Against the Mainstream – Luciana Fernández and Marta Garay (2nd Part)

 Discourse Analysis


Discourse Analysis looks into “how it is that language-users interpret what other language-users intend to convey” (Yule, G. 1985).


Whenever we describe a particular language, we focus on the accurate representation of the forms and structures used. The fact that we can cope with ungrammatical forms, however, shows us we are capable of more than recognizing correct versus incorrect forms. i.e, “rather than simply rejecting the text as ungrammatical, we try to make sense of it” (Yule, G. 1985). The study of discourse is mainly concerned with this effort we make to interpret and be interpreted.


Let us analyse what helps us interpret; or in this case, what helped the bus driver, whose language can be regarded as grammatical, understand both the boy’s and his grandmother’s, which is no doubt ungrammatical.


·     Cohesion: The ties and connections within a text are known as cohesion. These ties are made by the use of pronouns, lexis, tenses, connectors, etc.


1-   He no cause lo trouble. Me to blame, me, baas. Me left him alone.”


The pronoun him refers to he and he refers to the boy next to the lady uttering the sentence. This type of connection is used to maintain reference, in this case anaphoric, as the pronoun he refers to something which has been mentioned before.


2-   Black and white people live apart – very much apart – that, you already know. What you may not know is that they always been apart, and will always be apart …”


Reference can be cataphoric if what we are making reference to is mentioned afterwards.


“Sorry, mei baas. Me make big mistake. Forgive me, mei baas. He did not know. Not anything, mei baas. This kaffir did not know bus for white people.”


If the fact that the child did not know the bus he wanted to take was for white people only, we would not be able to understand what big mistake he is referring to.


However, cohesion by itself is not enough so as to enable us to make sense of what is said.


·     Coherence: This factor helps us distinguish texts/phrases which make sense from those which do not.


We are constantly taking part in conversations where what is meant is not always said. “It is the ease with which we ordinarily anticipate each other’s intentions that makes this whole complex process seem so remarkable.” (Yule, G. 1985)


Let us analyse the following:

“Do you want to get us killed?”

“I didn’t know it was the white people’s bus”


There are no cohesive ties within this fragment of discourse, yet it is coherent. There is something else, beyond what is being said, both speakers share (the child’s not knowing he shouldn’t have stopped that bus could have resulted in his and his grandmother’s death)


From the point of view of conversational interaction, English conversation can be simply described as an activity where two or more people participate. These participants do not speak simultaneously but take turns at speaking. In theory, one person is silent while the other speaks and if there is other speaks and if there is overlapping, one of them will stop.


“What do you mean climbing into white people’s buses, heh? Do you want to get us killed?”

“Shut up, you black imp.”


In this fragment, when the grandmother stops talking, the child takes his turn. We might assume that he understand it is his turn to speak, as the other speaker (grandmother) indicates she has finished, signalling what is known as completion point.




                   We could say then that one of the most common ways of identifying a person is by his or her language. Because language is inherently involved in socialization, the social group whose language we speak is an important identity group for us. There are other markers of ethnic identity but language has a special role, in part because it organizes thought and in part because it establish social relations. As we have said before, the clash of the different dialects used by people belonging to different speech communities does not necessary hind the communication but shows differences between their cultural and social background. Actors want to realize their interests, but due to real differences in power among them, mainly because of their social position, not all can do so to the same degree. People apply linguistic structures in certain place and time and give us a clear image of how cultural systems and social organization influence language and how the existence of these factors must be fully considered to understand a linguistic community.




·     Foley, W. (1997): Anthropological Linguistics. Blackwell Publishers.

·      Hymes, D. (1971): On Communicative Competence. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

·     Hymes, D. (1972) On Communicative Competence. In J. B. Pride & J. Holmes (eds.) Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

·     Hymes, D. (1974) Toward ethnographies of communication. In Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

·     Leech, G.  (1991): Principles of Pragmatics. LONGMAN.

·     Levinson, S.  (1984): Pragmatics.  C.U.P.

·     Mathabane, M. (1987): Kaffir Boy. Penguin Books.

·     Schiffrin, D. (1994): Discourse Approaches. Oxford University Press.

·     Yule, G. (1985): Pragmatics. Oxford University Press.









I understood well what she meant by “trouble”. It being a sunny Saturday afternoon, white people milled all over the place – walking in and out of boutiques, in and a out of flowershops, in and out of hotels, in and out of department stores, in and out of Mercedes Benzes, Rolls-Royces and other expensive cars, in and out of tennis courts, in and out of houses and flats, and in but never out of my consciousness.


Granny hobbled across the street. Exhausted by the day’s work, I sat on the bundle of newspapers, took out a comic book from my knapsack and buried my face in it. I had been reading for some time when I heard a bus screech to a halt not too far from where I sat. Dropping the comic book, I rushed to the door, so I could tell the driver to wait for Granny, who was waving vigorously at me from across the street, yelling something I couldn’t quite make out. Lifting my head up as I came up the steps, I saw that I was in a “white”  bus. I froze. My presence on the bus so startled several white old ladies who were about to disembark that they fled to the back.


“Vootsek, * off this bus, Kaffir!” thundered the red-necked white driver. ”Don’t you see this is a white bus!”


Realizing the tragic mistake I had committed, I tried to fly off the bus, but I could not. I thought I was in some kind of nightmare, and the fact that I had thought white people never rode buses because of all the cars they had made everything the more unreal.

But reality came in the venom the white bus driver was spitting as he reached for the side door to come after me. “I said get off the bloody bus, Kaffir!” I shut my eyes. I felt a pair of cold hands clutch my neck and yank me off the bus. I tumbled down the steps and landed on the concrete pavement. I must have prayed a million times.

Thinking that anytime I would be kicked in the face by the white bus driver, I started begging for mercy.


“Sorry, mei baas,” I whimpered, “Sorry, mei baas. Me make big mistake. Forgive me, mei baas. Me did not know. Not anything, mei baas. This Kaffir did not know bus for white people.”

All this time my eyes were shut.

Suddenly I heard, “He my pickaninny, baas. Me at fault.” It was Granny’s voice. I opened my eyes to find her standing behind me, facing the white bus driver, who was in front of me. Apparently it was she who had jerked me off the bus.


“He harmless, mei baas,” Granny went on in the most groveling of voices. “He no cause lo trouble. Me to blame, me, baas. Me left him alone.”


“Never mind who’s to blame,” the white driver said hotly, “why do you let him get into the wrong buses! You know I could have you both arrested for it!”


He know, mei baas. He no know. He only kind (child).”


“What do you mean he doesn’t know,” the white bus driver returned. ”Don’t you teach Kaffir children anything about the laws?”


“He can’t learn, mei baas,” Granny said dramatically, “Lo pickaninny lo mal (The pickaninny is deranged, my lord),” Granny gestured with her hands to indicate that mine was not a normal insanity. She then shoved me aside, and to my moral horror, began wiping with her dress the steps where I had trodden. This appeased the white bus driver, for after unleashing a tirade of how stupid and uncivilized black people were, he returned to the bus and drove off. Granny dragged me – I was in some sort of stupor – by the neck back to the black bus stop.


“What do you mean climbing into white people’s buses, heh?” She shook with rage. “Do you want to get us killed?”


“I didn’t know it was the white people’s bus,” I said contritely.

( …)

“Shut up, you black imp,” Granny screamed. “Shut up before I make you! You always doing thin’s you should no be doin’!”

( …)

I remained silent, wondering whether I had underestimated the enormity of my crime of standing on the steps of a white bus. Were the poor white passengers going to die as a result?


After a long pause, during which she calmed down, Granny said, “Forgive me for the outburst, child, but what you did was no small thin’ in the eyes of white people and the law. There’s somethin’ you ought to know about how thin’s are in this country, something your Mama I see has not told you yet. Black and white people live apart – very much apart – that, you already know. What you may not know is that they always been apart, and will always be apart – that what apartheid means. White people want it that way, and they created all sorts of laws and have the guns to keep it that way.”


“We live in our world,” she continued, after taking a pinch of snuff and loading it under her tongue, “and white people live in their world. We their servants, they our masters. Our people fought hard to change thin’s, but each time the white man always won. He has all the guns. Maybe another generation of black people will come which will defeat the white man, despite his many guns.”




* invective commonly hurled at dogs.



1 comentario (+¿añadir los tuyos?)

  1. Max
    Nov 26, 2005 @ 11:55:54

    Simply great! What else can I say?



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