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Home arrow Sociology arrow Discourse interpretation : approaches and applications


Olga Dontcheva-Navratilova and Renata PovolnA

Discourse interpretation is a key aspect of the process of human communication in which interactants rely on established social practices in a particular context while striving to achieve their communicative intentions by the use of language. The complexity of meaning interpretation in discourse stems from the fact that discourse processing is not based only on what is written or said, but is a dynamic process, involving the negotiation of meaning between the speaker and the hearer in the context of utterance.

Before considering the issue of discourse interpretation in all its complexity, it is necessary to define the term discourse itself. Within the heterogeneous field of discourse analysis, there seem to be three broad understandings of the term discourse: (1) language in use, (2) a stretch of language beyond the sentence, and (3) a culturally, institutionally and ideologically determined social practice (Schiffrin, Tannen and Hamilton 2001). While the first two are firmly rooted in linguistics, the last view of discourse, which is emblematic of scholars associated with critical discourse analysis, reflects an eclectic and multidisciplinary approach to the analysis of social behaviour mediated by the use of language. This variation in the understanding of discourse reflects the wide scope of discourse analysis, which is considered to be “one of the most vast and least defined areas in linguistics” (Schiffrin 1994: 406).

The authors of this volume approach discourse from a functional viewpoint. Generally they share the view that language can be seen as a system of meaning potential (Halliday 1978: 39) which is instantiated through text in discourse. Within the interpretative process affected by the background knowledge of and the mutual relationship between the participants involved in communication, the meaning of a text is negotiated and recreated by interactants (Mey 1991: 404) in a particular context so as to reflect their communicative intentions. Thus discourse is derived from a text in the process of purposeful interaction via verbal and non-verbal means between a speaker/writer and a listener/reader which takes place in a certain context (Seidlhofer and Widdowson 1999: 207). This approach assumes the potential of discourse to (re)construct a representation of reality which is affected by the point of view of the interactants, i.e. in the process of a particular interpretative decoding the hearer/reader creates his/her own discourse from the text by assigning it intentionality (not necessarily the one intended by the speaker/writer) and recreating its meaning. As a result, discourse interpretation cannot be seen as definite and constant; it is rather viewed as being more or less temporary and constantly open to reinterpretation in the light of the intentions and purposes that interactants are striving to achieve in a particular social, historical and situational context (cf. Widdowson 2004).

The research presented in this volume addresses discourse interpretation from the perspectives of (critical) discourse analysis, pragmatics, stylistics and sociolinguistics in an attempt to show that the application of different approaches to the analysis of meaning in various settings may contribute to a better understanding of the interpretative process.

The book is organized into two parts: the first focuses on approaches to discourse interpretation, while the second comprises essays by linguists conducting research in the fields of pragmatics, discourse analysis and stylistics who investigate various aspects of meaning interpretation in different genres and types of discourse.

The first part, Approaches to discourse interpretation, comprises two chapters which address methodological issues in discourse interpretation. Widdowson challenges the assumption shared by many critical discourse analysts that significance can be assigned to texts by means of an analysis of their linguistic features. He argues that the assigning of meanings to texts in isolation from particular contexts and pretexts is pragmatically invalid and reflects a conceptual confusion between analysis and interpretation on the one hand and signification and significance on the other. The author views pretext as the prime factor regulating the contextualization of meaning in discourse, thus arguing that the interpretation of meaning derived by discourse participants is always conditional and indeterminate.

Approaching discourse interpretation from a cognitive perspective, Komlosi presents arguments for his claim that the conceptualizations of situations versus those of contexts play a decisive role in natural language processing and language use and that discourse analysts need to acknowledge different types of ontologies in order to delineate linguistic meaning, pragmatic meaning and context-sensitive meaning. In harmony with Widdowson, he maintains that situated language use depends on a great variety of linguistic and social, cognitive and affective skills on the part of the interlocutors functioning as interacting agents.

The second part, Interpretation of meaning across discourses, comprises nine chapters which focus on different aspects of discourse interpretation while using exemplifications from different types of discourse. It opens with Alimuradov et al.’s investigation into compliment discourse viewed as a verbally constructed environment, where the concept “beauty” is represented by different linguistic means and with the help of various pragmatic strategies and tactics. The authors argue that compliment discourse, which is affected by the cognitive characteristics of the communicants who fulfil definite gender roles, is structured strategically and tactically in terms of both its generation and its interpretation.

The first of the two chapters exploring the interpretation of meaning in political discourse deals with implicit meanings in political advertising. Chovanec’s contextual analysis of local politicians’ pre-election discourse focuses on how political rhetoric is embedded within local cultural contexts to such an extent that politicians can formulate their main messages implicitly, relying on the recipients to infer the salient meanings and at the same time allowing for a denial of dispreferred and face- threatening meanings. The author argues that such a practice is particularly acute in the case of certain populist messages which could otherwise hardly be expressed in an open way.

Dontcheva-Navratilova studies the interdependence of coherence and persuasion in the genre of opening addresses. Acknowledging the inherently context-dependent, dynamic and interactive nature of coherence and persuasion, Dontcheva-Navratilova argues that the construal of a coherent discourse in which the orator is represented as trustworthy, competent and personally involved in the issue at hand is a decisive factor for bringing about persuasion. While analysing the pragmatic functions of deictic pronouns and modal expressions, the author shows how politicians can exploit the inherent ambiguity of these language devices in their attempts to guide the audience towards an intended discourse interpretation.

In her investigation of crime news in serious and popular British newspapers, Jancarikova analyses ways of conveying to readers the high or low social status of victims and killers, who are contrasted and portrayed as “good” and “evil”. She demonstrates how modern media can shape and reinforce the community’s values and attitudes to crucial social issues, thus acting as moral guardians.

Levitsky studies the use of focusing as a strategy for foregrounding specific information by means of giving it emotional colouring. The author claims that by helping the speaker/writer to shape the pragmatic core of discourse the strategy of focusing satisfies the demands of brief and adequate transmission of information in discourse.

In her study on the application of pragmatic theory to the interpretation of literary discourse, Missikova argues that novelists create characters and situations in ways that are relevant to our interpretation of discourse. In accordance with her view that pragmatic theories help us to understand the process of contextualization in literary texts, the author analyses London Observed (1993), a collection of short stories by Doris Lessing, while focusing on pragmatic approaches to irony and the application of the Cooperative and Politeness principles in the interpretation of written literary discourse.

The purpose of Parini’s corpus-based study is to analyse the choice of the epicene pronoun in textbooks on social sciences and online editions of British and American newspapers. The findings of the analysis provide evidence for the existence of a direct relationship between the pronominal form used and the type of antecedent and an indirect relationship between the use of epicene variants and the type of genre while arguing that pronominal choice is context- and genre-sensitive.

Povolna investigates discourse markers conceived as signals of relationships between segments of discourse and their role in enhancing coherent interpretation and thus establishing discourse coherence. The author attempts to discover whether semantic relations of cause and contrast tend to be expressed explicitly by discourse markers in academic written discourse and whether there is cross-cultural variation in the use of causal and contrastive discourse markers by native speakers of English and Czech expert writers, namely in the genre of research articles.

Tomaskova explores stereotypes as the interface of the recurrence of linguistic structure and cognitive schemata, while aiming to provide an insight into the interplay between stereotypes realized on the level of microstructures and those realized on the level of macrostructures. The author claims that the multifunctional nature of stereotypes makes them an effective communication strategy in women’s lifestyle magazines.

Despite the variety of genres and types of discourse analysed by the authors of this volume, they all share the understanding that discourse interpretation is dependent on socio-cultural, pragmatic and situational factors and that the interpretation of meaning is negotiated interactively by discourse participants and thus is always conditional and indeterminate. By its insight into different approaches to the analysis of discourse and their application to the interpretation of meaning in different genres of spoken and written discourse, this monograph offers new ideas on how a coherent interpretation can be achieved and suggests new directions for further research.


Halliday, Michael A. K. 1978, Language as Social Semiotic. The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning, London: Edward Arnold Mey, Jacob 2001, Pragmatics: An Introduction. 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell

Schiffrin, Deborah 1994, Approaches to Discourse, Oxford: Blackwell Schiffrin, Deborah, Deborah Tannen and Heidi Hamilton 2001, The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Malden, Oxford/Carlton: Blackwell Seidlhofer, Barbara and Henry Widdowson 1999, “Coherence in summary: The contexts of appropriate discourse.” In Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse, edited by Wolfram Bublitz, Uta Lenk and Eija Ventola, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 205-219 Widdowson, Henry 2004, Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis, Oxford: Blackwell

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