A week before Christmas I took part in some discourse analysis training in Florida. But what exactly is discourse analysis?
It’s kind of a hard thing to explain, since it talks about subconscious things that we do when we use language, so we don’t realize that we’re doing them. However, if someone doesn’t follow these rules, we know that there’s something wrong even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. So let me try to give you a few examples to show you some of the things that you do and expect others to do while they’re talking, even though you may never have been aware of it before. Here’s a journey into your subconscious mind . . .
The following is a quotation from the book Don Quixote:
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Sancho continued, “that somewhere in Extremadura there was a goatherd, I mean to say the man tended goats, and this goatherd I was telling you about in my story was named Lope . . ., and this Lope . . . was in love with a shepherdess named Torralba, and this shepherdess named Torralba was the daughter of a rich herder, and this rich herder…”
“If you tell your story this way, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “repeating everything you say two times, you will not finish in two days; tell it in a continuous way, and speak like a man of understanding, or do not say anything at all.”
“The way I’m telling it,” responded Sancho, “is how tales are told in my village, and I don’t know any other way to tell it, and it isn’t right for your grace to ask me to do things in new ways.”
“Tell it however you wish,” responded Don Quixote. “Fate has willed that I cannot help listening to you, and so continue.”
What would you think if someone started telling you a story the way that Sancho was telling his? It sounds quite awkward and cumbersome in English, but in some languages of the world a story would sound funny and be hard to follow any other way.
Here’s another example. The following is a rather literal translation of the Christmas story told in Jula, a language that I know in My Country.
Today I am going to tell a few things about Christmas. Not everything! I am only going to tell a little today. Christmas – what is it? What is Christmas? Why do they celebrate Christmas? Christmas tells us about Jesus’ birth.
In the beginning, there was an Israeli family. Joseph’s family – Joseph’s parents existed. Mary’s parents also existed. Joseph, he was a carpenter. He had engaged Mary to be his fiancée. But Mary was a virgin. They called her the Virgin Mary because she hadn’t ever slept with a man; she hadn’t done “the man thing” yet, never, never. They call that kind of a person a virgin.
So, now, they stayed in their engaged state; Joseph hadn’t ever touched Mary yet. An angel came and said to Mary that Mary will become pregnant and give birth to a child this child to be the savior. Mary said to the angel that “How can this happen because I haven’t ever slept with a man yet. My husband and I haven’t touched each other yet. How will I become pregnant?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit will come down on her that’s what will become a pregnancy for her so that she can give birth to this savior. It happened like that. Mary also got pregnant.
Mary got pregnant, her fiancé Joseph found out about it and right then he wanted to break up with Mary. He made the decision that he break up with her, because he thinks that she prostituted herself and so got this pregnancy. So, he wants to break up with her and because of that, one night he was sleeping and dreams. An angel told him that he shouldn’t break up with Mary because of this pregnancy. That God made a promise that Mary give birth to this baby this baby to be the savior. That Mary didn’t prostitute herself. That it’s God’s all-mighty-ness. Joseph also agreed with this message.
He agreed with this message, and they stayed together. This stomach continued to ripen and just kept ripening.
Now, a certain time came, Rome’s king the leader Caesar, he said now that everyone should go write their names at their father’s house. And anyway, Joseph, his ancestors came from Bethlehem. So Joseph took his fiancée that they would go write their names in Bethlehem. They got there now. Haya. This stomach ripened. She gave birth. Anyway, they made it to this Bethlehem; there were many visitors. In the inn, there wasn’t any more room. So Joseph and his wife went to the barn. The woman went to give birth there. The woman gave birth. The savior who had been talked about, this woman gave birth to this savior. They wrapped this child in old clothes and laid him in the place where they put the cow’s food.
Anyway, shepherds are in the field, they are keeping sheep. An angel went and told the shepherds that a child was born to them, in a barn, that it’s the savior. The shepherds also really came and found this baby like that. They worshipped this child and gave him their belongings and left.
Anyway, many angels surrounded this barn. As they are worshipping this child they are saying, “Praise God. Praise God. Praise God” to worship this child.
At this same time, a star is above this place where the child was born. This star, it wasn’t a simple star. The wisemen saw this star and they knew that it wasn’t a simple star. They walked and followed this star aaalll theee waaaayyy until they made it to where this star is standing. They also stopped there and saw this barn. They went into this barn and went to see this child. They worshipped this child there and gave all their gifts/belongings to him also.
That was the birth of this child.
If someone asked you what Christmas is all about, is this the way you’d explain it to them? Even if you can’t put your finger on it, I think you’d agree that there is something a little different about it. Maybe the verb tenses? Maybe the repetition that’s used? Maybe the funny way that it expresses what people (or angels) said? Maybe it’s the funny use of the word “this?” Whatever it is that doesn’t feel quite right is what we study in discourse analysis. We want to know how ideas are expressed in one language so that as we share the gospel or translate the Word of God, it will sound natural to them and not a little off. If you were to tell the Christmas story in a way that would seem more natural to you, they would think that it would sound a bit off, just as you thought that their version sounded a bit off.
Ok, I’ll give you one more example. The following is a story I had posted on my blog last year, but with a few changes. . .
On Wednesday, as part of the research I was going to do with the another missionary family, 4 of us had taken a major road trip. We had been gone for 13 ½ hours, of which I had been on the back of a moto for at least 6. I won’t understand those people who did cross-country motorcycle trips – by the end of the day I had been exhausted and filthy (see the “Spray-On Tan” post) and sore. Over every bump that we had taken a little too fast, just trying to get home, my slightly-too-big helmet had crashed against my head, having given me a headache. My stomach had been queasy from driving on crazy roads. My muscles had been sore from sitting on a motorcycle.
But then a great thing had happened – we had reached the first paved roads we had seen that day about 20 minutes before we will make it home. Paved roads will not always be very nice here, but this one had felt great – no crazy bumps and potholes, there had even been street lights, and I had known that I was going to be home soon. Pavement – an invention I will not be sure that I’d ever appreciated as much as I did on Wednesday. The end.
The only things I changed were some of the verb tenses and adding “The end.” Everything is still completely grammatically correct – Microsoft Word isn’t underlining any of it as being grammatically incorrect. But even with that, I think you’ll admit that there is something wrong. There is something (or many things) wrong on the discourse level. One thing is that most everything sounds like is being told as background material, so you were probably still waiting for the story to really start when I said “The end.” Sometimes missionaries have been known to make similar mistakes when learning another language because the language they are learning doesn’t use verb tenses to show that kind of stuff in the same way. Crazy!
(If you want to read the previous story in the original version to see how they compare, go to https://blogs.ethnos360.org/susie-locklin/2014/10/18/pavement-what-a-brilliant-invention, where I had originally posted the story.)
Well, there you go. There’s a whole lot more to learn, and after a week and a half of full-time class I feel like I’ve just barely cracked the door open to a new and exciting world, so I know that I have a lot more to learn and discover as well. But if I talk about discourse analysis in the future and someone asks you what it is, you’ll now be the smart one who can give them some idea of what I’m talking about. Welcome to the adventure of language.