Discourse Community

Shared Language Usage Practices in Speech and Writing

discourse community
The practices of a discourse community, says Patricia Bizzell, "regulate social interactions both within the group and its dealings with outsiders" (Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness, 1992). (Ezra Bailey/Getty Images)

Discourse community is a term used in composition studies and sociolinguistics for a group of people who share certain language-using practices, which posits that discourse operates within community-defined conventions.

These communities can include anything from groups of academic scholars with expertise on one particular study to readers of popular teen magazines, wherein the jargon, vocabulary and style are unique to that group.

The term can also be used to refer to either the reader, the intended audience or people who read and write in the same particular discourse practice.

In  "A Geopolitics of Academic Writing," A. Suresh Canagarajah makes the point that the " discourse community cuts across speech communities," using the fact that "physicists from France, Korea, and Sri Lanka could belong to the same discourse community, though they may belong to three different speech communities."

Difference Between Speech and Discourse Communities

Although the line between discourse and speech communities has narrowed in recent years thanks to the advent and spread of the internet, linguists and grammar scholars alike posit that the main difference between the two hinges upon the distance between people in these linguistic communities. Discourse communities require a network of communication where the members of it can be any amount of distance apart as long as they operate with the same language, but speech communities require proximity to convey the culture of their language.

However, they also differ in that speech communities establish objectives of socialization and solidarity as prerequisites but discourse communities do not. Pedro Martín-Martín posits in "The Rhetoric of the Abstract in English and Spanish Scientific Discourse," that discourse communities are socio-rhetorical units that consist of groups "of people who link up in order to pursue objectives that are established prior to those of socialization and solidarity." This means that, as opposed to speech communities, discourse communities focus on the shared language and jargon of an occupation or special interest group.

This language presents the final way in which these two discourses differ: the way in which people join the communities of speech and discourse differ in that discourse often pertains to occupations and special-interest groups while speech communities often assimilate new members into the "fabric of society." Martín-Martín calls discourse communities centrifugal and speech communities centripetal for this reason.

The Language of Occupations and Special Interests

Discourse communities form because of a shared need for rules regarding their use of language, so it stands to reason that these communities occur the most is the workplace.

Take for instance the AP Stylebook, which dictates how most journalists write using proper and commonly accepted grammar, though some publications prefer the Chicago Manual Of Style. Both of these style books provide a set of rules which govern how their discourse community operates.

Special interest groups operate in a similar manner, wherein they rely on a set of terms and catch phrases to convey their message to the general population as efficiently and precisely as possible. The Pro-Choice movement, for instance, would never say they are "pro-abortion" because the group's ethos centers on the necessity of giving the choice to the mother to make the best decision for the baby and herself.

Speech communities, on the other hand, would be the individual dialects that develop as a culture in response to things like the AP Stylebook or the Pro-Choice movement. A newspaper in Texas, though using the AP Stylebook, might develop a shared language that developed colloquially but is still commonly accepted, thus forming a speech community within its local area.