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Discourse Analysis --Pragmatics Approach

Student Name:            Hassna Alfayez

Student Number:       

Lecturer:                      Prof.Hajii



         Discourse Analysis using Pragmatics








King Saud University

January 2009






               Interview Analysis using Pragmatics


     There are a number of approaches to discourse analysis and pragmatics is one of them. The underlying concepts behind pragmatics are meaning, context and communication. Early researchers considered pragmatics as having originated from semiosis, a process that involves the use of signs; hence signs are central to pragmatics users.  This paper endeavours to analyse the BBC interview with Jacob Zuma, the current president of the African National Congress who is also poised to become the next president of the Republic of South Africa. The discourse approach to be used for this analysis is pragmatics. 

1. Introduction

     Pragmatics is a broad approach to discourse that deals with the widely vast concepts of meaning, context and communication. Due to the wide scope of pragmatics, experts have failed to reach an agreement on the best definition of this approach.  However, one particular type of pragmatics, Gricean pragmatics is highly recommended since it forms the centre of pragmatics research. This type of pragmatics focuses on speaker meaning and the cooperative principle. While speaker meaning deals with the distinction between two different meanings, the cooperative principle is concerned with the relationship between logic and conversation (Schiffrin, 1994. p.190). There is a clear distinction between natural meaning and non natural meaning. Non natural meaning assumes that the listener is able to deduce some secondary meaning from a speaker’s words. The pragmatics approach will be used in the analysis of the interview between Owen Bennett-Jones of the BBC world service and Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, held on the 26th of December, 2008 

2. The Data

     The people speaking in this interview are Jacob Zuma, the President of the African National Congress of South Africa, who is widely tipped to become the next president of the Republic of South Africa; and Owen Bennett-Jones of the BBC world service. The interview took place at the BBC studios and lasted approximately five minutes. The data available is made up of actual utterances taken from the speakers as opposed to properly constructed good grammatical sentences. Using actual speaker utterances is recommended by Gricean pragmatics. 

Transcription of the Data

Owen: [1] Charmer

Jacob: Is that so?

Owen: [1] Charmer

Jacob: That’s what you are calling me.

Owen: [2] Self made

Jacob: Yes, that’s what [? 3] they call me.

Owen: That is true?

Jacob: Yes

Owen: [4] Brave

Jacob: Yes

Owen: You think you are brave?

Jacob: (a) Yes. I have gone to become a [? 5] freedom fighter.

(b) I wouldn’t have gone through what I have gone through if I wasn’t brave.

(c) I have gone to prison and served and still came out and continued [? 6] the struggle.

Owen: What’s the bravest thing you have done?

Jacob: (d) I think [7] that is it that I have done.

(e)Taken a decision to fight and sacrifice my life for the freedom of the South African people.

Owen: Did you ever risk your life?

Jacob: (f) Oh yes [8] that in itself was a risk.

(g)The ANC gave me many [9] tasks to undertake which were very risky.

(h) I crossed borders from outside South Africa into South Africa during the struggle, clandestinely.

(i) Once we were inside South Africa, anything could have happened.

(j) Only the brave ones could do that.

Owen: [10] Traditional?

Jacob: (k) Yes, traditional yes.

Owen: You have many wives?

Jacob: (l) Yes

Owen: How many?

Jacob: (m) That [11] subject I don’t want to talk about it easily.

(n)You will read [12] it in my book when I talk about it.

Owen: Why don’t you want to talk about it?

Jacob: (o) No, because it’s a very serious matter. It’s not a simple matter.

Owen: It’s a very serious interview

Jacob (p) Absolutely, but not as serious as discussing very serious and emotional matters relating to me. I can’t deal with [13] that issue in an interview.

(q) I will deal with that issue in a book.

Owen: A book you have written or a book you are going to write?

Jacob: (r) I am going to write.

Owen: I see, so we all have to wait for the book?

Jacob: (s) Absolutely, wait for the book.

Owen: Another word used to describe you which you won’t like, I don’t think: [14] corrupt.

Jacob: (t) Not corrupt at all.

(u)That is part of [15] people who say that, not only your [16] colleagues but [17] others who tell your colleagues so.

Owen: I think you like [18] the good ones and you don’t like [19] the bad ones.

Jacob: (v) No, because I have got to put right what is not a good and kind positive         description of the person. 

3. The Analysis 

3.1 Referent 1: ‘charmer’

     This referring expression is used to describe the charming nature of Jacob Zuma. A charmer is a person who makes other people feel good about themselves. This is used in describing a real person, thus the word charmer is used to describe Jacob Zuma’s personality as well as what others think of him. This can be used in conjunction with referent 2 and 4. Self made and brave are all personal characteristics attributed to Jacob. Schiffrin (1994.p. 198) advises that although the interviewer can suggest a referent, the identification of that particular referent needs to be recognised by both the speaker and the hearer. In this case the interviewer refers to Jacob as ‘charmer’ and the hearer acknowledges that people call him using that referent.  

    This is a definite reference since Jacob is already aware of this term. There is mutual knowledge between the interviewer and the hearer, concerning this referent. The same applies to the other two references; self made and brave. There is mutual agreement by both the hearer and the speaker that these references partly describe the hearer’s characteristics. It can be argued that there is no truth in referring to Jacob Zuma as ‘charmer’, ‘brave’ and ‘self made  but according to Schiffrin (1994) “the mechanism by which referring expressions enable an interpreter to infer an intended referent is not strictly truth-conditional, but involves the cooperative exploitation of supposed mutual knowledge” (p. 198). Referent 1 ' charmer' is a first mention and is indefinite and explicit.  

3.2 Referent 3: ‘they’

     Referent 3 is difficult and is moderately problematic in this interview. Who is Jacob Zuma referring to when he mentions that is what ‘they’ call me? It is not apparent whether Owen is able to understand who Jacob is referring to in the conversation. Schiffrin (1994) suggests that this type of referent is "so inexplicit that it makes it difficult to know whether there is a first-mention of a new referent or a next mention of a prior referent"(p. 213). This referent lacks both definiteness and explicitness. ‘They’ is an indefinite description even though it may be clear in the interviewer’s mind that Jacob is referring to a number of unknown people. While the use of referent 3 may be rather accurate, experts in the field consider it not to be explicit enough (Schiffrin, 1994). However, the fact that Jacob may be referring to numerous people who cannot be identified by their individual names, justifies the use of this referent. Research indicates that although referent 3 satisfies the requirements of the maxim of quality, it fails to fulfil the requests of the maxim of quantity.

    It is further important to note that when Jacob uses referent 3, he does not have one specific person in mind. The question mark preceding the expression ‘they’ as shown in the transcription of the data indicates that this term is ambiguous and Gricean pragmatics can be a useful tool in resolving referential ambiguity (Schiffrin, 1994). Referent ‘they’ is a first mention and can be classified as indefinite and explicit.  There is no next mention for this referent.

3.3 Referent 5 and 6: ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘the struggle’

     Referent 5 and 6 are interlinked even though they are used in different responses to Owen’s questions. ‘Freedom fighter’ has been used to refer to Jacob Zuma during ‘the struggle.’ The struggle was the fight against racism and freedom fighter is a collective term referring to all men and women who took part in such fights. However, both referent 5 and 6 can be considered to be ambiguous to the interviewer, hence there are question marks preceding these two terms. The struggle can mean anything. It can mean the struggle to survive or the struggle to be rich. Likewise, what is a freedom fighter? Although the literal meaning of this word can be used in this interview, this term can be used to refer to other things. It appears there was mutual understanding between Owen and Jacob, since the interviewer did not seek further clarification from Jacob. One can only assume that the interviewer was well aware of Jacob’s participation in the fight to eradicate racism in South Africa, hence he had no problem in understanding the meaning of this term.

     However, it can be equally argued that Jacob’s participation in the struggle is referentially not clear. He does not tell the interviewer what exactly he did during the struggle and why he called himself a freedom fighter. He makes an assumption that the hearer understands the meaning of these terms. When Jacob further advises that he went to prison and sacrificed his life for the liberation of the South African people; he is finally resolving any ambiguity brought about by the term ‘the struggle’ and ‘freedom fighter.’ These two terms are both first mentions and are indefinite and explicit. There is a next mention for referent 6 namely, ‘to fight’. This term is an indefinite inexplicit noun. To fight is referring to ‘the struggle’. 

3.4 Referent 7 and 8 ‘that’

     That is used in reference to Jacob’s participation in the struggle. This referent is full of ambiguity and it is not obvious whether the interviewer had a clear understanding of what Jacob was referring to when he said ‘that is that I have done.’ This referent has a continued existence in the interview and can be considered to be a first mention, indefinite and explicit. The second mention is the same referent ‘that’ and is still indefinite and inexplicit. The referent ‘that’ in the first mention is used to refer to Jacob’s participation in the liberation struggle and the second mention is also referring to the same issue. At the second mention, the hearer is assumed to be in a position to have a clear understanding of what the speaker is talking about. The use of this term ‘that is that’ is used to evoke ‘the struggle.’  The struggle is referring to the war of liberation. Therefore referent 7 has evoked two more similar terms which are meant to eliminate any ambiguity in the hearer’s mind.

     There is a general relationship between ‘that is that’ and ‘the struggle’. According to Gricean pragmatics, first mentions are always indefinites. However, according to Schiffrin (1994), background information can result in first mentions becoming definite. 

3.5 Referent 11, 12 and 13 ‘that’; ‘it’ and’ issue’

     Referent 11, 12 and 13 are used interchangeably. They are all referring to the issue concerning Jacob’s many wives. It seems he does not feel comfortable mentioning the words ‘many wives’. The subsequent use of the words ‘it’ and ‘issue’ is understood as referring to the same subject. It is significant to understand why Jacob Zuma keeps switching between ‘that’ ‘it’ and ‘issue’ when talking about the same issue of his traditional wives. Gricean pragmatics clearly explains the link between these expressions. Referent ‘that’ is a first mention and indefinite followed by ‘it’ and ‘issue’ which are second mentions, definite and inexplicit. In referent 11, 12, and 13, the mention of the words ‘that’, ‘it’ and ‘issue’ gives the interviewer enough background information to assume that Jacob is referring to his marital status. Since all these terms are second mentions and definites, it is easier for the interviewer to relate these terms to his prior conversation with Jacob. They were both talking about how traditional Jacob is and one can only conclude that Jacob’s tradition demands that he should have many wives. What makes referent 11, 12 and 13 easier to comprehend is that they are used as a continuation of the same story being discussed.  Therefore the link between ‘that’, ‘it’ and ‘issue’ takes the interviewer to the subject of marriage which had been started a while ago.  

     In [11], "that subject I do not want to talk about it" Jacob is responding to the interviewer’s question regarding the number of wives he has. One can easily conclude that Jacob’s answer is an affirmation to the fact that he has more than one wife but he does not want to discuss that issue live on air. In [12], ‘you will read it in my book when I talk about it,’ he is further indirectly telling the interviewer that he should stop asking about this particular subject since it is quite a sensitive matter to him. Some people are rather reserved when it comes to discussing issues pertaining to their private personal lives. This is clearly the case here with the interviewee.  

     However, Jacob displays two different behavioural characteristics. While he is refusing to answer directly any questions relating to his marital affairs, he is evidently signalling that he is prepared to discuss this issue on his own terms, in a book to be written in the near future. One wonders what the difference is between discussing your marital status with a radio host and telling everything about it in a book. In [13], ‘I can’t deal with that issue in an interview,’ the interviewee further puts to rest any possibilities that he will change his mind and maybe talk about the marital issue later in the interview. This quickly eliminates any hope the interviewer might have of further persuading Mr. Zuma to change his mind and talk about his wives during the interview. 

     The interviewer pressed Jacob three times to talk about his marriage and he vehemently refused to do so three times as well using referent ‘that’, it’ and ‘issue’ to refer to the subject of his wives. In a way this also reveals the interviewee’s character. He shows that he is a man of his words. Once he makes up his mind not to discuss an issue, he sticks with that up to the very end. No wonder why he is viewed by many of his supporters as being a very strong character. What is also striking about this particular section of the interview is that once the subject of his marital status has been introduced, Mr. Zuma, in his subsequent responses does not use the words ‘wives’ or ‘marriage;’ preferring instead, to use the terms ‘that’, ‘it’ and ‘issue.’  By doing, the interviewee is trying by all means to distract the interviewer’s attention from further discussing his marital life which is considered a very private matter in Jacob’s tradition. The interviewer is well aware of what Jacob is trying to say to him and he finally moves away from discussing this subject altogether. He is left with no choice but to wait for the book when it comes out in the near future.

4. The Result       

     The analysis of this interview outlines that referents were introduced in ways relevant to the previous information. Jacob Zuma used the terms ‘they’, ‘it’ ‘subject’ and ‘the struggle’ under the assumption that Owen was able to use context to infer the existence and relevance of these terms (Schiffrin, 1994. p. 223). Once he used a first mention, the interviewee proceeded to use next mentions. The speaker was not very keen on discussing his private marital life and took advantage of the use of next mentions. Referent 3 ‘they’ presents a number of referential problems in this interview. This term is also often considered problematic to pragmatics in general (Schiffrin, 1994. p. 213). The interviewee uses the word ‘they’ to invoke several unknown characters and it is not evident whether the interviewer clearly understands who Jacob is referring to. Due to the fact that the referent ‘they’ is inexplicit, the hearer may be left with doubts as to whom Jacob was referring to. One can only conclude that this term refers to members of the media, politicians, members of the ANC and other admirers. This raises the issue of ambiguity which can be easily resolved by using pragmatics.

5. The Conclusion

     Pragmatics provides an alternative approach to discourse analysis and Gricean pragmatics is specifically useful in analysing speaker meaning and the cooperative principle. Meaning, context and communication are the underlying principles behind pragmatics. The pragmatics approach has been used in analysing this interview in order to clearly understand what the interviewee was trying to say. According to Schiffrin (1994), Gricean pragmatics "suggests a particular view of human communication that focuses on the speaker’s intentions" (p.191). It also provides a clear description of the pragmatic conditions which allow for the interpretations of different referring terms.

     While first mentions are usually indefinites and explicit, second mentions are generally definites and alternate between explicit and inexplicit. As illustrated in the analysis of this interview, some first mentions can result in ambiguity in the mind of the hearer. The hearer is usually in a position to make a conclusion of what the speaker is talking about when after the second mention. Modern day researchers in pragmatics have mainly focused their attention to the inherent relationship between quantity and relevance; which emphasises on the quality of a conversation as opposed to saying a lot of meaningless things which are less informative. While there are many approaches to discourse, pragmatics offers a more specific approach to discourse problems as compared to other methods available.



Schiffrin, D. (1994). Approaches to Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.



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