An alphabet of
Conversations exhibit a very
wide range of styles, nuances and linguistic strategies. If you approach
analysis with a checklist of 'main features', you need to be careful to identify
which ones are most appropriate to the conversation you are investigating. It is
an interesting linguistic fact that alphabetical ordering confers neither more
nor less importance on each item.
Remember that it is the concept
behind the terminology that matters. If, for example, you have spotted an adverb
or calculated a mean length of utterance, you need to decide if this is
significant and if it is, explain its effect.
One final piece of advice: avoid saying 'He or she uses an
adverb (for example) to persuade
the listener that...'. The effect of an adverb (such as
'undoubtedly') may well indeed be persuasive but the expression above
makes it sound as though a speaker consciously intended it. There is no
need to prove intention at every stage. Many effects of language are
achieved unintentionally, even accidentally, and are often derived from
habits of expression rather than deliberate intention.
Address - the level of formality, intimacy, deference, equality and authority with which people address each other. It usually marks such things as status, role, age, gender, social class, ethnic difference, inclusion or exclusion, for example: 'mum'; 'sir'; 'my good woman' (admittedly old fashioned); 'hey you, mate'; 'pal' (which can be menacing despite its normal meaning); 'Madam Speaker'; you lot'; 'Customers for Huddersfield should change at...'.
Agenda - the
topic, subject of conversation; 'the thing we're on about' or
what we're on about is...'; 'what are you on about?' Agendas are
interesting because in every conversation somebody, consciously or
unconsciously, has to initiate one and participants have to perceive it and
follow it. This does not have to be a formal process, nor will an agenda be
fixed and unchanging. Many researchers have drawn attention to the subtle,
implied ways in which an agenda is 'negotiated' by participants in a
conversation. It is often easier to comply with an agenda than to resist it.
The right to remain silent, in
recent times questioned by governments wishing to take a hard line on law and
order, is nevertheless the strongest legal form of agenda resistance. Any kind
of silence is a potential disrupter of conversations. Redirecting, terminating
or rejecting an agenda (rather than remaining silent) requires strategy and
'I think we are barking
up the wrong tree'
'I don't wish to discuss this'
'I wondered why you were being so nice!'
pairs - believe it or not, people tend to be co-operative in
conversations. Adjacency pairs is a term to describe the way in which
conversations can be segmented into pairs of exchanges that are connected
in some way even though spoken by different speakers. A question, for
example, expects an answer. A statement invites a response (such as
agreement, modification, disagreement). A command or request expects
compliance. Exclamations are odd because they are non-interactive. If
someone calls out 'Help', it is action not language that is required. If
the exclamation is 'ouch', it is
likely to elicit a question, 'What's the matter'
which in turn starts off an adjacency pair, completed by, for example,
'I've cut my finger'. The idea of adjacency pairs is interesting because it is a
way of understanding two kinds of ebb and flow in a conversation.
There is the ebb and.flow of cohesion, that is the connection between things
said and the way in which things move from one to another through a text, spoken
or written. A question/answer format sets up a series of adjacency pairs in a
rather rigid framework. If, on the other hand, the person usually answering,
turns the tables and asks a question, there is a blip in the adjacency pairs
which affects another kind of ebb and flow in conversations, namely the ebb and
flow of power. Power doesn't have to be thought of as taking
advantage in a menacing, underhand or overbearing way. It is an effect in the
grammatical choices, especially in the use of questions and commands. Responding
to a question with a question causes a break in any pattern of adjacency pairs,
as does replying to a command with a question. Interestingly, exclamations do
not seem to assume or confer power.
Some researchers have observed
that whilst adjacency pairs are a normal feature of much everyday conversation,
they tend to be rounded off by a third element in conversations of unequal power
distribution, such as those of doctor/patient, teacher/pupil or parent/child.
Doctor: Are you sleeping well?
Patient: No, not at all.
Doctor: Hmm. That could be the problem.
What is the capital of France?
Pupil: Paris, Miss.
You've been playing in the mud again.
Child: I haven't.
Parent: Don't answer back. And don't tell lies.
— these are easy to spot, quite frequent and have a way of
affecting everything that follows.
Common ones in conversation are 'well', 'so', 'now then', 'right', 'actually',
'really', 'quite', 'rather', 'only', 'just'.They are all little persuaders in
one way or another and you are not likely to have any difficulty imagining a
tone of voice for each one of them.
— interrupting what you are saying
in order to introduce information that ought to have come earlier in a
logical/chronological sequence. The interesting thing about it is what it tells
us about the way in which speakers monitor themselves in order to keep the
listener fully informed. Given the spontaneity of much of what we say,
backtracking is a clever strategy for instant correction or clarification.
signals — the very act of not
remaining silent is itself a sign of co-operation, but there are other explicit
verbal signals, such as 'yes', 'yeah', 'okay', 'I see', 'carry on', 'I'm
listening', 'then what', 'mmm'. Short responses by listeners should not be
overlooked, for example: 'Get away!'; 'Fancy that!'; 'Tell me more'; 'Well, I
- in the top 20 words most frequently
used in English conversations you will find the word 'yes' at number 12. The
word 'no' doesn't appear at all. A frequent strategy however for introducing
disagreement is the phrase 'Yes, but...'. It is interesting that the word 'but'
appears at number 15 in the statistical frequency table. The word 'but' is
sometimes referred to as an 'adversative' because it introduces contrast 'however' works in a similar way).You will observe in
conversation a wide spectrum of disagreement strategies ranging from the
unequivocal 'no' to mild suggestion. Notice too the ways in which any negatives
are used, particularly in responses, such as 'not exactly' or 'I wouldn't say
something that is fascinating to study in linguistic terms but difficult to
classify. Its presence, intentionally or not, can completely undermine a
conversation or any kind of talking. Don't overlook it or underestimate its
— these are implied meanings, which happen all the time in
conversation. It is usually the context that ensures that the implied
meaning is understood. If you were in a hurry and a friend called out, 'Look,
there's a bus', you would understand it to mean 'Quick, let's catch it' and
would not reply, 'Oh yes, so there is. What a lovely colour!'
Everyone knows that "What's yours?' means 'I'm paying', and that
'Don't you find it hot in here?' means 'I wonder if the windows can be opened'.
Much humour is created by ignoring the conventional implication. Observers can
easily mistake insults between friends to be offensive rather than affectionate.
But perhaps friendly insults are an implicit way of discharging a touch of
enmity. Why do good friends enjoy insulting each other?The frequency with which
implicatures occur and the predictability with which they are correctly
understood is further evidence of the deep-seated co-operativeness in human
conversation. One certain way to be annoying is to not pick up implied meanings that are clearly intended.
Sadly, people with mental and social handicaps have difficulty with implied
meanings as do second language learners unfamiliar with everyday idioms.
talk - something that goes on all the
time. It is a way of checking your own communicativeness ('Do you see what I
mean?' or 'I'll say that again'), commenting on somebody else's speech ('You
didn't say that earlier') and reviewing the conversation at any given point
('We're getting nowhere' or 'We've been over this before'). People who speak at
any length, but spontaneously, may be observed at some point to insert a
monitoring remark such as 'I think I've already mentioned...' or 'I'm going to
move on now.'
speech - tolerable and even
stimulating if infrequent, progressively less tolerable as it becomes more
frequent. It is a normal part of conversation and often causes pleasure and
satisfaction when two people say the same thing at once. Usually it occurs in
the form of overlap. Do not assume it is a deficiency in language use, for
whilst it appears to be impatience in turn-taking, it can indicate very
co-operative and engaged talking between participants. Self-monitoring usually
comes into operation to ensure that the talk is co-operative, and in
conventional social behaviour there are acceptable styles and rates of
interruption. It is very easy when transcribing to misrepresent simultaneous
speech since it is a little bit more complicated to set out on the page. If it
is tidied up for the reader's convenience, it means that the transcript is less
true to the living language.
questions - familiar questions,
sometimes rhetorical, that occur at the end of statements (or declaratives,
another name for statements). Common forms are '... isn't it?' '... aren't
they?' '... don't you?' and '... wasn't she?' You need to consider what they do
to the preceding statement. For many years tag questions have been regarded by
snobs as signs of working-class deference or truculence (take your pick). In the
1970s they were observed as frequent in female speech and indicative of
uncertainty and apology. In the late 1980s they were interpreted as co-operative
strategies inviting response and giving the listener the last word.
Consequently, if tag questions do appear more frequently in female speech, it is
an indication that females are not hesitant, weaker talkers, but confident and
co-operative. Whatever the gender or class issues here, observe the use of tag
questions by anybody and note whether a 'yes' or a 'no' is expected. Almost
always they are rhetorical questions containing a preferred response.
sentences — frequently observable
in real-life conversations. What makes a TV soap-opera script, however good, so
different from real life is the absence of simultaneous speech and uncompleted
sentences. On the rare occasions on which they do occur in soap-opera scripts or
plays, it is for very calculated effect. A good scriptwriter knows how to leave
the actors room to breathe life into dialogue They indicate all sorts of things:
that the mind is alive and quick, that the listener is trusted as an accomplice
in the conversation, even that there is genuineness in what the speaker is
saying. People who are close to each other — lovers, friends, colleagues,
family — do not need to complete everything they say because their listeners
are finishing it off in their own minds. Uncompleted sentences are frequently a
sign of very fluent and co-operative talk. Remember the popular saying, 'I'm way
ahead of you'.However, like everything else (simultaneous speaking, for
example), they can prevent understanding if excessive. They may indicate a
highly anxious or emotional state that needs calming or incoherent thinking that
needs to be quiet for a while. The truth of the matter is that there is a great
deal of mutual regulation in language use that allows for implication,
ambiguity, trial and error and idiosyncratic variations of all kinds before
© V Pope 2003