more significant it would be if I suddenly failed to do it). In Heritage’s terms, “the significance of any speaker’s communicative action is doubly contextual in being both context-shaped and context-renewing” (1984: 242).

There are all sorts of interactional ends to which language might be put, and the existence of recognised ‘rules’ or norms allows for the possibility of exploitation. Consider the following statement, made by Margaret Thatcher during her period as prime minister:

“We are a grandmother.”

The use of the plural form of the first person here is not accidental (she repeated it) and, since this is a form reserved for the reigning monarch, it is not insignificant. Coming at a time when Thatcher’s behaviour was becoming increasingly ‘regal’ and was recognised as such by contemporary satirists, this statement confirmed a view of herself which offended many but surprised few. In fact, she provides us here with an excellent example of the way in which our linguistic choices help to define us, our situation, and our relationship to those we are addressing. Of course, the ‘definition’ is not binding — I saw no evidence of people throwing themselves onto one knee and crying “Vivat Regina!” in response to her announcement.

The important relationship between the form an utterance takes and the circumstances in which it is used is captured by Hymes (1971:15) in his by now widely known aphorism that there are “rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless.” As teachers, we know that we must find a place for the ‘rules of use’ in our teaching because, as Thomas (1983: 96-97) has pointed out, people will readily forgive us for our grammatical errors, but we risk being branded as just plain rude if we express ourselves inappropriately. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Because of the complexity, extent and subtlety of such rules, they can be very hard to pin down, and a great deal of research energy in linguistics over the past quarter of a century has been expended in trying to understand them. This module serves as an introduction to some of that research and, more importantly, as an introduction to your own investigations in this area. With this in mind, I should now like to discuss briefly the key elements that underlie the module.


Before moving on, you might like to exchange examples of situations where an interactant or interactants have not settled quickly into the expected relationship. Here’s an example from my own experience:

I remember visiting my daughter’s primary school on the ‘new parents afternoon’ and sitting alongside other parents in a tiny chair which thrust my knees up to my chin. Just before the head teacher arrived, his deputy provided a short introduction. She bent forward and addressed us in her classroom voice, finishing by saying “And if any of you need to go, there’s a......(pointing and with a whisper) over there.” I found myself, in the company of all the other parents, nodding slowly and deliberately, with all the solemnity of a five year old.

Analysing Spoken Interaction

There are three key elements which underlie this module and are reflected in the assessment associated with it. So in going on to discuss these elements, I will be seeking not so much to offer definitions in the abstract as to explore how they relate to the aims of the module.

Spoken Interaction

The emphasis on interaction reflects the essentially dynamic orientation of the module. As the title of the module suggests, we shall be concerned for the most part with spoken interaction, but this does not necessarily exclude non-verbal elements.

There is a close relationship between interaction and investigation, for the reasons already mentioned, but awareness is also important. We can learn about features of interaction from the literature and we can investigate various aspects of it for ourselves, but one of the most effective ways of developing an understanding of it is by increasing our own awareness of the interaction taking place around us. This is not quite as straightforward as it seems, but you can begin by reflecting on aspects of your own interactional experience. Try at least once a day to tune into the interaction around you — bearing in mind social sanctions on prying. Once you develop a ‘listening ear’ you’ll be surprised how interesting and varied everyday interaction can be. Below I’ve provided a couple of personal experiences to illustrate the sort of thing I have in mind.



Asking for coffee in Spanish cafés is always a trial for me: I know that ‘please’ is not required, but somehow it always seems to creep in. A participant on this course told me once that her Spanish husband was almost driven mad by her excessive use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.


An English speciality this, but even by our exaggerated standards something of an affliction in my case (the other day I found myself apologising when someone sat down next to me and dropped her car keys). Unfortunately, I’ve passed it on to my elder daughter, who is now in the process of apologising me to death.

Your investigation

There is a rich literature available to us in this field, but it can do no more than map the general territory and offer more detailed descriptions of selected areas. If we want to understand areas of language use particularly relevant to our own circumstances, we have no choice but to investigate them for ourselves.

Much of what passes for sociolinguistic enquiry is easy since it is only native speaker intuition. While there are areas of research where intuitions serve linguistics, one place where they serve nothing is the areas of direct, objective language use. ... Curriculum specialists, textbook authors, methodologists, and teachers, native speakers or not, have little justification in making unsupported judgements about actual occurrences of language in context. (Preston, 1989:3)

The advantages of investigation extend beyond the merely instrumental, for in the process of investigation itself we are likely to uncover new areas of interest and unforeseen perspectives which will inform our work and enrich our understanding. The process of research, if undertaken with proper commitment, is also a process of personal growth.

Research is often exhilarating but never easy: it is a messy and frustrating business which is deceptively represented by neatly packaged academic papers. If you want to understand it, you have to do it, and this module will provide you with the tools you need. I have chosen the term ‘investigating’ rather than ‘researching’ simply because the former has a practical and small-scale orientation which seems appropriate to the work which you will be expected to do when you come to tackle your project.


The importance of context in determining the form of the two utterances quoted at the beginning of this unit is clear enough, and it is equally clear that there is a relationship between any utterance and the context in which it is delivered. The problem lies in pinning this down, and in seeking to do so we must begin by recognising that there is no generally accepted notion of context:

Although there is no explicit theory of context, and the notion is used by different scholars with a wide variety of meanings, we may briefly define it as the structure of all properties of the social situation that are relevant for the production or the reception of discourse. (Van Dijk, 1997: 19)

Van Dijk’s definition will do as well as any, but it’s far too general to serve as a practical starting point for inquiry. This module will introduce you to modes of investigation designed to throw light on the relationship between context and linguistic choice and there’s a useful brief discussion of the concept of ‘context’ in Schiffrin (1994: 365-378), but we cannot hope ever to arrive at a complete description. The notion of context must remain throughout a subject for exploration.

In this introductory unit I’d like to offer two different perspectives on this relationship between language and context. The first explores it from the perspective of the choices which an individual might make. I’ll focus here on address forms as an illustration of the ways in which social rules operate. The second perspective is much broader, and here we’ll look at the relationship from the perspective of the social group. Membership of particular groups will constrain linguistic choice, and I’ll introduce two different descriptive systems for representing the membership of sociolinguistic communities.

Task 1.1

Write down as many different forms of address as you can think of for ‘Deborah Talbot’. Try to relate these to situations in which they might be used and relationships which they might reflect.

Address forms

When we talk, we usually have to settle on a way of addressing one another — that is, unless we make very special and usually awkward steps to avoid this — and the choice we make can reveal a great deal about our relationship. In what follows I’d like to take some time to explore this issue of address forms as an example of the sort of choice we find ourselves making virtually every day. First, though, we need to make a couple of straightforward distinctions.

We need to distinguish address forms, the terms we use to address people when we’re talking to them, from the way we refer to people and the way we summons them. We may use the same term for all these, but not necessarily. For example, I might refer to Sue Garton as ‘my colleague’, ‘the MSc Programmes Tutor’, or ‘Doctor Garton’, but when I address her directly I use her first name. Similarly, I might be summoned from doctor’s waiting room as ‘Keith Richards’ would but find it very odd to be addressed in this way during the consultation.

(At this point, it would be a good idea to go back to your list to see whether you’ve included examples which would be more likely to serve as forms of summons or reference than as forms of address.)

Your list of address forms for Deborah Talbot, will probably look something like this:

Aunt Deborah
Dr Talbot

It is extremely unlikely that it will look exactly like this, but the main elements should be the same. The examples at the top and bottom are possible but have a much more restricted range than the others, so I’ll begin by discussing the central group in the context of work which has been done on address forms.

FN and TLN

Even though your list of possibilities may not be the same as the range from ‘Dr Talbot’ to ‘Debs’ above, it is likely that it will reflect the basic distinction to be found there: that between the use of a title and last name (usually abbreviated to TLN), and the use of a first name (FN). The additional forms included in the list above are simply variations on the FN alternative. They may be important variations, of course, so that while acquaintances (and perhaps parents) use ‘Deborah’, close friends use ‘Debbie’, and ‘Debs’ is reserved exclusively for use by her partner. I have heard of parents who would respond to a request over the telephone to speak to ‘Debbie’ with feigned incomprehension followed by “Oh, you mean Deborah!” It’s a losing battle, of course, because although they chose the name on the birth certificate they do not have the right to insist on the use of this form in all social contexts.

Power and Solidarity

The importance of social relationships in determining address forms is the subject of a paper by Brown and Gilman (1960) which is widely recognised as a classic in the field. The paper makes use of the authors’ distinction between ‘T’ and ‘V’ forms, the T form being taken from the Latin familiar pronoun tu and the V form from the deferential vos (it is worth noting that the distinction between the two forms, not available in English, is roughly analogous to that between FN and TLN). Brown and Gilman’s fundamental point is that pronoun usage is governed by two semantics: power and solidarity. The power semantic, which the authors believe to have been the original one, is non-reciprocal because two people cannot have power over each other in the same area at the same time. Where it applies, the powerful person says T to the non-powerful one and receives the deferential (and non-reciprocal) V in return. Where there is no difference in power, the same pronoun is used reciprocally.

Solidarity and Address

A Swiss participant on this course who teaches adults in her native country offered an interesting example of the relevance of situation to pronoun choice. Her students seemed happy enough with a T-T relationship in class, but insisted on shifting to V-V once outside. When the teacher once used a T form in the corridor outside the classroom, it was made clear to her that this was not acceptable. In Brown and Gilman’s terms, the shift here is from solidary to non-solidary, which may to some extent reflect the special classroom situation, although we must also recognise the teacher’s power within that context to use T and ask for T in return.

(My description of Brown and Gilman’s position is necessarily brief, but a fuller summary is available in Fasold, 1990:Chp 1, which also offers illuminating examples of other research in this area).

Although power is an important factor in determining address forms, and was dominant at least up to the beginning of the last century, it is not the only one. In some cases there will be no power difference but a considerable difference in the extent to which speakers have things in common, and here the solidarity semantic will determine the choice of form. Where there is no power difference, and hence no basis for establishing a T-V relationship, the choice of T-T or V-V will be made depending on the degree of solidarity which applies, with T-T used where two people are close (or ‘solidary’) and V-V where they are distant.

Kin Terms

Address forms are an important part of a larger semantic system relating to social relationships, and the address form ‘Aunt Deborah’ provides a good example of this. One of the things which marks the transition from youth to adulthood in this country is the dropping of kin terms: ‘Aunt Deborah’ becomes just plain ‘Deborah’. Sometimes the transition is invited by the recipient or requested by the speaker, but often the transition just ‘happens’ — what was socially unacceptable a few months ago is now perfectly legitimate. This shift marks a new relationship which has all sorts of social implications, and once it is made, as with any other rite of passage, it cannot be ‘unmade’.

‘Aunt Deborah’ is also interesting because it offers a good example of how power and solidarity can conflict. The use of ‘aunt’ reflects a power distance between the speakers, which will be particularly marked when the addressor is young and which therefore requires T-V. However, there is also a sense in which, as aunt and nephew/niece, the speakers are very ‘close’, so T-T might be thought to be more appropriate.

Brown and Gilman show that since the middle of this century the solidarity semantic has been more or less established as the dominant one. However, as subsequent studies have confirmed, they recognise that there is considerable variation in pronoun use according to the background of the speaker. Different societies will have different rules about what constitutes solidarity, and even within one society there will be a range of factors influencing choice. Researchers also recognise that it’s possible to violate the rules in order to make a linguistic point. Recently, for example, I shifted from ‘Lou’ (my normal form of address) to ‘Louisa’ to make the point to my younger daughter that, contrary to her assumption, an issue between us had not yet been resolved. This prompted an apology from her and a return to our normal social (and linguistic) relationship.


So far, our examples have concentrated on what address forms most noticeably reflect: the relationship between the speakers involved. However, the setting may also be relevant to which address form is selected — as the examples at the top and bottom of my list illustrate.

The use of ‘Talbot’ as a reflection of a highly asymmetrical relationship, for example, is characteristic of certain institutional settings (e.g. public schools or the armed forces). It’s also interesting to note, as an example of historical change, that in the last century in England this form was also used between male friends (Holmes and Watson being a case in point). I chose to include ‘Wupsy-pups’ as an example of an address form which is not meant to be overheard. I came across it in a film, and although I assume that it is invented, there exists a class of address forms which are exclusive to two speakers when they are alone (i.e. in ‘private’ settings). In the film, the shift from ‘Debs’ to ‘Wupsy Pups’ corresponded with a move from the kitchen to the bedroom — different form of address, different place, different activity.

The extract from Foley (1997) in the TEXT section summarises many of the points made in this section and makes a useful connection with the work of Brown and Levinson (1987) on politeness.

An example

What makes forms of address so interesting to the sociolinguist is this power to reflect relationships, even to the extent that the choice of a particular form of address can determine the status of a relationship. The following extract offers a forceful demonstration of this. You might like to develop your own analysis of it before reading the discussion which follows. You should be able to predict the salient facts about the interactants without being told (a full discussion of the exchange is to be found in Ervin-Tripp, 1986).

Text A

“What’s your name, boy?” the policeman asked. ...
“Dr Pouissaint. I’m a physician. ...”
“What’s your first name, boy? ...”
(Pouissaint, 1967. Quoted in Ervin-Tripp 1986)

On the surface, this is no more than an initial exchange in which an ‘acceptable’ form of address is established, but at a deeper level much, much more is happening. It opens, for example, with a direct insult. Dr Pouissaint is black, the policeman white, and the use of the term ‘boy’ is used here as a marker of race, implicitly denying the recipient the normal rights associated with adult status in this community. At the same time, it establishes an asymmetrical relationship between the policeman and the doctor. Dr Pouissaint’s reply represents an implicit rejection of the policeman’s position since the use of the term ‘boy’ is not consistent with the use of a title and last name as a form of address. In fact, in reinforcing his claim with an explanation of why the title is appropriate, Dr Pouissaint is reversing the asymmetry, at least in so far as the term ‘Doctor’ is deferential (on this subject, it’s interesting to note that while members of the medical profession are addressed directly as ‘Doctor’, this does not extend to academics, where the title is always used with the last name). It is most certainly not appropriate for a stranger to address a doctor by his or her first name.

The policeman’s response is a blunt rejection of this: his explicit demand for a first name, made more emphatic by the repetition of ‘boy’, represents a denial of the doctor’s right to claim occupational or adult status. The reply, ‘Alvin’, is an acceptance of the policeman’s formulation of the situation and the status of the parties involved. The effect on the speaker is profound:

As my heart palpitated, I muttered in profound humiliation. ... For the moment, my manhood had been ripped from me. ... No amount of self-love could have salvaged my pride or preserved my integrity. (ibid.)

Linguistic choice may be largely determined by social factors, but it also derives its power from these, and its impact — as we see here — may be personally devastating.

‘They call me Mr Tibbs’

In the week that I write this, the above film is due to be shown on television. The film is set in the sixties, the same period as the exchange discussed here, and the title refers to a black policeman working in one of the Southern states of the USA.

Alternation and Co-occurrence

So far, we’ve looked at the choice of particular address forms, but linguistic selection doesn’t stop here; the decision to use a particular form is the product of a process which will also influence our other linguistic choices. There would be something downright odd, for example, about talking to ‘Dr Talbot’ (“Good morning, Dr Talbot.”) in the way that we would talk to ‘Debs’ (“Hi Debs, howzit goin’?”), and exceptions are likely to be funny or embarrassing. I well remember picking up the phone and confusing my new boss, who introduced himself as ‘Frank’, with my Liverpudlian brother-in-law, Frank, and delicately ‘renegotiating’ the casual exchanges which I had initially established. You might like to reflect on similar examples from your own experience.

The relationship between linguistic choice and social context formed the subject of a paper by Ervin-Tripp (1986) from which the heading of this section is taken. In fact, this early paper (its original, longer, version appeared in 1969) embraces the same territory as this course and much more besides, and although it raises many more questions than it answers and some of its speculations lead to dead ends, the result is an endlessly stimulating piece of work which is of more than historical interest. I mention this because in selecting only one aspect for discussion here, I’m hardly doing justice to the scope and penetration of the original.

The distinction at the heart of the paper offers a useful way of describing the selection process we have been discussing. If you look back at your list of address forms for Deborah Talbot, what this represents is a set of alternatives only one of which will be chosen in any particular situation. This choice among alternatives is what Ervin-Tripp refers to as alternation. She discusses the ‘alternation rules’ for the selection of address forms, drawing attention to the range of factors which influence such choice and to the importance of shared norms. As we have seen, the significance of any particular choice will depend on the context in which it is selected and the social rules which are relevant to this. The exchange involving Dr Pouissaint, for example, Ervin-Tripp refers to as ‘perfect’, because the impact of the policeman’s selection depends on the fact that both participants fully understand the address system in operation.

Once the choice is made, however, co-occurrence rules apply. These are the rules which determine that once ‘Debs’ has been selected the language used will be different from that accompanying ‘Dr Talbot’. There may, of course, be violations of such co-occurrence, sometimes quite crude and deliberate (“You really screwed up, Dr Talbot”) and at other times relatively minor and unintentional. “How’s it going” is a good example of the latter. Here, as Ervin-Tripp points out, a phrase from casual speech ends with the formal suffix ‘-ing’, which is less appropriate than the informal ‘-in’.

In fact, Ervin-Tripp further distinguishes the sequential ordering of items (which she calls ‘horizontal co-occurrence’) from the specific lexical and phonological choices which are made ( ‘vertical co-occurrence’), but this distinction seems to me to be a merely technical one. What matters is that violations of co-occurrence rules may be socially as well as linguistically relevant.

We can determine whether particular choices are relevant or not by identifying the rules of use which apply to them. One way of working out such rules is to collect lots of examples in order to see what patterns emerge. We might then find, for example, that, unless special dispensation has been granted, the kin term ‘aunt’ is used when the speaker is under the age of 16 and is addressing an older female relative who stands in this blood relationship. We may then be able to identify the full range of address forms available and to represent diagrammatically the system of choices available and the rules relating to them.

Any such representation will relate to a particular group, because the relevant rules are not universal, and this takes us to the second of our two perspectives, that of the group rather than the individual. Perhaps it is possible to characterise such groups in linguistic terms which will enable us to specify relevant rules of use. In fact, there have been at least two attempts to pin down the idea of community in linguistic terms, and these we shall now explore.

Task 1.2

Decide at the beginning of a particular day that you are going to take note of the different ways in which you are addressed and the language choices associated with them. You should try, wherever possible, to note down examples, supporting them with as much relevant detail as possible (setting, speaker, topic etc.). At the end of the day, review your notes and reflect on the range of situations in which you have found yourself. Did any of them require particularly delicate negotiation? Were some of them routine and predictable? Were there any violations? What does this tell you about the different groups with which you interact? etc.

Before reading on, look at the following task.

Task 1.3

Do you think it’s possible to identify communities solely in terms of the language they use? Can you foresee any problems with this?

Speech Community

At the most basic level, it seems fairly obvious that specific groups will have their own ways of speaking, elements of vocabulary which will be typical of them, and perhaps preferred topics. Perhaps, then, such groups can be identified in terms of their speech. This is the idea which lies behind the concept of a speech community, a term which appears often enough in the sociolinguistics literature, but usually as a fairly general reference.

The concept itself is based on the assumption that since language reflects society it should be possible to identify particular communities in terms of their talk. To put it more generally, linguistic rather than social criteria should provide an adequate basis for establishing social boundaries. However, efforts to pin down the concept more precisely have not been successful, and there seem to be fundamental difficulties associated with it.

Many of the problems arise from the fact that the effectiveness of any particular identification will depend on the extent to which specific groups in society can be identified, but as Bolinger (1975:333) notes, there is almost no limit to the criteria for, or range of, such groupings:

There is no limit to the ways in which human beings league themselves together for self-identification, security, gain, amusement, worship, or any of the other purposes that are held in common; consequently there is no limit to the number and variety of speech communities that are to be found in society.

Nevertheless, the concept of a speech community has proved to be an attractive one, and you’re probably familiar with the linguistic experience of moving from one community to another. I’ll therefore begin with a personal example of this, based on two very different environments, one associated with my childhood and the other with my post-university life.

I grew up in the fifties in what is normally described as a “solidly working class environment” and I now live in a town house in the middle of Stratford-upon-Avon, commuting to work at a university. The groups associated with these two very different environments rarely come into close proximity, but when they do I am often aware of the differences between them. A few years ago, for example, at my brother’s engagement party, I found myself sitting in a room with (male) friends and acquaintances from one group, clutching a can of beer on my knee, sniffing audibly and throwing my own crude contributions into what I can only describe as the communal ‘wit pit’ in the centre of the room. My wife was in the next room with other women and the children, and though I was occasionally conscious of my own feelings about this, I was also aware that any attempt to flout convention would lead only to embarrassment. When we left the house as a family and got into the car, I noticed that my accent and vocabulary had changed to a significant extent.

The situation is slightly problematic, however, because a distinction is often drawn between membership of a speech community and participation in it. In order to be a member, it is argued, one must share the normative system of the group. The fact that certain topics are not introduced into the conversation of the ‘childhood’ group when I am present is therefore significant. I am never told racist or sexist jokes, for example, because my reaction to them in the past has been noted, and it seems clear that I do not share the norms of the group in this respect. Perhaps, then, I am no more than a participant. As we shall now see, the situation is further complicated by the assumptions I am making here about the relationship between a group and a community.

Optional Task

Above I described an experience of moving between two very different groups. Try to think of the different groups to which you belong and, if possible, the linguistic elements which distinguish them. Next time you move from one to the other, note the changes which this involves. You might have the opportunity to study this discreetly if you spend time in a staffroom which has sufficient diversity.


If Bolinger is right then there might be a strong case for arguing that within the ‘childhood’ group my brother and I form a smaller group. If our partners are to be believed, we do have a particular way of talking to one another which is distinctive, and this must represent a prima facie case for arguing that we are in some sense a distinct group. The consequences of such a conclusion are clear enough, and it should therefore come as no surprise that many sociolinguists prefer to think in terms of speech networks rather than speech communities. Crudely put, these are essentially maps of who interacts with whom; so although my interaction with my brother has no significance in itself, as the map develops it will become clear that there are people we both interact with, and that some of these will interact with one another while others will not, etc. This seems straightforward enough, although some of the conclusions drawn on the basis of it have been challenged.

The idea of speech networks as an alternative to speech communities points towards a fairly fundamental objection which has been laid at the door of the concept of speech community. In my discussion of the two groups to which I belong, I assumed that group and community are more or less synonymous, but most sociolinguists would probably wish to deny this. It certainly makes sense to talk of specific groups within a wider community, but this merely compounds the problem of pinning down the entities we wish to deal with. The challenge facing sociolinguists who wish to work with the concept of a speech community lies in finding a way of identifying such communities in linguistic terms, which is not the same thing as beginning with a particular community and exploring linguistic features of interaction within that community. It is perfectly legitimate, of course, to begin with a defined community and work from there, but the whole idea behind the concept of a speech community is that the defining should be in linguistic terms.

I don’t think it’s worth pursuing the idea of speech networks any further, but if you want to have a look at the sorts of criticisms they’ve attracted, you could read Romaine (1982) or Williams(1992), who also criticises the concept of speech community.

Task 1.3

Examine the range of definitions of speech community provided in the TEXT section. Try to identify any common features and decide whether these represent the essential features of any definition.

Most definitions of speech community seem to agree that the basic requirements are that it should involve a shared language and shared norms of speaking (acceptable topics, forms of address etc.), but there is little agreement beyond this, and sometimes associated concepts are invoked in order to offer a fuller picture. Your own consideration of the problems associated with identifying a speech community in terms of a shared language will have given you a sense of the sort of problem which can be associated with trying to pin down this concept. There are, for example, problems of community (Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Americans and the British all share the same language, but are distinct communities), problems of language (historically, dialects marking a particular community may become absorbed into the dominant language, but at what point do they cease to exist as something distinct?).

It could be argued that if we can use things like a shared language and shared rules of speaking in order to identify distinct communities, we have the makings of an effective descriptive system. However, we still have to deal with individual variations and any exceptions we might meet, and at the moment all attempts to do so have had to fall back on other ways of characterising such groups, relying ultimately on the fact that rules of speaking are the product of group norms. Saville-Troike has offered a useful distinction between ‘hard-shelled’ and ‘soft-shelled’ communities, the former being communities which outsiders find it very difficult to penetrate. Drawing on this distinction, perhaps the best that can be said is that where communities are particularly hard-shelled definitional issues are less problematic. If you’re interested in reading more, Hudson (1996) offers an excellent brief discussion of the problems associated with the definition of a speech community.

Some pedagogic considerations

My aim in this rather selective presentation of the issues has been to show that attempts to bring together ‘speech’ and ‘community’ are fraught with problems. At the local level, we can analyse particular exchanges in terms of the factors influencing linguistic choice, and we can seek to identify norms and patterns, but large scale descriptions are more problematic. This module will provide you with the tools to analyse interaction at the local level and the background which will enable you to connect this with existing knowledge, but I wanted to spend time at this early stage by showing how an apparently innocent and easy-to-grasp concept can raise more questions than it answers.

The point of all this is that such general concepts are naturally attractive, and as teachers we often take them for granted. Coursebooks assume, for example, that they are preparing students for entry into a particular community (or ‘communities’ if there are English and American versions), as though this is a straightforward business. So instead of preparing them for the challenge of responding to the many communities they may encounter, such books offer simple ‘representative’ examples from their hypothetical community. The false confidence which this can engender only adds to the difficulties students face when they try to interact with native speakers. This module offers no simple solution to such problems, but it is intended to act as a useful antidote to comfortable generalisations and as a spur to investigation which might lead to the production of more accurate and precisely focused materials.

This emphasis on the need to look closely at the particular should not be taken as a denial of the value of generalisations or of the possibility of identifying particular communities. I should like to conclude the unit by considering the concept of a discourse community, even though this concept has roots which are very different from those of the speech community. I’ve chosen it because it has been presented as a concept which has significant pedagogic relevance and because I can use it to make a point about the composition of this module.

Discourse Community

In terms of our understanding how this module is put together, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the reason why the concept of discourse community doesn’t feature in the writings of sociolinguistics or the ethnography of communication.

At first sight speech community and discourse community seem to share very similar concerns, and the relatively close relationship between them has been recognised by writers discussing the concept of a discourse community. However, the traditions on which they draw are very different, and at a fundamental level it is difficult to reconcile the two concepts. The roots of the idea of a speech community, as we have seen, are sociolinguistic, and the connection between particular groups and their ways of speaking must be at the core of any definition. The idea of a discourse community, on the other hand, derives from studies of rhetoric, where the focus is firmly on the text, rather than on the group which produces the text. The insight which the concept of discourse community represents is that particular texts might in themselves be representative of a particular group, whose membership relies on certain forms of discourse in order to further its aims. We shall see in the next section that there are a number of very obvious differences between speech and discourse community, but these should not be allowed to obscure the deeper issue which divides the two.

The implications of this for your understanding of this module have to do with the traditions on which it draws. I’ve stated explicitly that I’m not interested in confining myself to a particular tradition because my aim is the essentially practical one of introducing you to ways of undertaking research relevant to your work. However, it would be foolish to assume that it is possible to do this properly without at least acknowledging the existence of fundamental differences between traditions. All I wish to argue is that this should not preclude our drawing on such traditions if this is appropriate, and I draw strength from the position which Fasold (1990:viii) adopts in his introduction to one of the standard introductions to sociolinguistics:

I present sociolinguistics as a series of topics with some connections between them, as was done in the companion book. The reason for this is that I am not able to detect an overall theory, even of the portion of sociolinguistics that is addressed here ...

If there is indeed no overall theory of sociolinguistics upon which to base a selection of topics, it seems to me even more apparent that neither is there a theoretical basis for the contents of this module. All I would wish to claim is that the principled selection offered here represents an acceptable picture of an important general area.


As with most definitions, we need to recognise that the more we try to pin down a particular concept, the more likely we are to find those who disagree with aspects of our position. This is a necessary qualification because in what follows I intend to work with the definition which Swales offers in his book on genre analysis. Not everyone would agree with all aspects of it, but it seems to me to capture the essential elements of the concept in a way that makes its practical relevance clear.

My approach will be to take each of the elements which Swales identifies and discuss it, with the intention of (a) offering explication of Swales’ claim, (b) presenting any reservations I have, and (c) pointing to any differences between the concepts of speech and discourse community. You might like to approach what follows by pausing between Swales’ point and my own discussion of it to consider these aspects for yourself. (If you prefer, you can simply refer to the summary of Swales’ points in the TEXT section before reading on.) Finally, you might reflect on any general reservations which you have about the concept, before going on to the next section.

Optional Task

If you have a copy of Swales (1990), you might also find it useful to compare my discussion of the relationship between speech and discourse communities with your own ideas and with Swales’ comparison (ibid.:23-24).

Swales’ definition

A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
The important element here is the idea of goals. As we shall see, it underlies assumptions which are made about the texts produced by any particular community, in so far as these are assumed to be goal-directed. In a sense, if we accept this idea of declared goals, it becomes much easier to go along with subsequent claims which are made on behalf of the discourse characteristic of a particular community. However, the extent to which such goals are ‘common’ and ‘public’ is open to question, and it is worth noting the use of the hedge ‘broadly’. It’s probably fair to say that it is possible to identify goals which are associated with particular discourse communities, but how far these are recognised by the members is another matter, and even more open to question is the extent to which the discourse of the community actually reflects these.

The introduction of goals as a defining element opens up an immediate distinction between this and the speech community. Even though such communities may have goals (and in most cases it would probably be hard to go beyond the very general goal of maintaining community identity), such goals are not likely to be publicly agreed. For this to be possible they would need to be made explicit. It is also worth noting that working from the idea of goals sidesteps the challenge of subjectivity which has been levelled at the concept of speech community.

A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
The interesting feature here is the use of the term ‘mechanism’. Loosely interpreted, the description could apply to both speech and discourse communities, but I think the term captures well the essentially utilitarian nature of these mechanisms, which are designed — or have evolved — to serve the ends of the community. It’s also true that speech is the ‘mechanism’ on which sociolinguists focus, whereas the suggestion here is that for the discourse community there is a range of relevant mechanisms.

A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
This is where we see the difference between the two concepts emerging most strongly. A speech community will use its mechanisms for a variety of purposes, perhaps primarily for the maintenance of the social bonds which hold the community together, whereas the mechanisms of the discourse community are much more goal-directed. This difference derives from the first of Swales’ points and points to an element of design which is missing from the speech community. As we shall see, it is precisely this element of design which offers a basis for analysis which is likely to be of pedagogic value.

A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
This analysis is likely to be based on the genres which the community utilises in using its mechanisms of intercommunication (Swales’ initial work in the area involved the analysis of introductions to research articles, a specific element in an easily identifiable genre). The term genre is not particularly precise, and while some genres are easy enough to identify others are much vaguer, so it would be a mistake to assume some sort of hierarchical arrangement where mechanisms can be broken down into genres and genres into structural elements and specific lexis (see below). At even the most superficial level this would not work because the same genre may be utilised in different discourse communities.

It’s interesting to note that the element of conscious design which I’ve already noted is to be found in this claim and that again aims feature prominently. It seems to me that there is a strong suggestion here of the deliberate exploitation of genres for defined communicative ends. Although it’s a minor point, I’m not happy about the use of ‘possesses’ here, because I can’t see any sense in which a genre can be possessed. It is in the nature of genres that they are available to be exploited, but the idea of possession suggests an exclusivity which seems to me to be inappropriate. Perhaps what Swales is trying to capture is the sense that there is something distinctive in the way in which these genres are exploited by particular communities (he does talk about assimilating ‘borrowed’ genres).

In order to decide whether I’m being fair to Swales here, you could read his own discussion of the subject in Genre Analysis pp. 24-7

In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.
That the use of ‘possess’ is not accidental is confirmed here, where we find the claim that communities own genres. Leaving this aside, though, this claim seems sound enough. Speech communities will also have their own lexis, although the specific lexis of a discourse community is perhaps more likely to be labelled jargon.

A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.
This, perhaps more than anything else, highlights the formal element in the constitution of a discourse community which is missing from the speech community. True, there may be an informal ‘apprenticeship’ in a speech community, if the process of finding out what is and what is not linguistically acceptable can be so described. However, this is not a formal process and it is hard to imagine a newcomer undergoing the sort of explicit criticism and correction which Swales himself had to face when he contributed to a stamp magazine before he had yet grasped the formal rules relating to discussion in that forum.

This idea of membership, then, is a much more formal business, explicitly tied to matters not just of discourse but of relevant knowledge; and the right to participate — the right to membership — is dependent on recognised expertise. It might be said that this expertise has to be formally displayed, and it is the form of its representation which offers the researcher such a sound object for analysis.

If you wish to read more about issues of definition, membership etc., I’ve included some relevant extracts in the TEXT section.

Advantages and limitations

The products of a formally constituted group (however explicit that constitution may be), identified in terms of commonly agreed goals and underpinned by an explicit knowledge base, offer an attractive object of analysis. Part of the reason for this is that if the community is dependent on formal mechanisms of communication, analysis of these will offer insights into the community itself. At a fairly trivial level, one of the biggest differences between speech and discourse communities is that the basis for exchange in the former is speech and in the latter it tends to be writing (although not exclusively so). This provides a rich and accessible database for both community member and analyst, who share a common interest in understanding its construction.

Task 1.4

Go through Swales’ points and for each one provide specific examples from the TESOL discourse community. Finally, decide how you would describe your place in the discourse community. There’s a summary of my own response in the Resources (page 32) at the end of the unit.

In fact, because of the important part that writing plays, it is possible to be a member of a discourse community never having met any other members face to face. Let’s take a hypothetical example, to give flesh to the bones of our description of a discourse community. Despite living on a small island in the South Pacific, where there is no railway, Harry has been obsessed with steam trains since he saw ‘The Night Mail’. He has never seen one in the flesh, although he plans a trip to Europe in a couple of years, when visits to historic railways railway museums will remedy that. Since nobody else on the island has the slightest interest in his odd hobby, he’s had to look elsewhere for people who are willing to share the delights of different types of junction box on the Great Western Railway. As well as subscribing to railway magazines, he’s joined a number of railway societies and is a regular contributor to exchanges in their newsletters. With the advent of the internet he was quick to log on to the relevant lists.

In short, even though he has never met another enthusiast face to face, Harry is a member of the railway enthusiasts discourse community (and the smaller community with a special interest in signal boxes). The aims of the community are to keep alive the ‘spirit of steam’, promote the renovation of old lines and trains, exchange news about recent discoveries and developments in the field, etc. (apologies to any train enthusiast reading this if I misrepresent the situation — I’m drawing on a brief flirtation with trainspotting when I was about twelve). Participatory mechanisms include specially arranged trips, magazines, newsletters and conferences, and the genres utilised include the magazine article, the letter, the research article etc. Face-to-face encounters have so far eluded Harry, but when he goes to Europe he will meet people he has already come to know well, and they will settle quickly into the language of ‘bogeys’ and ‘double-headers’.

Bringing this closer to home, Swales’ insight that the concept of discourse community and, more specifically, genre analysis have considerable practical potential in the field of ESP is an important one, as his work on article introductions demonstrated. However, while it is also fair to say that things haven’t stopped there (his book includes other examples from the field), none of the work which has followed has quite lived up to the promise of his own pioneering exploration. The rate at which contributions continue to be made suggests that this is still a rich area, thanks to the formal aspects we have already discussed, but there is a limit to the extent to which specific genres can be pinned down. Swales’ work on article introductions has earned a place on any general EAP course worthy of the name, but the magnitude of his achievement serves only to emphasise the limitations of subsequent contributions. Even within Swales’ chosen genre, academic articles, once we move beyond the Introduction the pedagogic utility of what analysis can offer diminishes significantly.

If at least one researcher in this field (Rafoth, 1990:144) is to be believed, this limitation may arise at least in part from a weakness which we have already identified in the context of the speech community:

The problems identified in defining a speech community help to illustrate some of the obstacles in linking discourse community to any particular variety of writing or speech, except perhaps in the most immediate situations and localized contexts. In order to claim the existence of a discourse community, it may be argued, some set of features of the text or discourse — the conventional language — must be bounded.

It seems to me that this limitation has other consequences for the ESP teacher. In a nutshell, even though the teacher might be able to provide valuable help in precisely specified areas, the student still feels helplessly at sea outside these. So the business manager says thank you for your offer of lessons on presentations, but what he or she really needs is preparation for chat in the bar or over a meal. We are back into the vague and sticky realm of context, where the explicit goals of the discourse community are no longer the determinants of linguistic choice. And that, for good or ill, is where most of us are forced to live for most of the time.


Although I haven’t drawn any overall conclusions from the discussions in this unit, I hope that what I have offered provides the basis for a general position on the subject of interaction and context. I’ve tried to show that, although the two are intimately related, there are no simple rules or formulae for determining the ways in which they connect. However, I regard this as an incentive to investigation rather than as a cause for despair.

There is a rich field to be explored here, and there are a variety of ways of approaching this exploration. The aim of this module will be to introduce you to these approaches and the techniques of analysis associated with them, in the expectation that you will draw on the knowledge gained in order to explore spoken interaction in context for yourself. Such exploration has the potential not only to enrich your own professional environment but to contribute to our developing understanding of an important field.

In adopting this stance and in arguing that the composition of the module isn’t determined by any single theoretical perspective, I’m not for a moment advocating an anti-theoretical position. Just because there is no overarching theory which underpins all the areas we will explore and the approaches we will adopt, this doesn’t mean that these approaches are not informed by their own theories. This module is not designed to encourage you to scratch about on the surface of interaction in the expectation that descriptive accounts will translate easily into pedagogic currency. On the contrary, it should encourage you — if I’ve pitched it right — to investigate interactional practice sufficiently deeply to generate theoretical insights into the relationship between interaction and context. If it succeeds in this it will therefore contribute to the process of ‘becoming theoretical’ which began in the Foundation Module.


This has been a fairly wide ranging unit, but I think it was essential at the outset to clear the ground for what follows. These are the things I’ve tried to do. If any of them aren’t clear to you, go back to the relevant sections and work through them again. It may be that you have missed something or that I’ve failed to get my point across clearly enough.

• I started with the very simple point that language varies and that much research has been directed towards finding out the factors which affect choice.

• I moved on to some of the key elements in the module, emphasising the importance of research, suggesting that you try to increase your awareness of interaction, and indicating some of the problems of defining context.

• A discussion of address forms provided us with a concrete example of ways in which this choice (and the rules relating to it) operates.

• Alternation and co-occurrence extended this beyond address forms to a more general statement about choice among alternatives and the implications once selection has taken place.

• The shift to speech community focused attention on an important factor in language choice, but also revealed that attempts at general description may be fraught with difficulty at the conceptual level.

• Finally, I introduced the concept of discourse community because I wanted to show how concepts from very different academic traditions can have valuable things to contribute to our understanding of language choice.


A Japanese woman offers tea

1 Ocha?
(to own children)

2 Ocha do?
[tea how-about]
(to own children, friends younger than self, own younger brothers and sisters)

3 Ocha ikaga?
[tea how-about (polite)]
(to friends of the same age, own older brothers and sisters)

4 Ocha ikaga desu ka?
[tea how-about (polite) is Q]
(to husband (h), own parents, own aunts and uncles, h’s younger brothers and sisters)

5 Ocha wa ikaga desu ka?
[tea topic how-about (polite) is Q]
(to own grandparents)

6 Ocha ikaga desho ka?
[tea how-about (polite) is (polite) Q]
(to h’s elder brothers and sisters)

7 Ocha wa ikaga desho ka?
[tea topic how-about (polite) is (polite) Q]
(to teachers, h’s parents, h’s boss, h’s grandparents)

(to a guest of very high position in society)

Saville-Troike M. 1989. The Ethnography of Communication. Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell. Page 53.

If you’re interested in this area and the wider issue of what Foley calls ‘social deixis’, it would be worth reading Chapter 16 in Foley (1997), which includes a discussion of Japanese honorifics (pp. 318-323).

Address Forms

“Mutual FN is the most common form of address in American English; Americans try to get on a “first name basis” as soon as sufficient common interests and common background are established to make a reasonable assertion of solidarity. Mutual TLN is typically used only between newly introduced adults (although even here the relationship may start with mutual FN if the interactants are roughly equal in age and occupational background so as to suggest a presupposition of common interests). Newly introduced American adults will try to find a basis for solidarity in common interests and background in the early stages of their interaction so as to switch as quickly as possible to mutual FN. Interlocutors of the same generation and sex find this easiest to do, so they are the most rapid in their transition to mutual FN, but any variable based on shared life history and values, like religious affiliation, kinship, school or university attended, nationality or ethnicity, and even common experiences may do. If, on the other hand, two newly introduced people have a clear differential in occupation and status entitlement, like a doctor and his male patient, quick transition to mutual FN may not occur. Rather, the superior may address the inferior with FN, but continue to receive TLN. So, when the doctor and the patient first introduce themselves mutual TLN are used: Doctor Wilson — Mr Barrett. After the professional relationship has been established, the superior may shift to FN to indicate increased common background and familiarity, in short, solidarity but continue to receive TLN (such shifts to solidarity forms are properly the initiative of the superior person; initiatives from the inferior person may be rebuffed, if the superior feels solidarity is not sufficiently established, causing embarrassment to both parties). Only later, if ever, will mutual FN be adopted, when the inferior feels the relationship is sufficiently solidary. ...

“Although FN and TLN are the most common forms of address in American English they do not exhaust the repertoire of individual Americans. For example, in addition to TLN, T alone is also an option: Doctor, Professor, Mister, Madam. This is typically used with occupations or positions of high status or when the last name is unknown, so that extreme social distance is needed. The generalized title has an impersonalizing effect on the addressee (see Brown and Levinson, 1987:190-205), so that absolutely no claim of solidarity based on shared personal interests is possible. At the opposite extreme, there are many alternatives to FN to express claims of extremely high solidarity. Thus with very close friends, nicknames are commonplace: Scotty, Geordie, Will. And with our intimates, the options are truly amazing: sweetheart, honey, darling, among hundreds of other, often very idiosyncratic, forms.

It is worthwhile pointing out the similarities between this discussion of T/FN and V/TLN address forms and Brown and Levinson’s (1987) concern with positive and negative face/politeness. The T/FN forms are associated with positive face/politeness, suggesting closeness and solidarity between the interlocutors. The V/LN forms, on the other hand, are linked to negative face/politeness, expressing lack of intrusion on the individual’s space and rights, in a word, social distance. The asymmetrical use indicates that the inferior attends to the superior’s negative face by using V/TLN, indicating his perceived higher status and consequent power, but receives from the superior the T/FN forms, not so much to suggest closeness and solidarity, but as a suggestion of dependence — of the inferior to the superior’s discretion in his use of power to pursue his own interests.”

Foley W A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. Pages 317-318.


Address Forms

Example 1

If you are in any doubt about the power of address forms to define a relationship, consider the following extract from a newspaper report on the proceedings in an industrial tribunal:

“Feelings of bad blood between Alison Halford, the senior police officer who claims that sex discrimination blocked her promotion, and her chief constable were disclosed in a letter read to an industrial tribunal yesterday.

“Eldred Tabachnik, QC, representing Miss Halford, said that an initial honeymoon period when she arrived as assistant chief constable of Merseyside evaporated after six months and she wrote to James Sharples, chief constable, accusing him of a ‘vitriolic and unfounded attack’ on her. The letter to Mr Sharples said: ‘When I tried to defend myself, you became more vehement in your attitude and we moved from Alison to Miss Halford to madam ... your attitude seems mercurial, inconsistent and unpredictable.” The Times 14.5.92

Contrary to the claim in her letter, this “attitude” seems anything but mercurial and inconsistent: the address forms chart the decline of a relationship in sadly predictable terms.

Example 2

Here is an even more blatant example of using a form of address in order to convey a message:

“Just before he [Ray Illingworth] left Yorkshire [cricket club] (the first time) he received a letter from the secretary saying that they did not intend to offer him a contract, which began ‘Dear Ray Illingworth’ — but the ‘Ray’ had been crossed out. As Illingworth wryly observed: ‘They couldn’t even bring themselves to call me by my first name or use a fresh piece of paper.’” The Observer 5.6.94

Example 3

The same article contains the following gem from an announcement at a cricket match, this time related to a form of reference:

“No longer is it necessary for the public address system to crackle into life as it did in 1950, when Fred Titmus made his county debut: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, a correction to your scorecard; for F.J. Titmus, read Titmus, F.J.” The Observer 5.6.94

In order to understand the subtle message which this was intended to convey you need to know that at this time there was a straightforward division in cricket between amateur ‘gentlemen’ and professional ‘players’ (although the distinction was nearing its end). The former, who were addressed in terms of TLN by the latter, were accorded the respect associated with their ‘superior’ social status and enjoyed privileges which were denied to the players. The latter were addressed by their last name only and expected to make do with relatively crude facilities. With typical English subtlety, this social division was reflected by the way names appeared on the programme: initials followed by name indicated a ‘gentleman’, while players were entered last name first. The coded message in this announcement is, “We’ve made an awful mistake — Titmus is a player!”

Example 4

In this final example (originally used to illustrate a different interactional feature), a police constable under review has just complained about a statement the reviewing inspector has made. Note that the inspector’s argument derives much of its force from the use of TLN:

Inspector: Yeah well yes well what you’re basically saying is that um Detective Inspector Jenkins is wrong, Detective Inspector er Miller is wrong er Acting Superintendent until recently Chief Inspector Butler is wrong Chief Inspector Walker is wrong all these people are wrong but Barry you are right.
Constable: You know I can’t take them on sir.”

J. Thomas. 1984. Cross-cultural discourse as unequal encounter: towards a pragmatic analysis. Applied Linguistics 5(3) 228-235.


Definitions of Speech Community

1. "A speech community is a group of people who interact by means of speech." (Bloomfield, 1935:42. Quoted in Hudson, 1980).

2. "the speech community: any human aggregate characterised by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language use." (Gumperz J J. 1962. Types of linguistic communities. Anthropological Linguistics 4(1) 28-40. Page 31).

3. “The speech community is not defined by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a set of shared norms; these norms may be observed in overt types of evaluative behaviour .... and by the uniformity of abstract patterns of variation which are invariant in respect of particular levels of usage ..." (Labov, 1972:120. Quoted in Hudson, 1980).

4. "A speech community is defined, then, tautologically but radically, as a community sharing knowledge of rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech. Such sharing comprises knowledge of at least one form of speech, and knowledge also of its patterns of use. Both conditions are necessary. Since both kinds of knowledge may be shared apart from common membership in a community, an adequate theory of language requires additional notions, such as language field, speech field, and speech network, and requires the contribution of social science in characterising the notions of community, and of membership in a community. (Hymes D. 1977. Foundations in Sociolinguistics. London: Tavistock. Page 51).

5. "There is no limit to the ways in which human beings league themselves together for self-identification, security, gain, amusement, worship, or any of the other purposes that are held in common; consequently there is no limit to the number and variety of speech communities that are to be found in society.” (Bolinger, 1975:333. Quoted in Hudson, 1980).

6. “members of the same speech community need not all speak the same language nor use the same linguistic forms on similar occasions. All that is required is that there be at least one language in common and that the rules governing basic communicative strategies be shared so that the speakers can decode the social meanings carried by alternative modes of communication.” (Gumperz J J. 1972. Introduction. In J J Gumperz & D Hymes (Eds) Directions in Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. P. 16).

7. “To participate in a speech community is not quite the same as to be a member of it. Here we encounter the limitation of any conception of speech community in terms of knowledge alone, even knowledge of patterns of speaking as well as grammar, and of course any definition in terms of interaction alone. Just the matter of accent may erect a barrier between participation and membership in one case, although be ignored in another. Obviously membership in a community depends upon criteria which in the given case may not even saliently involve language and speaking, as when birthright is considered indelible.” (Hymes D. 1977. Foundations in Sociolinguistics. London: Tavistock. Pages 50-51).

8. “Individuals, particularly in complex societies, may thus participate in a number of discrete or overlapping speech communities, just as they participate in a variety of social settings. Which one or ones a person orients himself or herself to at any moment — which set of rules he or she uses — is part of the strategy of communication. To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to recognize that each member of a community has a repertoire of social identities, and each identity in a given context is associated with a number of appropriate verbal and nonverbal forms of expression.” (Saville-Troike M. 1989. The Ethnography of Communication (2nd Ed). Oxford: Blackwell. Page 20).


Discourse Community

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

Swales J M. 1990. Genre Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Aspects of the Discourse Community

A description

“The use of the term ‘discourse community’ testifies to the increasingly common assumption that discourse operates within conventions defined by communities, be they academic disciplines or social groups. The pedagogies associated with writing across the curriculum and academic English now use the notion of ‘discourse communities’ to signify a cluster of ideas: that language use in a group is a form of social behaviour, that discourse is a means of maintaining and extending the group’s knowledge and of initiating new members into the group, and that discourse is epistemic or constitutive of the group’s knowledge.”

Herzberg B. 1986. The politics of discourse communities. Paper presented at the CCC Convention, New Orleans, La, March, 1986. (Quoted in J M Swales, 1990, Genre Analysis, Cambridge: CUP.)

Institutional vs Interdisciplinary/Social

“Studies in scientific and technical communication that identify the discourse community with particular institutions, either disciplinary or organizational, suggest the utility of studying, and teaching, the assumptions, norms, and practices, including the communication practices, of these institutions. For example, researchers in scientific and technical communication might study established principles of readability such as the use of headings or topic sentences as they apply to scientific journal articles, and they might study variations and deviations from these principles such as the omission of headings and other formatting devices in a journal ... In contrast, studies in scientific and technical communication that identify the discourse community with the larger interdisciplinary and social community suggest the need to study, and teach, modes of communication that cut across the boundaries that separate disciplines and organizations from each other and from the public. For example, researchers might study the organizational or social criteria that apply to research when it is reported in an applied research journal or in a proposal to the National Science Foundation....
“Studies such as these, both actual and potential, suggest the need to teach students not only to communicate within the context of several discourse communities but also, and especially, to develop the ability to step outside the boundaries of particular discourse communities and to participate in conversations with others on problems of mutual interest and concern.”

Zappen J P. 1989. The discourse community in scientific and technical communication: institutional and social views. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 19(1) 1-11. Pages 8-9.


‘Descriptive’ and ‘Explanatory’

“To the extent that language functions not only to reproduce the dominant order but to resist it as well, we have two types of uses for the concept of discourse community. The one — descriptive — is based on models of linguistic reproduction and is by now fairly familiar: The conventions of a discourse community, to the extent that they serve established interests of a particular group, are deliberately or tacitly imposed by members of this community on initiates or outsiders.... Carried further, explanatory adequacy serves an even greater purpose: Opposition to the conventions of a discourse community, insofar as it reflects minority or underrepresented interests, emerges to resist the established interests and bring about change in (or toward) the values and behaviour of those in power. Here, discourse community helps to provide students with the critical perspective needed to develop, in Giroux’s words, a self-managed existence.”

Rafoth B A. 1990. The concept of discourse community: descriptive and explanatory adequacy. In G Kirsch & D H Roen (Eds) A Sense of Audience in Written Communication pp140-152. Newbury park: Sage. Page 149.


Task 1.4


In what follows I offer only the barest outline of an response. As long as your own response is along the same lines, you have nothing to worry about.

A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

I suppose that the most general formulation of the goal of our discourse community is the promotion of effective English language teaching. Within that it’s possible to identify a number of subordinate goals (the dissemination and promotion of good practice in TESOL, the dissemination of the latest research findings in the field, etc.).

A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

The list is long and would certainly include teachers’ groups, seminars, conferences, newsletters, professional and academic journals, e-mail lists, and professional and academic courses.

A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

Any of the above would provide examples of this. For example, a newsletter might include news about a forthcoming event, a report on recent workshop, a call for papers for a conference, an exchange of letters on a topic of interest, a review of recent publications, an article on a teacher’s action research project, an article on the pedagogic implications of some recent findings in the field of lexis, an advertisement for an academic course, some tips for ending a lesson with a bang, a social calendar, etc.

A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

Again, the list is long. Prominent in any consideration would be such genres as the academic paper, the conference paper, the news article and the (discussion) letter.

In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

The examples you provide here are likely to depend on which module you have already completed. It’s unlikely, for example, that you started this course with any idea of what anaphoric reference meant, but it will be standard fare after the AWD module. Similarly, trained ESOL (note the acronym — another example of specific lexis) teachers will talk happily of open and closed questions but the difference may need to be explained to an outsider.

A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

It’s hard to say what a threshold might be in our field, but given its size the issue is unlikely to arise. Your own position is an interesting one, though. I would argue (and I freely admit that this is open to challenge) that you are close to full membership of the community as a whole. Your professional qualifications and experience are more than adequate for participation in local and perhaps national teachers’ groups and the mechanisms of communication associated with them (newsletters, conferences, etc.), but you have yet to move to a point where you’re ready to publish in leading international journals. Progress to that point is certainly possible on the basis of this course, so in discourse community terms that’s where you’re headed.

Having said all that, there are communities and communities, and I know that there are people who would claim that while I might have the right to claim membership of the applied linguistics discourse community, the teachers discourse community is closed to me. I happen to think it’s a fruitless debate, but it is about community and membership.


Extra task 1

Read the passage below and identify features in it which relate to the discussion of address forms and alternation and co-occurrence in the unit. You could begin by identifying where the interaction ‘goes wrong’ and compare the ‘before’ and ‘after’ situations. There is a discussion of the passage on the next page, but you should not read this until you are satisfied that you have identified as many relevant features as you can.


Participants: Paul Roberts Marketing Manager
Deborah Talbot Administrative Assistant

Scene: Corridor outside Paul Roberts’ office

Time: 8.25 (work starts at 9.00)

PR: So how are you settling into the new flat then, Deborah?
DT: Fine thanks, Mr Roberts.
PR: Redecorating from top to bottom I suppose.
DT: No, not yet — it’ll take weeks to sort out the unpacking.
PR: Still living out of boxes then?
DT: Well, there always seems something more important to do.
PR: You ought to get it done, you know. The sooner it’s out of the way the better.
DT: You can talk.
PR: Pardon
DT: I mean, well, I was just thinking of the move here. You know, the boxes in your office. They took ages to move, them, didn’t they?
JR: Oh, I see.
DT: They do, though, don’t they?
PR: I think we had things pretty well under control. Which reminds me, Ms Talbot, could you make sure the minutes of that last board meeting are out by 11 o’clock this morning. Make that a priority.
DT: Yes, Mr Roberts.


Before beginning my analysis, I think it’s important to stress that this extract is not authentic. In future units all extracts will be authentic, but in this case I have found it impossible to track down a suitable example and have therefore produced the text myself. It is adequate for the purposes of this task, but you should not regard it as anything more than a convenient heuristic. It is not a reliable guide to authentic interaction.

You probably spotted fairly quickly where the turning point is. In fact, if this were a recording of an authentic exchange, there would almost certainly be a pause between “Well you can talk” and “Pardon”. The “Pardon” may well not have occurred at all. Whatever the case, it is clear that a change takes place in the interaction following Deborah’s comment. Let’s begin by looking at what has happened up to that point.

The exchange takes place in the workplace, but in a neutral area and outside work time, so the social topic seems appropriate. Notice, though, that the asymmetrical relationship between the two interactants is clearly marked. The fact that Paul uses FN to address Deborah but receives TLN in reply provides sufficiently clear evidence of this, but there are other aspects of the interaction which are also worth noting. For example, Paul initiates the exchange, and Deborah’s role is essentially responsive, so there is a sense in which he might be said to be in control. He also feels free to offer advice on her actions in her private life (something which would normally be the privilege of friends), and some would argue that in doing so he transgresses the boundaries of what is acceptable. At any rate, this advice is what prompts Deborah’s, “Well you can talk.”

Paul’s response to this indicates that it is inappropriate, that Deborah has violated the norms which apply in this asymmetrical relationship by challenging his own actions in an unacceptable way (although this would be appropriate if she were responding to the advice of friends). Deborah immediately seeks to repair the damage by explaining what prompted her comment and attempting to shift the topic to an earlier move. Paul withholds agreement but acknowledges the explanation. (As we shall see in the unit on conversation analysis, “Oh” often serves as a ‘change of state token’ which indicates that the hearer’s state of knowledge has changed as a result of the speaker’s utterance.) Deborah once more attempts to involve him in a discussion of the problems of moving (“They do...”) but receives a curt and quite formal response which closes the topic.
The initiative is now once more with Paul, and we can see a marked contrast between the exchange which follows and the earlier one. Here are the features which seem to me to be significant:

1. By comparison with the earlier ‘social’ exchanges, Paul’s turn is long. Generally speaking, long turns are not features of brief social exchanges (although they may be, depending on the interactants and the topic), but they often feature in instruction-giving.

2. Paul switches the topic abruptly to business. There are two things worth noting here. The first is the abruptness of the switch, which is not characteristic of ordinary conversation, where more gradual shifts are common (Jefferson has identified what she calls a ‘step-wise transition’ from one topic to another). There is some concession to the need to mark such sudden shifts, however, in the use of “Which reminds me...”. The second aspect of interest is the topic itself. Particular topics are appropriate to particular situations and particular relationships, and by shifting to business (perhaps inappropriately, given the time) Paul firmly re-establishes the asymmetrical relationship which Deborah’s “Well you can talk” had violated.

3. The asymmetry is confirmed by the switch to TLN when addressing Deborah. This effectively marks the move from a ‘social’ relationship to an ‘office’ relationship, where Paul is the boss. Such shifts are the norm in some cultures, where colleagues switch from TLN to FN when they leave the workplace switch back on their return (I have seen German lunches quoted as an example of this).

4. The imperative which concludes Paul’s turn is stronger than the “ought” which featured his advice on unpacking. Again, the former may be characteristic of their office relationship.

The passage ends with Deborah’s explicit assent to Paul’s instruction and implicit acceptance of the office relationship.


At this point you may be worrying about differences between your analysis and mine. Such differences are inevitable, and it is important to regard my analyses of any text as no more than an example. If you have identified the important points (which in this case boil down to the asymmetrical relationship and the change of address form and topic following the Deborah’s “Well you can talk.”), this is all that really matters — there is no definitive analysis. There may be aspects of the interaction mentioned above which you have not considered, or there may be features which I have ignored and which you consider important. In either case, this represents a useful basis for further reflection.


Extra Task 2

This is a task which you might consider undertaking when you have finished the unit. It’s the sort of task which you can undertake quite informally if you wish. I’ve laid it out below on a step-by step basis, but there is no reason why you should complete every step. The amount of time you dedicate to this task, if any, is up to you. This will depend on your approach, which could range from simply keeping you ears peeled to setting up and following through a detailed study.

• Identify a context with which you are familiar (e.g. your staffroom, university department, office).

• Collect examples of the address forms used there.

• Try to work out the rules which apply to the use of these forms and summarise these.

• If possible, represent the rules diagrammatically (there are examples in the chapter in Fasold discussed in the Study section below).

• Discuss your findings with other participants on the course.


• Choose your setting carefully, and be aware that some situations are very sensitive. If you have any doubts about the wisdom of focusing on a particular setting (e.g. social or professional repercussions), choose another.

• Don’t be tempted to tell anyone what you’re doing: they may decide to ‘help’ you by putting on a show.

• Take notes on site if possible (i.e., if you can do so privately), but in any case as soon afterwards as you can.

• Don’t jump to conclusions. Watch carefully and build up as detailed a picture as you can before developing your description.


Address forms
These are the terms used to address individuals (‘Mr Smith’, ‘Steve’, etc.). Forms of address need to be distinguished from forms used to refer to people (‘my colleague, Mr Smith’) and to summon people (‘Stephen Smith (report to reception).’)

This refers to the choice among linguistic alternatives. Taking address forms as an example, there is more than one way of addressing an individual, and what begins as a ‘Mr Smith’ relationship may move to a ‘Steve’ relationship in which a sudden reversion to ‘Mr Smith’ may be communicatively significant. Once a choice has been made, this has significance for other linguistic choices (see co-occurrence).

This is an extremely difficult concept to tie down. Broadly speaking, we shall take it to refer to the (structure of) features of a social situation which influence the nature of interaction in that situation. This is very similar to a definition offered by Van Dijk and quoted in the unit.

Once a choice among linguistic alternatives has been made (see alternation), this will have implications for the form of the rest of the discourse. For example, ‘Mr Smith’ is likely to co-occur with “Can I just pass this to you?” and not “’ere, cop ‘old of this.”

Discourse community
The idea of a discourse community is based on the recognition that it is possible to identify specific (often professional or academic) groups with shared public aims, whose discourse reflects those aims and serves to represent the shared knowledge of the community. Mechanisms of intercommunication within the community (e.g. academic journals, conferences, newsletters) can be identified and the discourse represented in them analysed.

Kin terms
These are terms used to address members of one’s family. For example, ‘mummy’ or the ‘uncle’ in ‘uncle Fred’ are a kin terms. These are also examples of address forms.

Speech community
There are numerous definitions of this term, but all of them are underpinned by the idea that specific communities, consisting of people who interact regularly together, can be identified (i.e. distinguished from other groups) in terms of the way they use language. It is usually assumed that the minimal requirements for participation in a speech community are a shared language and shared rules of use. The sociolinguistic roots of this concept are different from the rhetorical tradition from which the concept of the more formally constituted discourse community derives.

Key Reading

Schiffrin D. 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Chapter 1 (pp5-19) and
Chapter 10 (pp362-383).

Kumatoridani, T. 1999. ‘Alternation and co-occurrence in Japanese thanks’. Journal of Pragmatics

Suggested Reading

There are other introductions to the general field (e.g. that offered in Van Dijk 1997), and if you find these more amenable there’s no reason why you shouldn’t also read them. Debates about what fits in where and which definitions are most accurate are reasonably common, so the more you read the more balanced your view is likely to be. However, it’s best to let this develop over the course rather than trying to force it into some sort of definite shape now.


Bolinger D. 1975. Aspects of Language. 2nd Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Brown R & Gilman A. 1960. The pronouns of power and solidarity. In T Sebeok (Ed) Style in Language pp 253-276. Cambridge Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Brown P & S Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press..
Ervin-Tripp S. 1986. On sociolinguistic rules: alternation and co-occurrence. In J Gumperz & D Hymes (Eds) Directions in Sociolinguistics pp 213-250. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Fasold R. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Foley W A. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. (Chapter 16)
Gumperz, J. J. 1962. Types of linguistic communities. Anthropological Linguistics 4(1) 28-40.
Gumperz J & D Hymes (Eds). 1986. Directions in Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Heritage J. 1984. Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hudson R A. 1996. Sociolinguistics (2nd Ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hymes D. 1971. On Communicative Competence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hymes D. 1977. Foundations in Sociolinguistics. London: Tavistock.
Preston D. 1989. Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rafoth B A. 1990 The concept of discourse community: descriptive of explanatory adequacy. In G Kirsch & D H Roen (Eds) A Sense of Audience in Written Communication pp 140-152. Newbury Park: Sage.
Romaine S. 1982. Sociolinguistic Variation in Speech Communities. London: Arnold.
Saville-Troike M. 1989. The Ethnography of Communication. Second Edition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Schiffrin D. 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Swales J M. 1990 Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Thomas J. 1983. Cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics 4(2) 91-112.
Thomas J. 1984. Cross-cultural discourse as unequal encounter: towards a pragmatic analysis. Applied Linguistics 5(3) 228-235.
Van Dijk T A. 1997. Discourse as interaction in society. In Van Dijk 1997b.
Van Dijk T A (Ed). 1997a. Discourse as Structure and Process. London: Sage.
Van Dijk T A (Ed) 1997b. Discourse as Social Interaction. London: Sage.
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