Notes on discourse grammar & sentence grammar

Brent Niedergall, a few days ago, wrote a review (link) of Todd A. Scacewater’s Discourse Analysis of the New Testament Writings. My contribution to the volume of an analysis of 2 Thessalonians received a call out in his review because I was one of the few who diverged “the most from the majority.” He observed:

“Mike Aubrey, in his analysis of 2 Thessalonians, breaks from the group by admitting: ‘I consider sentence grammar and discourse grammar as the same grammar’ (443).”

I thought it might be worthwhile expanding a little on (1) the “why” of the divergence and (2) what that quotation from me means in the context of studying texts and studying language. I regret that I cannot find my larger collection of notes I wrote up while thinking about methodological issues. Still, there is more than enough ways to expand on why I view sentence grammar and discourse grammar as the same grammar.

I confess that I never perhaps felt entirely qualified to contribute a chapter to begin with. I am first and foremost trained as an applied linguist. The skill set that I was taught through my education and have endeavored to cultivate since is designed for grammar-writing and not textual analysis. One difference between my work as a linguist and the work of a biblical scholar is that I study texts for the purpose of better understanding language, whereas the biblical scholar studies language for the purpose of better understanding texts. This is an important distinction to make. It holds true for what we find more generally in the broader linguistic literature as well. There are, of course, linguists who are actively studying the structure of larger texts in the domain of discourse grammar, such as, Robert Longacre, Stephen Levinsohn, Michael Hoey, among others.

But there’s another tradition within linguistics where discourse is the means by which the grammar of the sentence is explained and motivated. This research agenda is perhaps best and most concisely articulated in Paul Hopper’s (1987) essay, “Emergent Grammar”. Hopper emphasizes a couple things relevant to this topic:

  1. There is a default assumption in much of linguistics that sentence grammar is autonomous: a linguistic system that in some manner exists separately from how we use it. This assumption exists not only in generative linguistics, though that is where it tends to be most overtly articulated, but it also exists in nearly all structuralist linguistics (which is where generative linguistics got it in the first place!), and seeps into certain corners of functional linguistics, as well.

“The assumption, in other words, is that ‘grammar’ (in the sense of the rules, constraints, and categories of the language attributed to the speaker) must be an object apart from the speaker and separated from the uses which the speaker may make of it” (Hopper 1987, 3).

  1. This assumption sometimes makes its way, often unintentionally, into common discussions of discourse analysis and grammar, wherein discourse structure is described as if it is also autonomous from language use or autonomous from the sentence itself.

“Discourse linguistics has itself not always been immune to this kind of thinking. Here, too, one frequently encounters the same assumption of a dualistic structure in discourse, the notion that structure pre-exists discourse and that discourse is mimetically related to a logically prior abstract organization, formulated this time in terms of paragraphs, episodes, events, and other such macro-units. The problems of sentence grammar are not really alleviated by treating discourses as units manifesting a consistent internal structure, in other words effectively as extra-long sentences. We are still plagued by the problem of the illness of fit between form and function.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone that when we examine Hopper’s own career of research we find a regular and consistent pattern: discourse as motivation for sentence grammar, some of his seminal* contributions being:

* As for being “seminal”, don’t take my word for it, Boye & Engberg-Pedersen (2010), in their introduction to Language usage and language structure, comment:
“A group of scholars, with P. J. Hopper and S. A. Thompson as central figures, have stressed on a theoretical level the ontological primacy of usage to a degree where at least under one interpretation it seems that structure is discarded as an epiphenomen (e.g. Hopper 1998, Thompson 2002; cf. Langacker, this volume, for detailed discussion). Structure, they claim, is not a prerequisite for linguistic communication, but rather a constantly emerging by-product of the negotiation of form and meaning in communicative interaction.”

The paradigm of research has served as an important piece in the foundation for much that has happened in typology, cognitive linguistics, construction grammar, grammaticalization theory, and so much more. Ronald Langacker states it well in his Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction (2008):

“Discourse is the use of language. Conversely, a language resides in conventional patterns of usage. These patterns, learned from countless instances of use in discourse contexts, are subsequently applied in producing and understanding further discourse. It is the old, familiar story of the chicken and the egg.”

The grammar of discourse is the grammar of the sentence. It is all happening all at once whenever we speak, gesture, or write.

The chicken and the egg, indeed.

We need to learn to not only live with this reality, but to embrace it in our research, as well.