chapter  9
9 Processing and Organizing Language
Pages 21

This chapter deals with a few aspects of how speech is produced and what this has to do with the sorts of meanings we speakers hope to convey and we hearers (always actively and creatively) try to “recover.” We will deal here with a few technical details about the structure of sentences and of discourse. However, these details are not important in and of themselves. What is important is that the discourse analyst looks for patterns and links within and across utterances in order to form hypotheses about how meaning is being constructed and organized. What grammatical terminology we choose to use is less important than the patterns we find and the hypotheses we form and test. Notions like “situated meanings,” “figured worlds,” and “Discourses” will take a back seat here. In this chapter we are primarily concerned with some initial ways into a text. We are concerned with ways in which the analyst can start to organize his or her thinking about a piece of language. Of course these initial insights must quickly lead to thinking about situated meanings, figured worlds, and Discourses. In turn, ideas about these will influence and, at times, change how the analyst thinks about the linguistic patterns in a text. Discourse analysis is a reciprocal and cyclical process in which we shuttle back and forth between the structure (form, design) of a piece of language and the situated meanings it is attempting to build about the world, identities, and relationships in a specific context. Thanks to the way the human brain and vocal system are built, speech, in all languages, is produced in small spurts. Unless we pay close attention, we don’t usually hear these little spurts, because the ear puts them together and gives us the illusion of speech being an unbroken and continuous stream. In English, these spurts are often, though not always, one “clause” long. In a rough and ready way we can define a “clause” here as any verb and the elements that “cluster” with it. So in a sentence like “Mary left the party because she was tired,” we have two clauses, “Mary left the party” and “because she was tired.” The sentence “Mary left the party” contains only one clause. In a sentence like “Mary intended to leave the party,” we also have two clauses: “Mary intended” and “to leave the party” (where “Mary” is understood as the subject of “to leave”). Here the second clause (“to leave the party”) is embedded in the first clause (“Mary intended”) as the direct object of the verb “intend.” These two clauses are so tightly bound together that they would most often be said as a single spurt. In the example below, taken from a story told by a seven-year-old child, each spurt is one clause long, except 1b and 1e where the child has detached parts of clauses to be spurts on their own (of course, children’s speech units tend to be shorter than adults):

1a. there was a hook 1b. on the top of the stairway

1c. an’ my father was pickin me up 1d. an’ I got stuck on the hook 1e. up there 1f. an’ I hadn’t had breakfast 1g. he wouldn’t take me down 1h. until I finished all my breakfast 1i. cause I didn’t like oatmeal either

To understand how these spurts work in English (they work differently in different languages), we need to discuss a set of closely interrelated linguistic concepts: function words, content words, information, stress, intonation, lines, and stanzas. We will start with the distinction between function words and content words.