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Main page » Non-Fiction » Science literature » Linguistics » Thesis/Dissertation - Text and Contextual Conditioning in Spoken English (A genre-based approach) Volume 1 & 2

Thesis/Dissertation - Text and Contextual Conditioning in Spoken English (A genre-based approach) Volume 1 & 2


This study brings together two approaches to linguistic variation, Hallidayan systemic-functional grammar and Labovian variation theory, and in doing so brings together a functional interpretation of language and its empirical investigation in its social context.

The study reports on an empirical investigation of the concept of text. The investigation proceeds on the basis of a corpus of texts gathered in sociolinguistic interviews with fifty adult speakers of Australian English in Sydney. The total corpus accounted for in terms of text type or ‘genre’ numbers 420 texts of varying length, 125 of which, produced in response to four ‘narrative’ questions, are investigated in greater detail in respect both of the types of text they constitute as well as of some of their linguistic realisations. These largely ‘narrative-type’ texts, which represent between two and three hours of spoken English and total approximately 53000 words, are presented in a second volume analysed in terms of their textual or ‘generic’ structure as well as their realisation at the level of the clause complex. The study explores in some detail models of register and genre developed within systemic-functional linguistics, adopting a genre model developed by J.R. Martin and others working within his model which foregrounds the notion that all aspects of the system(s) involved are related to one another probabilistically.

In order to investigate the concept of text in actual discourse under conditions which permit us to become sufficiently confident of our understanding of it to proceed to generalisations about text and its contextual conditioning in spoken discourse, we turn to Labovian methods of sociolinguistic inquiry, i.e. to quantitative methods or methods of quantifying linguistic choice. The study takes the sociolinguistic interview as pioneered by Labov in his study of phonological variation in New York City and develops it for the purpose of investigating textual variation. The question of methodology constitutes a substantial part of the study, contributing in the process to a much greater understanding of the very phenomenon of ‘text in discourse’, for example by addressing itself to the question of the feasibility of operationalising a concept of text in the context of spoken discourse. The narrative-type texts investigated in further detail were found to range on a continuum from most experientially-oriented texts such as procedure and recount at one end to the classic ‘narrative of personal experience’ and anecdote to the increasingly interpersonally-oriented ‘exemplum’ and ‘observation’, both of which become ‘interpretative’ of the ‘real world’ in contrast to the straightforwardly representational slant taken on the same experience by the more experientially-oriented texts. The explanation for the generic variation along this continuum must be sought in a system of generic choice which is essentially cultural.

A quantitative analysis of clausal theme and clause complex-type relations was carried out, the latter by means of log-linear analysis, in order to investigate their correlation with generic structure. While it was possible to relate the choice of theme to the particular stages of generic structures, clause complex-type relations are chosen too infrequently to be related to stages and were thus related to genres as a whole. We find that while by and large the choice of theme correlates well with different generic stages, it only discriminates between different genres, i.e. generic structures in toto, for those genres which are maximally different. Similarly, investigating the two choices in the principal systems involved in the organisation of the clause complex, i.e. the choice of taxis (parataxis vs. hypotaxis) and the (grammatically independent) choice of logico-semantic relations (expansion vs. projection), we find that both those choices discriminate better between types more distant on a narrative continuum.

The log-linear analysis of clause complex-type relations also permitted the investigation of the social characteristics of speakers. We found that the choice of logico-semantic relations correlates with genre and question, while the choice of taxis correlates with a speaker’s sex and his membership of some social group (in addition to genre). Parataxis is favoured by men and by members of the group lowest in the social hierarchy. Age on the other hand is not significant in the choice of taxis at all. In other words, since social factors are clearly shown to be significant in the making of abstract grammatical choices where they cannot be explained in terms of the functional organisation of text, we conclude that social factors must be made part of a model of text in order to fully account for its contextual conditioning.

The study demonstrates that an understanding of the linguistic properties of discourse requires empirical study and, conversely, that it is possible to study discourse empirically without relaxing the standards of scientific inquiry.
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