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The Discourse Community: Every Workplace Has One


Wed Jan 28 2015

The Discourse Community: Every Workplace Has One

I say this a lot: “Every industry, every company, and every project has its own vocabulary.”

We see articles mocking businesspeople for the way they speak. But these specific and special vocabularies have meaning. More importantly, no business could survive if its people didn’t have a way of quickly communicating with each other.


As previously mentioned, academics have a formal name for the group of people who use verbal shorthand to get something done—a discourse community. The concept of a discourse community is vital to communication in the workplace. While those who study applied linguistics have a two-page, single-spaced, formal definition, for our purposes, a discourse community can be defined as: A group of people who communicate with each other with precision and in shorthand to simplify their conversation and get something done.

If a company, department, or project team comes to mind, then you’ve got the idea. Likewise, if the language of your neighborhood, ski club, or volunteer work comes to mind, then you get it. One of the key elements of this formal description is the need for experienced members of the discourse community to transfer knowledge to the newer members.

In some ways it’s just a matter of interpretation: Sociologists look at vocabulary choices as a way of identifying rank, journalists taunt the “in” crowd and their “in” words, and everyone gives a pass to physicians and lawyers. But by thinking in terms of the discourse community, we can remit judgment or accusations of obfuscation and think about positive and proactive approaches to the challenge of teaching vocabulary.

The goal of any training program is to accelerate the students’ ability to become a part of the new community, therefore participating in the life and activities of that community. Understanding the group’s vocabulary is an essential first step.

Some say the one-millionth word joined the English language in 2012. And as we all know, many words have many different meanings. And yet, within the Oxford English Dictionary, there are only 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words. How do we explain the difference between these two widely divergent data points? Simplistically, in two words: Business English.


Of course there is Medical English and Scientific English and Legal English. But these variations are not quite as fluid, or even as context-based, as Business English. Acronyms are the most context-based “words” we encounter. Does EOB stand for End of Business or Explanation of Benefits? How about CCS—does it mean Credit Collection Services, Custom Calling Services, or 100 cycles per second? It depends.

Every business contains contextually based terms that sound like regular words but have special meaning. Think back to your first days on any new job—wouldn’t a dictionary or glossary have been helpful? How many of you have had another employee slip you an (unauthorized) Excel spreadsheet explaining lingo and acronyms?

The language of your workplace is simply not in the dictionary. And not every company or organization has a glossary of terms that is readily available to its employees.

There are different estimates of how many words are in any one individual’s vocabulary. One source says 10,000 to 25,000 depending on education and expertise. Another resource says that if someone actively speaks 20,000 words, perhaps she can also read and understand another 20,000 (for a total of 40,000 words). That all sounds impressive until we look at the 1,000,000 words in the dictionary (including contextual language).

It’s humbling to realize that even the vocabulary geniuses among us have only four to five percent of these available words at their command.


Check out the full blog series, The Language of the Workplace, here.

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