discourse domain (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Good teaching," says Diana Boxer, "involves a subtle dance of bonding with students while at the same time wielding power as a teacher/professor. Just how this is accomplished can be gleaned through applying what we learn from research in the educational domain" (Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains and Face-to-Face Interaction, 2002). (Donna Coleman/Getty Images)


In sociolinguistics, the term discourse domain refers to features or conventions of language use determined by the context in which communication takes place. A discourse domain typically includes a variety of registers. Also known as cognitive discourse domain, discourse world, and knowledge map.

A discourse domain can be understood as a social construct as well as a cognitive construct.

A discourse domain is made up of individuals who exhibit their own distinctive knowledge structures, cognitive styles, and biases. However, within the boundaries of a domain, there is continual interaction "between domain structures and individual knowledge, an interaction between the individual and the social level" (Hjørland and Albrechtsen, "Toward a New Horizon in Information Science," 1995).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Along the lines of what Wittgenstein called (2009) 'language games' and Levinson (1979) labelled 'activity types,' discourse domains are frameworks for conduct that organize participants' verbal and non-verbal comportment around recognized modes of activity grounded in shared norms, purposes and goals. Relevant activities include playing tennis, having an academic debate, or going on a walk with a dog—in short, activities that involve interacting with one or more human or non-human others in a particular setting and for specific kinds of reasons."
    (Daniel Herman, "Building More-Than-Human Worlds." World Building: Discourse in the Mind, ed. by Joanna Gavins and Ernestine Lahey. Bloomsbury, 2016)

  • Contexts and Discourse Domains
    "[A] discourse domain is a cognitive construct created in response to a number of factors, including semantic category, but also to other features of situational and linguistic context. For example, when we enter a room where a conversation is going on, we of course pay attention to the topic of the talk, but we also take note of a number of other features of the situation, including the physical setting, who the participants are, what the purpose of their conversation appears to be, whether the conversation seems to be businesslike, friendly, or angry, what features of language the participants are using, and what relationship they appear to have with each other. Depending upon our analysis of the situation in terms such as these, we might feel that this is a situation we are familiar with and would feel comfortable joining; in other words, as Douglas and Selinker would say, we possess a discourse domain for dealing with this communication situation. . . .

    "[D]iscourse domains are developed or engaged in response to signals in the situational and linguistic environment which interlocutors attend to in interpreting (indeed, creating) context:
    • physical: setting, participants;
    • phonological: voice tone, pitch, tempo, rhythm, volume;
    • semantic: code, topic;
    • rhetorical: register, style, genre;
    • pragmatic: purpose, interactional salience;
    • paralinguistic: posture, gesture, gaze, facial expression.
      (Based on Hymes, 1974; Gumperz, 1976; Douglas & Selinker, 1985a)
    The above list is not intended to be exhaustive and there are no doubt other types of contextualization cues, but it does give the reader a sense of the types of information available to language learners/users in communication situations."
    (Dan Douglas, "Discourse Domains: The Cognitive Context of Speaking." Studying Speaking to Inform Second Language Learning, ed. by Diana Boxer and Andrew D. Cohen. Multilingual Matters, 2004)
  • The Discourse Domain of Higher Education
    "All persons involved in formal education at some point find themselves participating in various sorts of encounters, including less formal interactions in small groups—in laboratories, study groups, or colloquia. It is important to know how to display oneself as intellectually competent, and this is done more often than not through face-to-face interactions. . . . How to utilize powerful speech behaviors without presenting oneself as arrogant involves a careful dance of negotiation. Joking, teasing, challenging, asking questions and commenting, getting and holding the floor—these are all important phenomena of face-to-face discourse in higher education. . . .

    "The discourse domain of education is one that everyone experiences. As an increasing number of citizens seek a higher education, it becomes ever more critical to understand how to negotiate relationships in this domain of interaction. The stakes are high."
    (Diana Boxer, Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains and Face-to-Face Interaction. John Benjamins, 2002)
  • Story-Telling as a Discourse Domain
    "There are clear reports that have shown that story telling as a particular discourse domain is an activity that follows a well delineated line of development within the 'mainstream culture.' From very early on mother and child engage in an interaction format that resembles a 'book reading' activity in the sense that both participants engage in a labeling game of more or less decontextualized units (cf. Ninio & Bruner 1978; Ninio 1980). The capacity to label is not only a necessary prerequisite for the joint story telling activity, it is also an activity that is propagated and embellished with short picture book-like stories that develop into more complicated narrations in the course of the pre-school years."
    (Michael G. W. Bamberg, The Acquisition of Narratives: Learning to Use Language. Mouton de Gruyter, 1987)
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    Nordquist, Richard. "discourse domain (language)." ThoughtCo, Nov. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/discourse-domain-language-1690398. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, November 25). discourse domain (language). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/discourse-domain-language-1690398 Nordquist, Richard. "discourse domain (language)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/discourse-domain-language-1690398 (accessed January 17, 2018).