In keeping with past semesters I’m going to try posting my written notes for class here. This is mostly peer pressure on myself to think about how I’m writing a bit more publicly. Although the reality is it’s mostly going to be lost on the Web.

I’m taking two classes this semester Discourse Analysis (edci788) and Documentation, Collection and Appraisal (lbsc785). The latter I’m technically co-teaching with my advisor Ricky Punzalan, but the reality is I’m learning lots about appraisal practices from him as well as the practitioners who are in the class. The Discourse Analysis class requires a written summary each week, and this is the first of those.

It’s always a bit weird and maybe risky learning in public, but you only live once right? Ahem. I’d love to hear from you in comments/annotations here or on Twitter or email if any of this gives you any ideas or prompts any questions.

The readings this week focused on discourse and pragmatics. Paltridge (2012) defines pragmatics as the study of how the meaning of spoken and written discourse is related to the context in which that speech and writing occurs. Context here is taken to be the particular social situation that the discourse takes place in, the other text or speech it is situated with, and any background knowledge that it relies upon.

One of the foundational concepts in pragmatics is speech act theory, which is the idea that words do things in the world. Words have a literal meaning that can be analyzed for its truth or falsehood. But words also can be used to effect change in the word, to perform actions. Searle distinguished between these two types of acts as locutionary and illocutionary acts. And the actual action that is caused by the words is the perlocutionary act.

One practical example of this is the act of saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. The words have a literal meaning, and perform the action of becoming legally married. They are also tied to the social situation in which they occur, the marriage ceremony, their partners speech and the speech of the marriage official. This example also highlights how various conditions can influence whether a specific speech act works or not. Austin called these felicity conditions, which Searle interpreted somewhat rigidly as rules.

Pragmatics is also specifically concerned with the theoretical perspective of the cooperative principle: that discourse is a function of participants having a shared interest or purpose, which provides a unifying shape to the discourse, which prevents it from just being a series of random and disconnected topics. This idea was introduced by Grice (1975) in which he provides four categories or maxims that help identify the operation of the cooperative principle in discourse:

  • quantity: make contribution informative, but not more informative than needed
  • quality: try to make a contribution that is true (not false, or lacking in evidence)
  • relation: moves in topic need to fit certain parameters
  • manner: how something is said (not what)

Grice uses these maxims in order to show how speech and language do not simply fit into either a formal (scientific) or informal (humanistic) analysis. To do this he introduces the idea of the implicature which is a meaning that is not explicitly provided in the literal analysis of the words in discourse, but can be ascertained by looking at how speech interacts with the four maxims in various ways:

  • when a maxim is quietly violated
  • when a participant explicitly opts-out from a maxim
  • when the fulfillment of one maxim is in contradiction, tension with another maxim: a clash
  • when a maxim is openly disregarded or flouted

Grice uses very short snippets of conversation, mostly just paired statements: A says this, B says this in response. He uses these snippets to illustrate the fulfillment of the four maxims, and how this can give rise to implicatures, or meanings that are not explicitly provided in the literal text.

In contrast Kasper (2006) also looks at pragmatics but uses much longer sequences of conversation. This makes sense because Kasper uses the lens of Conversation Analysis to examine pragmatics, or meaning making. CA requires looking at more than just pairs of utteranaces–at conversations. Kasper critiques the rationalist foundations of Speech Act theory, by questioning the idea that the meaning of an utterance is related to the internal state of the speaker, and that in turn, the listener receives and internalizes that meaning. This telementation model, where meaning is being transmitted from speaker to listener does not, in Kasper’s eyes, sufficiently describe the way that meaning is arrived at or generated. For Kasper meaning is co-constructed by participants, and rather than being transmitted it is emergent and highly contextual. Conversation Analysis’ attention to the specific details of full conversations allows meaning and context to be understood in its specificity as collaborative ventures, where the whole can be larger than the sum of its parts.

Taguchi (2015) provides an example of using cross-cultural speech act theory to look at competencies of language learners. Culture is an important dimension to understanding the speech acts because the mechanics of speech, and the significance of particular word choices are not necessarily portable across cultures. Taguchi is specifically interested in how spending a year abroad can change the learners cultural awareness and their ability to general speech acts, or their language comptency. The specific research question was to see if cultutral adjustment is correlated with language skill.

To achieve this Taguchi measures intercultural competence and pragmatic competenece in a group of 20 Japanese language learners before and after their semester abroad. Intercultural competence is measured using a tool called the Cross-Cultural Adapatability Inventory, which is essentially a survey of 50 questions that measures several factors using a Likert scale. Pragmatic competence is measures using an oral discourse complete test (DCT). This test collects what language learners think they would say in a particular situation, and the responses were then evaluated by Japanese speakers with respect to the speech style and speech act using a six point scale. The results were then analyzed statistically using the t-test to see if there was any correlation between changes in cultural adaptability and language use. They found that intercultural competence was correlated with appropriate speech acts, but not with speech style. The authors conjectured that this could be the failing of the DCT, or perhaps with their relatively small sample size.

The readings this week provided lots of different views on the idea of speech acts and discourse pragmatics. It was clear to me on reading them that this is a very deep area of research, where there is a great deal of theoretical work to draw on. I haven’t completely decided yet what I am going to be studying as part of my research project yet. I’m specifically interested in looking at how archivists decide what is valuable when collecting material from the Web, and I have three different data sources in mind:

  • a set of interviews I conducted with web archivists about their appraisal process
  • online conversations in Internet Relay Chat between volunteer archivists in the ArchiveTeam community
  • written collection development policies from different institutions

I think that discourse pragmatics could be used in all three, but probably would work best in the first two because of their conversational aspect. The idea of value in appraisal work is a slippery concept, and I think Grice’s idea of implicatures could be very useful in reading between the lines of how archivists ascribe value to material. Also, looking at the discussion through a cooperative lens could be useful since archivists do tend to look at what they are doing as a cooperative enterprise: a community of practice that is centered on preserving material for use by records creators and researchers. I also think Kasper’s use of conversational analysis could uncover emergent meanings in the interviews or transcripts to help uncover new understandings about this community of practice, its cooperative ideas and activities. I’m not particularly keen on making statistical claims like Taguchi, mostly because I don’t think questions of value lend themselves to statistical analyses so much as they do qualitative measures. But I’d like to be proven wrong if there are good tools for achieving that.


Grice, H. P. (1975). Syntax and semantics: Speech acts. In (Vol. 3). New York: Academic Press.

Kasper, G. (2006). Pragmatics & language learning. In K. Bardovi-Harlig, J. C. Félix-Brasdefer, & A. S. Omar (Eds.), (pp. 281–314). Natl Foreign Lg Resource Ctr.

Paltridge, B. (2012). Discourse analysis: An introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Taguchi, N. (2015). Cross-cultural adaptability and development of speech act production in study abroad. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 25(3), 343–365.