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What Is a Discourse Community?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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A discourse community is generally defined as a community of people who use a particular kind of language or discourse. Many different examples of discourse communities illustrate how versatile this term is. It can describe a group of people who have common interests, or a group of highly trained scientists or technicians. Any set of people using a common language can be described as a discourse community.

The idea of the discourse community provides a kind of intersection between linguistics and anthropology or related social sciences. In academic programs, instructors may give students tasks related to analyzing these communities, either to research the actual discourse for linguistics, or to analyze the way that language reflects the makeup of a community. Students often start by identifying the community that uses a kind of discourse, then go on to figure out what that common language means and why it is used.

Some idiomatic words help to define the kind of common language that is used in a discourse community. Words like “jargon” or “lingo” accurately describe sets of words that are used within one of these common communities. Other more specific idiomatic terms, such as “techno-babble” or “geek speak,” provide examples of how people informally analyze a discourse community revolving around information technology.

Another example of a discourse-using community is a set of readers of a particular scientific or academic journal. Some other kinds of words may be used to describe the people involved in these professional or intellectual communities. In some cases, examples of these words in English are borrowed from other languages like Italian or Latin, for example: cognoscenti or literati.

In cases where discourse communities are less formal, it may be harder to pin down the common language that marks them as a cohesive unit. One common example is a set of fans of a certain celebrity, whether it is an athlete, a musical performer, or an actor. Outsiders can often identify some of this common language as related to “inside knowledge” or uncommon familiarity with the details of the celebrity’s life, family, or surroundings.

English speakers have even coined words for cases where certain kinds of inside knowledge are shared between people. For example, when those involved in a certain industry or field use specific kinds of language based on an elite understanding of that field, it is often referred to by others as “inside baseball.” This idiomatic phrase basically means the speakers are communicating with one another from a specific privileged perspective that may not be shared by outsiders.

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Discussion Comments

By Monika — On Jul 23, 2012

It's interesting to me that discourse communities can be general or specific. Everyone speaking one language is part of a discourse community, but there can be other discourse communities among that same group as well. Very interesting.

Discourse communities must also give sociologists a lot to study. I bet a lot of sociologists would have a field day trying to figure out how certain terms or expressions originated in one discourse community.

By Pharoah — On Jul 23, 2012

@JaneAir - I think that's the coolest part about discourse communities: being able to identify other of your "kind," so to speak. It's almost like speaking in secret code. I'm personally sort of a geek, so I like to throw geeky jokes into conversations and see who laughs (sometimes no one does.)

On the flip side though, I can understand how some people might feel left out when they end up around a lot of people in the same discourse community. If you end up around a bunch of people who are in one field, and you're in another, you're not going to have any idea what they're talking about if they star speaking in their lexicon.

By JaneAir — On Jul 22, 2012

I really like the idea of a discourse community, and I think I'm part of several. For instance, knitting is one of my hobbies and there is a definitely set of lingo that is attached to knitting.

Knitters might talk about swatches, skeins, stitch markers, and circular needles. Meanwhile, most non-knitters might have no idea what these things are.

Also, there are some people who are very famous in the knitting community, but not so to most other people. These people are definitely part of the discourse of the knitting community, and you can instantly identify another knitter if you mention any of this stuff and they know what it is.

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