Essay 4: Heuristic Analysis

Essay Prompt: Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis presents a heuristic for exploring discourse. These are listed on page 10 and each is developed in a separate chapter. Choose one of these and present your own understanding of it by drawing on our reading, the projects you have done, and our discussions. You should carefully consider the points Johnstone raises, but this question requires your own synthesis of the materials and not a reiteration of the points she makes.


4:             Heuristic: Discourse is shaped by participants, and discourse shapes participants. (Johnstone, 2008, p.10)

This heuristic is so all-encompassing that it’s almost like using a term in its own definition. However, I am especially interested in it because it seems to incorporate H. Paul Grice’s maxims of conversation. The most fascinating part to me about what we’ve learned this quarter about discourse and linguistics is the way we are so blind to the way we operate. Invariably, I have at least one of Grice’s maxims running through my head at any given time that I am talking to someone, and that has been true since long before I even knew what Grice’s maxims were. I know that I change and grow because of my discussions with people, and that was true even before I learned that Barbara Johnstone believed that I can, in turn, change and shape discourse.

“Conversational conventions… allow the various sentence meanings to be sensibly combines into discourse meaning and integrated with context” (Fromkin, Rodman, and Hyams, 2007, p. 205).  If these conversational maxims are the most fundamental level from which we build discourse, they are also the level at which it is broken down. They are not rules, but they do carry a substantial weight, greater than indexicalities, style, behavior, and other tools we use create discourse. The maxims are an explanation of how we understand each other. Without body language, implicature, and harmony, if we upheld the maxims we would still be able to understand each other.

To change or flout Grice’s maxims is to shape our discourse. For instance, the word “dude” violates the maxim of quantity, which means to “say neither more nor less than the discourse requires.” No discourse requires the word “dude,” but by adding it we shaped discourse. Now, the word “dude” has social implications; with different tones it can create solidarity or detachment. It influences what we think about equality and our own identities. We shaped our discourse by breaking down a conversational maxim, but now our discourse is shapes us when we have to pay attention to how we use the word, its context, to whom we are speaking, and our “cool solidarity,” as Kiesling puts it (Johnstone, 2008, p. 286).

Look what’s shaping up now.

Essay 4: Heuristic Analysis

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