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Well established genres: Classroom discourse

In the literature on classroom discourse (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975), the lesson appears (predictably) as the largest unit in classroom discourse. Transactions are identified as the next smaller discourse units, as phases signaled by recognizable beginnings and ends through framing moves, summing up what has preceded, inviting the class to proceed with the next phase, etc. As in various types of structured discourse (e.g., telephone calls), the linguistic elements signaling beginning and end, for instance, belong to a closed list: As McCarthy (1991: 14) points out “there is a fairly limited number of words available in English for framing transactions”, such as the teacher’s Now then, Yes, Right, O.K., So, etc. Moreover, the fact that some people habitually use the same ones (McCarthy 1991: 14) implies that following an original choice, individual speakers (teachers) tend to further stabilize fixed patterns. Within transactions exchanges are further identified with 3 turns: ‘question’, ‘answer’ and ‘follow up’.

Exchange structure has been extensively analyzed and received various labels and definitions, from ‘opening’, ‘answering’ and ‘follow up-evaluation’ moves, with ‘moves’ corresponding to ‘turns’, to ‘initiation’, ‘response’, ‘followup’ (Sinclair and Brazil 1982: 49). Alternatives include ‘initiation’, ‘response/ initiation’ (allowing for the possibility of the pupil’s responding with a question eliciting a further response from the teacher), ‘follow-up’ gaining over ‘evaluation’ and a final bipartite distinction between initiation and response resulting in a maximum of 4 structural elements of the following order: I (R/I) R (Coulthard and Brazil 1992:71-72). The initiating slot is used to elicit or provide information, the responding slot to provide “an appropriate next contribution, an inform if the I was an elicit and an acknowledge if the I was an inform” (Coulthard and Brazil 1992: 73). The importance of these analyses lies in their recognition of the co-existence of structural and semantic criteria for identifying both moves and exchange boundaries in terms of actual linguistic realizations in accurate detail. These patterns can be directly translated in CxG terms as genre-specific schematic constructions.

Besides such long established linguistic signals of sequences which can appear in more than one genre, classroom discourse in particular also involves semi-substantive constructions, partially specified, i.e. drawing their substantive part from fairly closed lists representative of the lexical fields characterizing individual disciplines and subjects taught.

When parodied, classroom discourse is recognized through both schematic and substantive constructions. In the following extract (5) from the script of the Monty Python film Life of Brian (1979; The Internet Movie Database 2011), for instance, humor couched both in discoursal organization and in the choice of substantive (simple-lexical and complex-syntactic) constructional material is most evident. In terms of setting, the year is about 30 A.D. and Palestine is under Roman occupation. Brian is a young Jew who has joined a revolutionary movement against the Roman conquerors and has been set the assignment to write slogans on the walls against the Romans. He writes Romanes Eunt Domus, upon which a centurion turns up and catches him on the act. The dialogue participants are Brian (B) and the Roman centurion (R). The relevant type of move along with the speech acts involved in it are marked in the first part of the exchange at each turn (identification of speech acts rests also on the intonation pattern used):


R: What’s this then! “Romanes Eunt Domus”. People called “Romanes”, “they went” “house” in the Nominative?

INITIATION (attempt to elicit correct answer) consisting of reprimand (negative evaluation of previous performance): interrogative sentence type

B: It says “Romans go home”

RESPONSE (answering the question)

R: No it doesn’t.

EVALUATION consisting of a negative statement.

What’s Latin for Roman? [slaps him]

INITIATION (question requesting information)

Come on ... come on...


B: Romanus!

RESPONSE providing information

R: Goes like?

FOLLOW UP (through question, signaling INITIATION of next exchange)

B: Er... annus


R: Vocative plural of “annus” is... is...

FOLLOW UP (elliptic statement with rising intonation signaling question), functions as INITIATION of next exchange

B: Anni


R: Romani

[crossing out -es and substituting i, flaps B]

Now what’s this “eunt”?

EVALUATION (through correction) INITIATION

B: “Go”... Er...


R: Conjugate the verb “to go”

FOLLOW-UP (through exhortation)

B: Ire ... eo, is, it... imus, itis, eunt . . .



R: So we have ... Romani ite domum.

FOLLOW-UP (signaling end of FRAMING MOVE)

Do you understand?


R: Romans go home. This is motion towards, isn’t it boy?

INITIATION (new move)

B: Dative, sir[1]



R: Now write it out a hundred times

FOLLOW-UP (closing up all preceding exchanges through exhortation)

B: Yes sir

R: And if it isn’t done by sunset, I’ll cut your balls off

There is an obvious clash here between the situationally established script according to which the centurion should arrest Brian for ‘anti-Roman acts’ and the new, opposing one, featuring the centurion concentrating on the form (rather than the content) of the slogan and pushing Brian to rewrite it in proper Latin. The actual language and the way it is used mimic classroom discourse in detail. Classroom discourse parody is, therefore, effected through the specific constructions exploited for humorous purposes and the climax of the exchange is in the centurion’s final order that Brian should write the slogan (correctly) a hundred times. From the very beginning of the extract, the authoritative tone of voice and the (emphatic stress) intonation pattern used by the centurion interact with lexical and structural characteristics of the expressions used in the first turn, so as to switch from a military authority context to the classroom domain. Hence, they create a prospective supposition not only for the next turn of the interlocutor, but also for the audience and what is to follow. Brian’s response is completely sensitive to these characteristics, once again not only in terms of content, but also in terms of tone of voice showing intimidation: he is being apologetic. Thus, his utterances involve a retrospective supposition serving to further establish the total switch to a classroom context. Predictably, there is no pupil-initiation - the pupil is in fact totally intimidated and physically punished for grammar mistakes. Unpredictably, the teacher insists on ‘other-initiated selfrepair’ (Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks 1977) rather than crossing out the slogan and directly getting the ‘student’ to rewrite it correctly (i.e. enforcing other- repair) - not to mention the situationally consistent expectation that Brian be punished for terrorist activities rather than be forced to consolidate his knowledge of Latin.

The non-reciprocity in the use of the terms of address is predictably also adhered to through use of totally expected semi-substantive expressions: Brian is called boy by the irate teacher while he respectfully addresses the centurion as sir, which would be in accordance with the situationally established scenario as well. Substantive constructions marked for “Latin grammar at school” are abundant, (e.g., Vocative plural of “annus”), plus more general “teaching grammar” ones which are inherited by the “Latin grammar at school” patterns (e.g., This is motion towards..., Conjugate the verb “to go”), etc. While these are treated as substantive features from a list, it should be obvious that at the same time they are contained in clausal patterns which represent schematic constructions which are still characteristic of the genre. For example, conjugate appears as the lexical filler of the directive (ordering) which is an expected speech act by the teacher. Equally characteristic is the unfinished sentence (This is motion towards. . .), waiting for the student to fill in the missing information of which the teacher is already in possession.

Semi-schematic constructions for this discourse type are also frequent in this passage, including, for instance, So “eunt” is?, Goes like?, featuring explicit boundaries from a list (e.g. initiation of a directive with So). Similarly to the unfinished sentences discussed before, the interrogative elliptic clauses used also attempt to elicit information the teacher already has. This time, the teacher’s questions actually elicit incorrect responses from the pupil triggering in turn responses by the teacher, such as Now write it out a hundred times, also with lexicalized boundaries through items from a fixed drop-list (Now) and classroom directives in ‘directing moves’ (Coulthard and Brazil 1992: 77).

What emerges from the discussion is that this discourse type is characterized by two kinds of semi-schematic material: one, which is supra-clausal, concerns the overall pattern structured by the tripartite sequence; the other, at the level of the clause, has specific pragmatic content, i.e. it corresponds to a very specific type of speech-act, namely a directive which attempts to elicit information known to the speaker. The possible syntactic realisations of this common pragmatics may be therefore treated as belonging to a drop-list, minimally comprising a full interrogative clause, an elliptic statement with a rising intonation pattern (Antonopoulou and Pagoni-Tetlow 2004: 61), or an elliptic question.[2]

  • [1] Although we reproduce the original Month Python script, we have to note here that, in latin,the motion towards is signified by accusative, not dative.
  • [2] In Antonopoulou and Nikiforidou (2011), we formalize the discourse constructions of classroom discourse and telephone-call openings using the box notation proposed by Fillmorein the 1980’s and further developed in Fried and Ostman (2004). Such a representation indeedhighlights the parallelism between clause-level constructions and supra-clause patterns interms of their associating elements of form (of various sizes) with particular meanings, andshows how Fillmorean frames (both cognitive and interactional) are integrated in the description of constructions. In the present paper, however, we focus on the humorous exploitation ofsuch patterns and the analysis of incongruity in terms of constructional properties, hence wedefer the reader to the other paper for a formal representation and a detailed discussion of theimplications for constructional theory.
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