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A Summary of Discourse Theory


Until recently most linguistic study has been based upon the premise that the sentence is the basic unit of expression. However, there is a growing interest and acceptance of "the analysis of discourse or 'text' as basic to understanding the use of language" as opposed to the "more traditional sentence-based grammars."1 The study of text grammar or discourse has been defended on several empirical and grammatical grounds. It is noted that most utterances are more than one sentence and that discourses have more psychological reality than sentences. It is also contended that sentence grammar leaves much ambiguous material whereas in discourse grammar much of the potential ambiguity is eliminated by reference to the surrounding textual matter. Furthermore, sentence grammar cannot adequately explain the "definitivization of noun phrases, pronominalization, relative clauses verb phrases and tense, sentence adverbials, conjunctions . . . . Only a discourse grammar can handle . . . morphological markers at the beginning and end of a text."2

A central idea of discourse is that the surface phenomena of a text such as those quoted above are al manifestations of deeper underlying semantic relations. Discourse theory holds, then, that textual deep structures have essentially a semantic rather than a syntactic character. Thus an entire text could be summarized by a string of logical symbols which have some type of universal validity.3 It is this universally valid meaning which allows the translation of a text from one language to another.

Basic Assumptions

In analyzing written communication in order to determine its semantic structure, linguists make five basic assumptions: (1) "There is a valid distinction drawn between deep structure and surface structure."4 To restate this assumption, an analysis of the surface structure phenomena (see above) does not tell all there is to know about language.5 (2) "The deep structure is what is meant by 'meaning'."6 Wherever a translation occurs one can observe the outworking of this principle. For example, in the United Nations as a translator hears the speaker, he perceives the surface structure of the original language and interprets the meaning of this structure which he in turn expresses in the receptor language by means of a different surface structure. The translation process then is moving from surface structure to deep structure (that is, meaning) and back to surface structure.7 (3) "Deep structure is structured."8 Deep structure is not an unattainable, undefined mass of meaning. Rather it can be analyzed and studied in the same manner as can surface structure.9 (4) "The deep structure is universal. Whereas the surface structure is language specific, the deep structure is near-universal.”10 Whereas the surface structure of each language is unique, the deep structure or semantic structure has a universal validity. "I.e., the units, the features of the units, the relations between the units, the functions of the units are all near-universal."11 (5) "The propositional form following the deep structure rewrite rules is of universal validity."12 This assumption is based on the fact that the finite verb form occurs in all languages whereas other verbal forms may not occur in a specific language and therefore cannot have a universal validity.13

Characteristics of Semantic Structure

Semantic structure as noted above involves the meaning of a text. An analysis of the semantic structure is an attempt to bring out the significance of all the information carried by the surface structure.14 In order to analyze semantic structure it is first necessary to understand its features.

"Semantic structure consists of units."15 Any system must have some type of unit organization since the human mind is so constructed that it must group things together into some kind of organizational structure once the number of entities exceeds seven, according to some psychological studies. The mind cannot assimilate an endless list. It must put material into groups (units) if it is to comprehend and communicate it to another.16 Thus semantic structure consists of independent units of thought.

In semantic structure three basic units have been posited; the concept, the proposition, and the paragraph. A grouping of paragraphs may also be a unit, but is to be distinguished from the paragraph primarily by its size.17

"These units are hierarchically arranged."18 As noted above the mind must organize units in order to comprehend and communicate them. From this fact it follows that some type of hierarchical arrangement is necessary. The organization of the semantic hierarchy can be seen in Chart I.

The most basic unit of thought is the component which may be a thing, event, abstraction or relation. These components group together into concepts which may be words, phrases, and morphemes. When concepts are grouped, together one moves out of the realm of units of thought and into the realm of units of communication. Concepts group into propositions, the smallest units of communication. Propositions in turn group into statements, statements into paragraphs, paragraphs into sections. This process continues until fin ally one arrives at the entire discourse.

Basic Features of Each Unit

"Each unit has the same three basic features: unity, coherence and prominence. 'Unity' refers to the 'sameness or reference between constituent parts of a unit'."19 The very concept of a unit necessarily rules out the possibility of speaking of totally diverse things within the unit. But the basic feature of unity "is that the various constituents are conceptualized and accepted by others as a single unit."20

Coherence "consists of the proper relation of the parts of a unit to one another. Appropriateness of reference within a unit is not enough. There must also be appropriateness of relation, "i.e. the concepts being used are appropriate for the relationships they enter into."21 A lack of coherence is well illustrated by the statement "'I have never heard a green horse smoke a dozen oranges.' Grammatically this sentence is perfectly correct, however, semantically it is all askew."22 The reason is of course that the concepts used are inappropriate to their use in the sentence. Coherence also has to do with relationships between statements. Consider the statements "He put up his umbrella" and "It started to rain." As two separate statements they are perfectly proper. They may be combined: "He put up his umbrella because it started to rain." This relation too is proper because it reflects an "acceptable relationship in the normal referential world." However, these statements could conceivably be combined in an unacceptable manner: "He put up his umbrella therefore it started to rain." "He put up his umbrella although it started to rain." "He put up his umbrella, that is, it started to rain." Thus it is apparent that two acceptable statements can be combined only with certain acceptable relations.23

"Prominence" is the third basic feature of semantic structure; that is, each unit of semantic structure has one "central feature which is called the theme or the nucleus."24 Prominence is the recognizing of one feature of the unit as more important than the other features. This feature is similar to the subject and complement idea statement in traditional exegesis.

Prominence can be illustrated in the contrast between a good teacher and a politician. A politician may be an eloquent, polished speaker who holds his audience enraptured with his speaking ability. However, when he is through one is never quite sure what he has said. He has purposely obscured prominent features because he does not want to be held accountable for what he has said. A good teacher on the other hand is careful to emphasize the important points of the lesson so that the student knows exactly what has been said.25

Formal Organizational Features of Each Unit

"Each unit has the same three formal organizational features: informational constituents, relations of constituent to a central constituent, and a central constituent."26

The informational constituent of each unit increases as one moves up the semantic hierarchy from the concept to section. The result of this is that the "constituent that forms each unit varies."27 This feature of each unit can be seen in Chart I of the appendix.

"The constituent parts must . . . be connected together to form a unit."28 The grouping of constituent parts (see above) is not arbitrary. There must be some relationship between each constituent.29 It is also assumed that "the relations are universal and finite in number."30

"Each semantic unit is characterized by a central constituent which is referred to as the nucleus."31 On the lowest level the concept has a central component representing a thing, event, or abstraction. The proposition consists of a combination of the following:

. . . concepts which have either an action experience, process or abstraction as the central concept. The paragraph is a combination of propositions and has a theme proposition (or theme propositions), usually independent clause (or clauses) in surface structure. This theme can be classified as descriptive, narrational expositional, hortatory, procedural, or interrogative. In addition to the central constituent as described, the paragraph may also have a speech orienter.32 This theme can be classified as descriptive, narrational, expositional, hortatory, procedural, or interrogative. In addition to the central constituent as described, the paragraph may also have a speech orienter. This is also considered central to the structure of the paragraph.33

Meaning Features of Each Unit

"Each unit has the same three meaning features: informational meaning, or content, role meaning, and purpose."34

The content of each unit enlarges as one ascends the semantic hierarchy (see Chart I). At the lowest-level the concept functions to refer to a thing, such as a stone, tree, dog, ghost; an event, such as run, think, die; an abstraction such as soft, red, round; or a relation, such as coordinate, simultaneous, sequential.35

The role meaning in a semantic unit refers to the interrelation of a concept t with its context. For example, the term "boy" is neutral as far as role relationship is concerned until placed in a context. When in context the "boy" can become:

the agent, the experiencer [sic] or undergoer. Propositions take on a role function from context. The relational system not only assigns connections among propositions but also a particular role to each proposition such as reason, condition, etc.36

Purpose is the third feature of meaning. The purpose of a concept is to refer to the real world--to its things, events, abstractions, and relationships. On the propositional level the purpose is spoken of as illocutionary,37 that is affirmation, denial, command, prohibition, and question. On the paragraph level the purpose is spoken of as the perlocutionary function,38 and coincides with the popular notion of the "purpose or intention of the author, to inform, persuade, amuse, instruct, encourage, ridicule, praise, sympathize, etc."39 However, this perlocutionary function can usually only be determined within a larger context.

The Concept

The lowest unit on the semantic hierarchy is the concept which is defined as "a combination of components of meaning, one of which is central, which are compatible with each other in the particular world to which the concept refers."40 All concepts fall into one of four categories: things, events, abstractions, and relations. In their simplest forms, things would appear in the surface structure as nouns, events as verbs, abstractions as adjectives or adverbs and relations as prepositions and conjunctions. However, this breakdown is not invoilable since skewing occurs on the concept level. For example, the noun "salvation" is in reality an event concept, to save. As one moves into higher levels on the semantic hierarchy less skewing occurs.

The Proposition

A proposition is the minimal semantic unit (unit of communication), "consisting of a concept or a combination of concepts which communicates an event or relation."41 Propositions occur in two different classes. The state proposition is that which has a relation as the central concept and the event proposition, that which has an event or process as its nuclear function. Within a discourse, propositions may be classified according to their function: support or development.

The Paragraph

As concepts group into propositions, propositions in turn group into paragraphs. A paragraph may be defined as a combination of two or more propositions with unity and coherence which describes, narrates, expounds, exhorts, gives directions or questions in relation to a topic. Within the paragraph, one proposition serves as the nucleus to which all other propositions are related. This nucleus concept is called the theme. If perchance there is more than one nucleus proposition within a paragraph, a singular proposition (theme statement) may be abstracted from these propositions which in turn becomes the nucleus to which the other propositions are related.

Paragraphs can in turn be grouped into sections, sections into divisions, and so forth, until a semantic hierarchy for the entire discourse is constructed and a theme statement abstracted.

Discourse is not a string of propositions or theme statements. The author of a discourse had a purpose in mind as he wrote and he arranged his material accordingly. Before the nuclear concept of a unit can be determined, the relationships between the concepts, propositions, or paragraphs of the unit must be determined. Beekman and Callow list two types of relationships: addition and association. Addition relationships between propositions or larger units develop the author's argument. These propositions are of equal weight semantically. Associative relations serve to support and clarify material already presented within the discourse. The specific types of addition and associative relationships are outlined in Chart II.42

Discourse analysis then aims at determining the universal semantic meaning of a text and displays that meaning in the form of concepts, propositions, paragraphs, and so forth, in their relationships to one another.

Method of Analysis

Thus far the details of semantic structure and its analysis have been discussed. However in an analysis of a text, one begins with a large section of text and works in reverse order. The discourse is divided into sections and the sections into paragraphs and then the more detailed propositional analysis is undertaken.43

Chart III lists the basic procedure which is followed in discourse analysis. Chart IV shows Beekman's list of grammatical and lexical criteria used to determine larger semantic units in the New Testament.

This thesis is limited to the larger semantic units of Galatians. Hence, a full propositional analysis of the text is beyond the scope of this thesis. This stud will take the procedure developed by Beekman and Callow and inductively apply it to a biblical text, the epistle to the Galatians. The larger units from the paragraph level up will be determined and theme statements will be abstracted for each unit. The units will be related to one another according to the relationships described above, a semantic hierarchy will be built, and finally a theme statement for the entire book will be determined.

1 Sharon Stockdale, “Discourse Analysis of the Second Epistle to Timothy” (M.S. thesis, University of Texas at Arlington, 1976), pp. 1-2.

2 Ibid., pp. 2-3.

3 Ibid., p. 4.

4 John Beekman and John Callow, “The Semantic Structure of Written Communication” (Prepublication Draft, 1977), p. 4.

5 John Beekman and John Callow, Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), p. 270.

6 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure” p. 4.

7 Beekman and Callow, “The Semantic Structure,” p. 4. For an illustrative analysis of deep structure see R. E. Longacre, Anatomy of Speech Notions (Belgium: Peter and Ridele Press, 1976), pp. 15-20.

8 Ibid., p. 2.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., Beekman and Callow are inconsistent in the statement of this point.

11 Ibid.

12 These rewrite rules involve transforming the surface structure into a series of propositions which are stated in terms of finite verbs and are then related to one another. For further information see Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word of God, pp. 267-342.

13 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 4.

14 Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word, p. 270.

15 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 4.

16 Ibid., p. 2.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., p. 4.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 3.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Takashi Manabe, “analysis of the Larger Semantic Units of the Epistle to the Philippians” (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Arlington, 1974), p. 11.

25 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., p. 5.

28 Ibid.

29 The possible relations between units are discussed later in this chapter.

30 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 5.

31 Ibid.

32 A speech orienter is a proposition which usually names the communicator along with the illocutionary perspective.

33 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 5.

34 Ibid.

35 Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word, p. 68.

36 Beekman and Callow, “Semantic Structure,” p. 6.

37 “Illocutionary meaning is defined as ‘the performative or reportative perspective of what is said’.” Ibid., p. 53.

38 “Perlocutionary function is defined as ‘what the author/speaker wants to accomplish or accomplishes through the information he is communicating’.” Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid., p. 6.

41 Ibid., p. 7.

42 Stockdale, “Analysis of Second Timothy,” pp. 27-28. For a more detailed explanation of these relatives see Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word of God, p. 287.

43 See Beekman and Callow, Translating the Word of God, pp. 278-81.

Related Topics: Grammar