Towards a taxonomy of conversational discourse types: An empirical corpus-based analysis

Douglas Biber, Jesse Egbert, Daniel Keller, Stacey Wizner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Scholars from several research traditions have explored the ways in which speakers sometimes employ larger coherent discourse units within a conversational interaction. For most scholars, conversation is normally structured as local sequences of turns; larger discourse units are atypical, used for special culturally-recognized speech genres embedded in the regular flow of conversation. However, Bakhtin (1979/1986) suggests a different possibility: that conversational talk is normally organized in terms of larger discourse units representing different speech genres. The present paper – at the intersection of the sub-disciplines of conversation analysis, discourse pragmatics, corpus linguistics, and register analysis – reports on a major corpus-based investigation that empirically explores this theoretical possibility raised by Bakhtin. Based on analysis of 2.3 million words of conversational interactions, taken from the British National Corpus 2014, we show that 1) most conversational talk consists of sequences of coherent discourse units that have identifiable communicative goals, and that 2) such discourse units can be categorized into conversational discourse types that have distinct communicative purposes but do not usually conform to a conventional genre structure. That is, while conversational discourse units rarely realize conventional genre structures like personal narratives or jokes, they can be categorized into discourse types that serve distinctive combinations of communicative purposes. Based on our corpus analysis, we identify and describe 16 conversational discourse types associated with combinations of 9 general communicative purposes. Not surprisingly, discourse types focused on the expression of personal stance, feelings, and evaluations are especially common in conversation. However, the study reveals a second pattern that is more surprising: that discourse types focused on conveying information are as common in conversation as personal stance discourse types.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20-35
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Volume171
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Keywords

  • Communicative purposes
  • Conversation
  • Corpus analysis
  • Discourse types
  • Discourse units
  • Speech genres

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence

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