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HISTORICAL SEMANTICS

AND THE MEANINGS OF


'DISCOURSE'
Bob Hodge
Raymond Williams' Keywords is an invaluable book for anyone engaged in the enterprise of
cultural criticism. We all know the experience of finding key words, our own and others',
slipping underneath us, obstructing further inquiry, closing off debate or the possibility of shared
understanding. At such times, and they happen frequently, we long for an authority to appeal to, or
a strategy for resolving such problems of vocabulary. Williams offers both a helpful and
representative set of explications, and an outline of the strategy he has used to tackle such problems of
words and meaning. In this short piece I want to offer some reflections on Williams' general project,
'historical semantics', as a vital tool in cultural enquiry. For illustra tion I will take one word,
'discourse'; a surprising omission from Williams' book, given its widespread and problematic range
of uses in current discussions on the analysis of ideology and cultural formations.
Williams draws on two major sources for his work. One is his own involvement in struggle and
debate, his status as an influential member of a community united by common ways of
interpreting culture and society. It is his own vocabulary and its problems that he is exploring. His
other major source is the Oxford English Dictionary, with its massive if sometimes limited historical
listings of words. It is to the OED that he turns as a starting point for resolving
problems encountered in his practice as a critic, invoking 'history as a way of understanding
contemporary problems of meaning and structures of meaning' (1976:20). But though he is
committed to historical explanation, he also wishes to resist it on occasions. I have often found a clue
to an analysis by discovery of an origin, but there can be no question, at the level of either practice or
of theory, of accepting an original meaning as decisive ... or of accepting a common source as
directive' (1976:19). While agreeing with Williams that a complex history should not be collapsed
into its origins. I want to propose a theory and practice in which the search for an original meaning is
a decisive step in establishing a transformational history which will be a key to the meaning of the
word at issue.
The problem that sends me to Williams, or the OED, concerns 'discourse', in particular the gap
between its use in, for instance, Harris's 'Discourse analysis' (1952), Coulthard and
Montgomery's Studies in Discourse Analysis (1981), McCabe's 'On discourse' (1981),

124 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)

Foucault's 'The order of discourse' (1970) or Pecheux's Stating the Obvious: From Semantics to
Discourse (1980). Of course, an easy solution to the problem would be to note that the last two are
translated from the French, but that begs the question, of how these uses of the word in English are to be
calibrated against each other. This is no trivial matter, because clarification of the vocabulary bears on
the clarification of an important enterprise which has been labelled'discourse analysis'. If that enterprise
could be shown to split along the lines of a pun on 'discourse', that would simplify matters greatly, though in
what follows I will suggest that this neat solution is inadequate.
'Discourse' in contemporary English has a wide range of current senses: 'speech; talk; conversation;
treatise; sermon' (Webster). This list should not be taken as the 'meanings' of the word. More exactly, they are a
paradigmatic set of alternative signifiers that can substitute for 'discourse'. What we need to know is the
structural principle of this set, the principle that projects these variants (and others that may be possible) and
the rules that determine its application. These words are like minimally contrasting pairs, in linguistic
terms, rather than equivalents. They provide the basis for a reconstruction of the system at issue, a system
which is mystified and concealed by the typical dictionary listing.
At the beginning of the OED entry is etymological information: the derivation in this case from
French discours, and behind that a Latin root, discurs-us. Williams uses two notations: fw ('immediate
forerunner word') and rw ('root word: ultimate traceable word, from which "root'' meanings are derived').
Of these two, it is rw which most needs a sharper definition. 'Ultimate traceability' suggests an endless journey
backwards in time, with no particular terminus in view, and no clear motive for the search. Why stop at Latin?
Why not go back to Sanscrit, or proto Indoeuropean? However, the task can be seen as analogous to
transformational analysis (see Kress and Hodge, 1979). In these terms, we would expect interpretation of a
word to hypothetically reconstruct a series of transformations, working back from features of the surface
form which seem to require them. What is at issue is not a genuine etymology, such as OED offers, but a
mystified, fragmentary folk-form of it. So the function of a scientific etymology is to supply the missing
information that this interpretative strategy has to invent. The regressive movement, the tracing of
derivations, can stop when it reaches solid ground. This solid ground, we will assume, is the point of
connection of the word with material processes, with direct reference to an aspect of material and social
reality. Williams points out that the words like barber orbarley or barn do not cause the problems he is
concerned to elucidate: only words which invoke values and ideas, which typically have a whole range of
meanings.
125 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)

With 'discourse', OED gives us a Latin word as root, 'L. discurs-us is f. discurs - ppl. stem of discurrere.'
This is on the way to the proper level, because it gives the concrete 'running to and fro.' But discurs-us needs
to be further decomposed, since it is already a complex syntagm, the end product of a series of transformations
which are precisely what we need to understand, dis carries the sense of duality (it is etymologi-cally related to
that word, and to bis, which survives in words like binary. From that it gains the sense of separation into two.
This sense of dis is not just enshrined in classical Latin usage. As a morpheme it crops up in many English
words (e.g. discord, dissect, dispute, disperse, discern, discriminate) and by this means it has force
in contemporary English. Currere is normally translated as 'to run', but it refers more generally to something
that moves quickly, whether on foot, or by horse, ship, etc. Curs-us,however, comes from the past participle
of the verb: 'having been run. 'In Latin, currere can take as its object either a word for the process (e.g. a
journey, race) or a word for the setting (e.g. a stadium, road or the ocean), cursus is a noun derived from this
participle. It continues this double meaning, referring either to the process (usually swift) or to the track or route
which,
precisely
by being
fixed,
well-trodden
and
well-known,
enables
that
swiftness. Transformationallyspeaking, the word incorporates two alternative objects of the verb. The
verb discurrere acquires the full set of preconditions for becoming the root of 'discourse' when the
physical action is used to describe two specific agents: a mind (moving backwards and forwards in

thought) or a speech (moving either between two speakers, or between two viewpoints included in the
one speech) both of these related to polemical uses of language and thought, in law or debating, plus an
implied context for their activity. When these two agents are incorporated as the implied subjects of
the actions, the concept of 'discourse' is complete, and ready for transmission to a different culture and a
different time.
We can set out the transformational process as follows:
dis-

+ cur

=> + implied => ppl.sus => noun


agents
(deleted object)

From this derivation we can see that the final concept contains latent in it, as part of its deep structure, a series
of contradictions: between movement (the flow of thought or speech) and stasis as the basis of that movement;
between thought and speech; between physical and intellectual action; and between separation of elements
and the unity of movement. But by holding all these in suspension, as part of the deep structure of the one
word, discursus achieves an apparent resolution of them all. Its effect is to blur all these distinctions,
or transcend them. So intellectual and physical activity, speech and thought, process and rule become
one, or at least their differences

126 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)


become unthinkable in the course of the history of 'discourse'. This is the complex and formidable
ideological achievement of the Latin word. It is easy to see the attractions of the word.
To judge from OED, most of this history was readily available in English up to the 17th century. In the
16th century, there are uses of 'discourse' in a directly physical sense. It could also refer to a physical battle.
Familiarity, as of a well-travelled road, is another 17th century meaning, as is a long narrative or tale. 'Discourse'
as a movement of the mind is attested as late as 1788. The two kinds of meanings which survive in OED's
scheme are 'communication of thought by speech' (note the inclusion of thought as well as speech) and 'A
spoken or written treatment of a subject, in which it is handled or discussed at length; a dissertation,
treatise, homily, sermon or the like (now the prevailing sense).' We can see in that last list a final
transformation, from process-plus-preconditions to the products of that process. What we must now
ask is, how many of these earlier stages survive in contemporary usages of the word? Or to put it more
strongly, can we see the operation of the structure of features (with all the indeterminacy' we have listed as an
essential feature of that structure) determining the use of 'discourse' in current thinking and debate, as a latent
content of the word? A key-word, we can say, is semantically over-determined. It is like a dream or joke that has
lasted a very long time, which allows, enables or even enforces certain conceptual sleights-of-hand under
its cover; though if there is a compulsion, it probably comes from the perennial attraction of the
operations it entails.
To see such processes at work, we need more than a dictionary entry. Here is Benveniste, distinguishing
'discourse' (the French discours) from 'histoire': 'Discourse must be understood in its widest sense:
every utterance assuming a speaker and a hearer, and in the speaker, the intention of influencing the other in
some way' (1971:208). Benveniste here focusses on a contrastive pair (discourse - history): where
the dictionary entries fail to declare that the list of words in an entry is typically a list of words that would be
opposed to the word in question. From this opposition, Benveniste isolates a number of features of
'discourse': that it refers to the flow of speech, incorporates the distinction and antagonism between speaker
and hearer, and sees speech as a kind of directed social action. These are three of the features in the original
Latin complex. In this explication he does not mentioned any of the other features of the word we have
mentioned, but that does not mean that they are not present for him. They are not relevant to the distinction
between history and discourse, so their presence or absence is not articulated by him on this occasion.
But Benveniste does see discourse as a highly regulated process, an ordered transition between I and you, present
and past, structured by systems of tenses and persons. Benveniste also sees discourse as a site for the fusion of
language and thought, as the presentation of a speaker's subjectivity in a public place. Those pressures on the
word are latent in the passage

127 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)


quoted, and they constitute his motives for using that word in that place. A recognition of them enables
the passage to be situated in Benveniste's thinking in general, and it also signals a set of problems precisely
by this invocation of an ostensible solution to them. 'Discourse' claims a resolution of the opposition
between language and thought, process and system, thought and action, which in turn signifies the desire
to overcome those oppositions, a desire which canonly come from a lack.
Or for another illustration, we could look at 'discourse' in Foucault, who uses the word frequently.
In short. I suspect one could find a kind of gradation between different types of discourse within most
societies: discourse' uttered' in the course of a day and in casual meetings, and which disappears with the
very act which gave rise to it: and those forms of discourse that lie at the origin of a certain number of new
verbal acts, which are reiterated, transformed or discussed: in short, discourse which is spoken and remains
spoken, indefinitely, bevond its formulation, and remains to be spoken.
(1971).

Here Foucault is developing a concept of discourse genres, which range from informal to formal, free
flowing to fixed, process to precondition, action to meaning, thus dispersing the features of discourse
over a range of kinds of discourse: though no one kind represents a pure term in any of the opposing
features that 'discourse' exists to unite.
This quotation by no means exhausts Foucault's concern with 'discourse'. His whole enterprise could be
called 'discourse analysis', and the word contains the formula for the programme. He sees discourse as a
system of rules for exclusion, appropriation and control of speech and thought. Part of his programme, then,
studies these rules and their effects. But another part looks at discourse as process: at its formation, its
relation to institutions and power structures, at the principle of opposition it both masks and expresses, and
at the objects of discourse which are distorted by the to-and-fro tug of discourse and its needs. He insists on
the power of discourse structures constrain speech and thought, and on the effects of power and struggle on
these structures: on the regularity yet indeterminacy of discourse: on thought as both confined yet resisting
speech. In short, he claims afresh for 'discourse' all the opportunities achieved two thousand years before by
the Latin discursus.
There is another framework we need to fit 'discourse' into, which OED gives us little help with, but
which a materialist form of historical semantics must recognize. The following diagram represents
schematically the primary relationships at issue.
Paradigmatic set Social structure

128 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)


The paradigmatic set of words that can refer to what 'discourse'
refers to in material and social life includes words like 'chat', 'conversation', and 'dissertation'. Each of these
nouns contains latent in it socially defined classes of agent and occasion, and classes of speakers of those
nouns. So the difference between saying 'everyday discourse' and 'chat' (two ways of referring to the same
discourse-genre, in Foucault's terms) is ambiguously a classification of the status of those who are
chatting/ discussing, and the persons saying or hearing the words 'chat/discourse'. Words
typically fulfil both an ideational or cognitive function, and an interpersonal function, to
use Halliday's terms (1976). They signal, and help to create, a pattern of allegiances and antagonisms
within and between groups. 'Discourse' signals a high status of speaker and subject, so that 'discourse
analysis' directed to 'classroom discourse', or 'playground discourse' has the effect of claiming that value for
the subjects whose discourse it is. It is a deliberate intervention, at the verbal plane, on a social structure via
a social classification of language. Anglo-American 'discourse analysis' proclaims an egalitarian impulse
which is largely absent from continental uses of the word. Social differences can be expressed not only by
the use of different words for the same area of reference, but also by clearly-signalled different uses of the same
word. The gap that exists at present between Anglo-American and continental conceptions of 'discourse' is a
function of the different aims and strategies of largely independent groups of people, who are, however,
united by their common status as intellectuals, and by their attraction to the latent properties of that
enduringly potent word.
Historical semantics, as it emerges in this brief sketch, is concerned with two distinct histories. One is the
transformational processes which refract and displace a basic concrete material sense, and then leave traces
in the structure of features that constitute the effective meaning of the word. This transformational formula
is, however, not always known or not to the same degree by everyone in a community, and it gives only an
ideal form of the relevant structure. It has a heuristic value, not any absolute or definitional status; but
that heuristic value is very great, because, as the fate of a word like 'discourse' shows, such structures of
meaning, once they have been laid down, can be surprisingly stable - more so than is the case
with phonological structures. But this kind of history interacts with another kind: the history of various
appropriations of the complex, the agents, contexts and purposes which can leave their traces in what we call
the 'meaning' of the word.
An historical semantics of this kind does not have a one-dimensional view of meaning (a word as a
signifier bound to one signified that is its true meaning) nor even a two-dimensional view, which concerns a
'field' of meanings. A 'keyword' must be seen as a kind of syntagm, with a massively deleted surface form which
is the site of extensive transformational processes which are used by the set of
128 Aust. J. Cultural Studies, 2:2 (1984)
features that specify it. The set of features will typically contain contradictions in a form that offers hope of
their resolution at some stage in the derivational process. It is this property that makes all such words so
difficult, so shifting in meaning, so liable to be simultaneously affirmed in different senses by antagonists
in debate. The difficulty, however, is intrinsic to such words. To remove it would be to remove their reason for
existence. Williams described his aim as 'toanalyse, as far as I could, some of the issues and problems that
were inside the vocabulary, whether in individual words or in habitual groupings' (p. 13). To that I would
only add that the form these issues and problems take inside the words is that of an idealized and
mystified solution, achieved in words and not in material life: and that is the source of both the immense
attraction of these words, and also their capacity to disrupt thought and debate and to short-circuit effective
action.
Bob Hodge teaches at Murdoch University

REFERENCES
Benveniste, E. (1971) Problems in General Linguistics, Miami: University of Miami Press.
Coulthard, R.M. and Montgomery, M., (1981) Studies in Discourse
Analysis, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Foucault, M. (1970) 'The order of discourse', in Archaelogy of Knowledge, London: Tavistock.
Kress, G. and Hodge, R. (1979) Language as Ideology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Halliday, M. (1976) System and Function in Language, London: Oxford University Press.
Harris, Z. (1952) 'Discourse analysis', Language 28.
McCabe, C. (1981) 'On discourse', in The Talking Cure, London: Macmillan.
Pecheux, M. (1980) Stating the obvious: from semantics to discourse, London: Macmillan.
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords, London: Fontana.

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