A new direction or the way back home?: Grammar in interaction

“The present volume offers an intellectual springboard for a transformative synthesis – an aufhebung, from a separately conceived interactional grammar and grammar of interaction to an as-yet-only-dimly-perceivable conjunction…” write Elinor Ochs, Emanuel Schegloff, and Sandra A. Thompson in the edited volume, Interaction and Grammar:

…In it, grammatical structures are revitalized as interactional structures that have their own interactional morphology and syntax within and across turns.  Strips of talk make sense within a more encompassing orderliness of historically situated, social encounters.”

Grammar, and syntax in particular, have held the spotlight in the field of linguistics for quite a while.

For linguists, the term ‘grammar’ usually refers to a mental system that contains categories and rules allowing people to create and decipher the words and sentences they hear in their language.

And although linguists don’t all agree on how this system (at least as far as syntax goes) actually works, for the most part it is conceived of as a mental or ‘computational system’ that performs operations to meaningfully arrange the ‘lexicon’ or the words that you know in your language(s).

If you find yourself taking an intro to linguistics course somewhere on the planet, in most universities you will probably be hearing about ‘transformational grammar’ (generative grammar) a big part of which is the idea of ‘Universal Grammar’ or UG being “the system of categories, operations, and principles that are shared by all languages” and as one textbook puts it,

“The key idea (in UG) is that despite the many superficial differences among languages, there are certain commonalties with respect to the manner in which sentences are formed.”

These ‘commonalities’ among the world’s languages stem from the fact that we are all members of the same species, all having human brains, brains that are innately endowed with the mental capacity to learn and use language.

The way I like to think about it is that we have a brain that ‘constrains’ the massive array of sensory input that bombards us from the moment we pop into the world (and even a bit before!) allowing us to instantly begin sifting through this immense amount of incoming ‘data,’ and focus our attention on the sounds, facial expressions and gestures coming out of bigger, older human beings’ mouths, and slowly guiding us into native-speakerdom of some specific language or languages.

But what if it’s not just our brains solely doing this input constraining?  A lot of our life is spent talking to other human beings (well there are a few hermits, video gamers and children raised by wolves who might not have too much human contact) but for the most part, we spend our lives swimming among other people, immersed in interaction.

So if we shift our focus a bit from inside our brain, to what’s going on outside of it, there might just be some other constraints that filter the infinite possibilities that a language might conceivably take, and one of these constraints that provides language with its underlying logic might just be the universality of interaction across the globe…

We very likely have two enterprises before us. One is stretching an older linguistics  – built for predication and writing – to cover action in interaction.  But whatever stance one takes towards the linguistics which we have and which we may try (and have tried) to stretch, it seems increasingly clear that we need another , one which captures something inescapable about language for humans, one which starts with the domain of talk-in-interaction, and gets the appropriate initial units from that domain….Perhaps we need to search even farther for new beginnings, or search with fresher eyes and ears, in the details of the talk with which we must, in the end, come to terms.’

– Emanuel Schegloff, p. 114

goodwin quote

By harnessing the insights of several different approaches to the study of how people actually use language in interaction (functional grammar, linguistic anthropology, and conversation analysis), the wide range of contributors to this book make some serious claims about the need to study how language unfolds ‘on the fly’ in face-to-face conversations:

If the conduct of language as a domain of  behavior is biological in character, then we should expect it (like other biolgocial entities) to be adapted to its natural environment…Transparently, the natural environment of language use is talk-in-interaction, and originally ordinary conversation.  The natural home environment of clauses and sentences is turns-at-talk.  Must we not understand the structures of grammar to be in important respects adaptations to the turn-at-talk in a conversational turn-taking system with its interactional contingencies? 

– Schegloff, 1989, p. 143

So what do these researchers of grammar in interaction get excited about?

“We were particularly excited by the possibility that the syntactic organization of different langauges might affect their deep interactional workings, for example, the mechanisms by which speaker transition is accomplished in those languages….the heart of interactionality – multiple speaking parties – may be the locus of the workings of the grammar of a language…Moreover, this possible relationship between interaction and grammar calls into question our common undersanding of syntax as a set of structures which can be deployed in a discourse…If it is true, as we suspect, that interaction and syntax are not in fact sepaarable but are rather different ways of looking at the same phenomenon, we may be better off thinking of syntax as a “hermeneutic for interpretation”…and interaction as the occasion for that interpretation.

– Fox, Hayashi and Jasperson, p. 226

Slowly, but surely, this new perspective on grammar provides us with some interesting new ways to think about human language:

When one considers the grammatical structure of langauge as a set of social resources that is in the first instance situated in the hands of participants who can deploy and exploit (and play with) these used-in-common features of sociality, then the ground for grammatical description shifts from the structures of language to the structures of practice.

– Gene Lerner, p. 239

And as the book comes to an end, one researcher reminds us not to lose sight of the important place natural conversation plays in our understanding of how language works and why:

The study of discourse is not a minor subfield of the human sciences, but rather a key locus for the analysis of the discursive practices, cognitive operations and social phenomena through which human beings constitute together the endogenous worlds they inhabit.

– Charles Goodwin, p. 398

Wherever linguistics is headed in the future, assuming it will still be called linguistics, the steady disruption between academic fields and the porous borders currently separating them will continue to create some interesting new angles to be explored and perspectives to be sketched out.

Labov quote



The feature image…

…was taken by me at Heceta Head on the Oregon Coast


3 responses to “A new direction or the way back home?: Grammar in interaction

  1. There are several good articles in that Interaction & Grammar book, and they do a good job of demonstrating the limitations of sentence grammars. It’s a persuasive call for a data-driven grammar of speech, but there’s no attempt to propose what that grammar would be. Ford & Thompson’s chapter comes the closest with their “completion points” marked by slashes, i.e. chunking transcribed speech.

    I was reading Interaction & Grammar (1996) at the same as I was getting into Linear Unit Grammar (Sinclair & Mauranen 2006), and I think the parallels are striking. LUG is a practical system that fulfills what the CA folks were anticipating 10 years earlier. It also draws on Brazil’s Grammar of Speech (1995), another worthy contribution to describing talk-in-interaction.

    Unfortunately, both Brazil and Sinclair died shortly after their respective publications. So, there are good tools out there and much descriptive work still to be done!

    • Hi Ray, I’ve been traveling a bit so I haven’t been able to respond to comments as promptly as I hoped, but thanks for the references you suggested. I’m unfamiliar with LUG but it sounds fascinating and once I get a chance to read up on a bit, I’d like to shoot you a more thorough response. As most of my research in the past comes form an interactional perspective of language, (CA and MCA, and interactional sociolinguistics) I’m keen on understanding grammar in interaction, and I agree that with the exception of Ford and Thompson’s chapter, there’s not much of a proposal for a grammar, but I’ll have to skim through my library to see if there’s anything more recent in the CA lit that comes closer to a proposing an interactional grammar. I would note that one major aspect of that Ford and Thompson leave out is the visual medium of interaction for projection and anticipating completion points, something that work on the multimodality language use is trying to comes to terms with. One recent edited volume that might be worth checking out is Streeck, Gooodwin and Lebaron’s (2011) book on embodied interaction if you haven’t already. But let me check out Brazil and Sinclair’s work and I’ll get back to you!

      UPDATE: 7/3/13

      I’ve had a chance to read a bit of Sinclair & Mauranen (2006) and Brazil (1996) exploring LUG. It’s a fascinating perspective on grammar and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops. And for those in corpus linguistics, I can see how LUG might offer a great way to find statistical frequencies of the features you’re interested in (ELF dis(fluency) in you’re case). I think the fundamental difference between LUG and more CA-oriented approaches is a matter of disciplinary origins. CA is crucially a sociological endeavor rather than a linguistic one. I think perspectives on grammar that embrace a more social perspective of language such as SFL, UBL or as far as I understand, LUG, originate out of disenchanted view of how linguistics has traditionally dealt with describing and explaining grammar. As I see it, CA is essentially interested in how linguistic (and other) resources are used to solve the common interactional problems we all have to solve as human beings. It wants to uncover what those interactional problems are, not necessarily the underlying principles of the linguistic resources used. Approaches that find their origin in linguistics are necessarily more concerned with the latter however. This is why CA has notoriously been avoided by those interested in more statistical approaches to studying language, since it resists the whole notion of coding altogether (because the same linguistic resource may be used by someone for various interactional problem solving tasks). I generally avoid linguistic theories that claim to be able to explain everything about grammar, because it really depends on what you’re trying to explain. But in your case, I think LUG does seem to offer some very useful insights into ELF (dis)fluency. Looking forward to seeing what you find!

  2. Hi Gavin, just saw your update — I agree with your comments on the relationship between CA and more quantitatively oriented approaches. I see merits and limitations in both. It would be nice to bridge the gap to some extent, but then it likely ends up with a research perspective unacceptable to both camps (and a one-way ticket to the unemployment line). Unfortunately it seems a lot of academic life involves picking your side and digging in. I suppose I’m more committed to the quantitative side of things, but there’s no way to study talk-in-interaction without reference to CA. Lots of good stuff there, no doubt.

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