Considering that corpora contain naturally occurring data, they have the potential to tell us as much about the values of societies they came from as they do about language. Previous chapters have examined how corpora can be exploited in order to reveal something about sociolinguistic variation and change, bringing to light patterns and trends of language use between various identity groups. This chapter, however, considers a different way of thinking about language patterns, starting from the premise that language is used to construct, maintain or challenge what are variously referred to by researchers in different traditions as attitudes, ideologies, interpretative repertoires or discourses.
The word discourse has a number of different yet related meanings, so it is important to explain the way that it will be used in this chapter. Discourse is sometimes viewed as language which occurs above the level of a sentence (Stubbs 1983: 1) and it can also refer to ‘a type of language use’. For example, we could refer to spoken discourse or written discourse. We could also use discourse to refer to particular registers or genres, such as political discourse or classroom discourse. Discourse can also be used to refer specifically to speech, with the term discourse markers (as used in Chapter 5) being used to label words or phrases that are used to manage aspects of conversation (well, OK, like etc.).
A different use of discourse, however, is given by Burr (1995: 48), who defines it as is ‘a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular version of events… Surrounding any one object, event, person etc., there may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the world, a different way of representing it to the world.’ Burr’s definition comes from Foucault, who claimed that discourses are ‘practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak’ (Foucault 1972: 49). A related definition is given by Parker (1992: 5), who refers to discourse as a ‘system of statements which constructs an object’. In this chapter I use ‘discourse’ mainly in reference to the meanings given in this paragraph.
It is possible to conceptualise discourses as being similar to ideologies, and the terms seem to be used in ways which suggest they have similar meanings.