LINGUIST List 14.1634

Tue Jun 10 2003

Review: Discourse/Pragmatics/Socioling: Eerdmans et al.

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  1. Giampaolo Poletto, Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

Message 1: Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2003 00:43:45 +0000
From: Giampaolo Poletto <>
Subject: Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

Eerdmans, Susan L., Carlo L. Prevignano and Paul J. Thibault,
ed. (2003) Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz,
John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Announced at

Giampaolo Poletto, University of P�cs, Hungary 

Addressing scholars rather than students, this volume, revises the
previous Discussing Communication Analysis 1: John J. Gumperz,
presenting a thematically homogeneous collection of interrelated and
informatively dense essays, in the form of interviews, conducted by
Prevignano, di Luzio, and Thibault, and peer commentary, by Levinson,
Thibault, Prevignano, Balim, and Eerdmans, on the research and
findings of John J. Gumperz, whose Interactional Sociolinguistic
Analysis is herein highlighted, in relation to the theory and practice
of communication and interaction analysis, to promote a critical
confrontation with other approaches to human interaction.

Rooted in the fields of sociology, anthropology and linguistics,
Interactional Sociolinguistics pursues the goal to discover and
understand ''how interpretation and interaction are based upon the
interrelationship of social and linguistic meanings'' (Schiffrin,

Gumperz's perspective focuses on the communication ecologies, where
societal power relationships and ideological processes are reflected
in the participants' interpretive acts and conversational inferencing.

A crucial role is played by contextualization cues, pure indexicals
with the functions of enabling social actors to retrieve
presuppositions, so as to make sense of what seen and heard in
interactive encounters, and of interacting with symbolic, fully-coded,
lexical and grammatical signs in the processes of constituting speech

The first two of the ten essays in the volume, each with a final
bibliographical note, presents Gumperz's research program and main

Di Luzio explains the trajectory of his research, from the earliest
dialectological studies, to the interest in the social motivations for
linguistic variations, the interpretative basis of interactional
sociolinguistics and the notion of contextualization cues. The results
of earlier research state that interaction determines and displays the
diffusion and limitation of linguistics variables; that speakers'
perceptions or definitions of language equivalence or diversity do not
depend on genetic affiliation; that speech communities prove
linguistically heterogeneous; that linguistic variation and
alternation are communicatively functional and meaningful. The results
of his hermeneutical methods of analysis of communicative and
dialogical interactions show the ways language (speech) and society
(culture), linguistic cognitive and communicative aspects, speakers'
and analysts' theory and praxis, are tightly interwoven, which is
reflected throughout the volume.

Many issues central to the volume are then exposed in a forum in the
second paper, especially focusing on the ethnographic roots of
Gumperz's sociolinguistic research and the need to separately consider
linguistic forms and the communication practices embedding them and
their meaning. The beginning of his current trend dates back to
Discourse Strategies (Gumperz, 1982), along with the notion of
contextualization cues and processes, relevant to the functioning of
linguistic signs in inferential processes (Gumperz, 1992).

The central papers shed light on the question of how to interpret
utterances in context.

Along with an internalist approach to formal and content properties of
Gumperzian contextualization cues, where the term ''cue'' denotes an
encoded or conventional reminder, from the standpoint of Gumperz's
Language in Social Groups (Gumperz, 1971) Levinson displays the
relationship between utterances, specifying their interpretative
contexts in implicit ways, through verbal and non-verbal resources,
and contexts, viewed as not externally imposed on the former. More
implicit modalities of semiosis modify the explicit propositional
meanings of utterances, cutting across apparent surface distinctions
and misleading about meaning-making resources.

In an attempt to develop a unified approach to them, when other than
the deployed semiotic resources, Thibault's echoes the above third
paper, identifying and examining, one by one, indexical, intertextual
and metatextual ''social meaning-making practices'' (see Lemke, 1990,
Thibault, 1991), to analyze how agents access and co-ordinate their
deployment in a culture activity structure-types and discourse
genres. He proceeds from the Bakhtinian work on speech genres
conceived of as not to be studied oppositively (see Bakhtin, 1986). He
stresses that the definition of index provided by Pierce (see N�th,
1990) is no longer applicable, in reason of Gumperz's perspective of
indexicality, concerned with the making and specifying of contextual
relations. Indexicality corresponds to Langacker's ''grounding''
(Langacker, 1987), in a conceptually unified framework to be
necessarily produced. Along with Gumperz's central notion of
contextualization, Thibault finally provides a distinction in
indexicality, intertextuality, metadiscursivity, hinting at aspects of
the permanently dialectical local and global - instantial and systemic
- discursive relations.

Continuing with a specific aspect of the above question, Prevignano
confronts Grice, Leech and other ''maximist'' pragmatists, with
Gumperz and the ''minims of interaction'', used as a mutual signal of
what someone is doing during the interaction, governing ''boundary
markers'' (Duranti, 1985, 1992). They are embedded in activity
structures and entailing interpretive principles, historical in two
senses, with reference to the participants' applications and
interpretations of each other's interactional minims, and from the
analyst's viewpoint, for an ethnographic and analytical reconstruction
and understanding, along with the common object of study, human

After considering the different interpretations of and perspectives on
communication, up to Berge's skeptical view (Berge, 1994), Gumperz's
is envisioned, as to the definition of scriptical ''contextualization
cues'', which make interpretable, in the place of explicitly
lexicalized or verbalized explanations or rationalizations, the type
of act/action/activity human agents are engaging in, ''participatory
actions'' for Clark (Clark, 1999), according to Prevignano's
''semiotic principle of interaction'' and to Gumperz's motto
''speaking is interacting'' (Gumperz, 1982).

Balim's paper displays the perspective of computer mediated
communication and applied computational linguistics to interpret
utterances in the light of their context as perceived by the speakers
and hearers involved, of elements such as discourse participants'
knowledge, intentions, desires, beliefs, and of the models created
during the interaction, when mutual inferences and reason are argued
to be made in a system forming top-down constraints. With respect to
the author's work (see Balim and Wilks, 1991), or others' (see Barwise
and Perry, 1983), in the field of Natural Language Processing, where
the context of a communication is of primary importance in discourse
understanding, Gumperzian ''contextualization cues'', aiming to show
the interaction between indexical and symbolic signs, may contribute
to the defining discourse structure and demarcating shifts in context.

In the area of intercultural communication, Eerdmans evaluates two of
Gumperz's exemplar case studies connecting to his initial ethnographic
research: the job center interview; the rape trial cross-examination,
reanalyzing Paul Drew's study (Drew, 1992) and intending to prove the
inadequacy of sequential analysis relevant to situated interpretation.

Then she argues on the usefulness of interactional sociolinguistics in
a second language teaching and learning context, as a tool to explain
conflicts or misconstructions between participants' and interlocutors'
interpretative frames of what seen and heard, when the former
interpret and negotiate the latter's contributions during inter-ethnic

Given that communicative - or interactional - competence is
''co-constructed'' (Jacoby and Ochs, 1995) by participants in
interactive practice, mutual understanding and efficient communication
imply the individuals' knowledge of interactive and rhetorical
strategies transmitting information from speaker to hearer and vice
versa (see Gumperz and Roberts, 1991).

Detailed sociolinguistic analyses of speech events implying contacts
between different cultures or ethnic groups, more and more frequent
today, are relevant to motivate the inclusion of specific cultural
contents in language curricula, to avoid that teaching is ''divorced
from intrasocietal issues of linguistic diversity'' (Gumperz, 1996).

The eighth, ninth and tenth papers complete the first edition, with a
closing bio-bibliographical note.

Gumperz intervenes with a Response essay, on the evolution of his
career as a sociolinguist, on the volume contributions, on his current
thinking about language and interaction, on the ways linguistic and
cultural diversity and sociocultural boundaries are displayed in and
shape linguistic interaction.

Considering himself a linguist anthropologist, he regards his study of
interaction as integral to the broader framework of ethnographic
investigations, conducted on the taken-for-granted ways local
populations deal with issues encountered in their everyday activities.

He shares the view of talk as constituted by sequentially-organized
conversational exchanges, of conversation somehow creating its
communicative ecology. He clarifies the meaning and origin of some
terms and expressions he uses, as, for example, ''discursive
practice'', akin to Hank's use (Hanks, 1996); the agreement of his
approach to semiotic phenomena with Silverstein's, with special
reference to the classification and function of contextualization cues
(Silverstein, 1992, 1993); the relevance of metacommunication as a
strategy for linguist anthropologist to avoid dichotomies of the kind
'language and thought', 'language and culture', and others.

Along with a context conceived of as not external to and independent
of semiotic systems dynamics and properties, Thibault again surveys
some of the contributors' theoretical issues, in relation to some
notions. First, action and interaction are viewed as a unifying
principle for the analysis of semiotic resources multimodally
co-deployed. Actions embedded in higher-scalar ecosocial environments
interact with the lower-scalar embodied dynamics of participants to
discursive interaction. Secondly, the fully-coded message content and
the contextualization cues, described by Gumperz and Levinson, are
integral to a theoretically-unified framework, on considering the
typological and topological dimensions language as a mixed-mode
semiosis, in line with the Principle of Alternation (see Lemke, 1999).

Some previously examined key issues are conclusively reviewed, in a
discussion on the role of inferential processes in interpreters'
understandings of each other's meanings in interactional
events. Gumperz maintains they are relevant for understanding the
contribution of the cross-cultural factors in communicatively diverse
environments, passing then to further comment on ideological processes
in human interaction and share his views on other approaches to
interactional sociolinguistics.


The volume manages to overview in detail the trajectory and horizons
of John J. Gumperz's research, diachronically and synchronically,
within the framework of his fields of interest and focusing on some of
his key issues. Interrelation and interaction thematically and
structurally tie together the different contributions collected, with
the protagonists repeatedly recalling and re-elaborating concepts,
ideas, terms. Balim's paper just introduces the perspective on NLP and
is not further developed. Certainly it adds to the multifaceted,
actual and productive applications and directions of Gumperz's
approach and methods.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1986. ''The problem of speech genres''. In Speech
Genres and Other Late Essays, V.W.McGee (trans.), C. Emerson and
M. Holquist (eds), 60-102. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Balim, Afzal and Wilks, Yorick. 1991. Artificial Believers: The
Ascription of Belief. Hillsday, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Barwise, Jon and Perry, John. 1983. Situations and
Attitudes. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Berge, Charles R. 1994. ''Communication''. In The Encyclopedia of
Language and Linguistics, R.E. Asher (ed.), 614-620. Oxford: Pergamon

Clark, Herbert H. 1999. ''On the Origin of Conversation''. Verbum XXI
(2): 147-161.

Drew, Paul. 1992. ''Contested evidence in courtroom cross-examination:
The case of a trial for rape''. In Talk at Work: Interaction in
Institutional Settings, P. Drew and J. Heritage (eds), 470-520. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1985. ''Sociocultural dimensions of
discourse''. In Handbook of Discourse Analysis I. T.A. Van Dijk (ed.),
193-230. London: Academic Press.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1992. Etnografia del Parlare Quotidiano. Rome: La
Nuova Italia Scientifica.

Gumperz, John J. 1971. Language in Social Groups. A.S. Dil (ed.).
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gumperz, John J. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Gumperz, John J. and Roberts, Celia. 1991. ''Understanding in
intercultural encounters''. In The Pragmatics of Intercultural and
International Communication, J. Blommaert and J. Verschueren (eds),
51-90. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Gumperz, John J. 1992. ''Contextualization revisited''. In The
Contextualization of Language, P. Auer and A. di Luzio (eds), 39-53.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Gumperz. John J. 1996. ''On teaching language in its sociocultural
context''. In Social Interaction, Social Context and Language. Essays
in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp, D.I. Slobin et al. (eds),
469-480. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and Communicative Practices. Boulder,
CO: Westview Press.

Jacoby, Sally and Ochs, Elinor. 1995. ''Co-construction: An
introduction''. Research on Language and Social Interaction 28 (3),
171-83. Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar,
Vol. 1. Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University

Lemke, Jay. 1990. Talking Science, Language, Learning, and Values.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Lemke, Jay. 1999. ''Opening up closure: Semiotics across
scales''. Paper presented at the conference, Closure: Emergent
Organizations and their Dynamics, University of Ghent, Belgium, may

N�th, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Schiffrin, Deborah. 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Basil

Silverstein, Michael. 1992. ''The indeterminacy of contextualization:
When is enough?''. In The Contextualization of Language, P. Auer and
A. di Luzio (eds), 55-76. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael. 1993. ''Metapragmatic discourse and
metapragmatic function''. In Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and
Metapragmatics, J.A. Lucy (ed.), 33-58. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Thibault, Paul J. 1990. Social Semiotics as Praxis. Text, Social
Meaning Making and Nabokov's 'Ada' [Theory and History of Literature
Series 74]. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press.


Giampaolo Poletto is Bachelor in Foreign Languages and Literature,
English and Russian, and Humanities in Italy, with teaching
qualifications for secondary schools in English and in Italian,
teaching in Italy and abroad for ten years, as well as at the
university level. He is now a second year student in a PhD program in
Applied Linguistics at the University of P�cs, in Hungary, with a
research project on pragmatic and psycholinguistic aspects of humor,
in relation to processes of second language acquisition, comprehending
a discourse analysis of Italian humorous texts, the analysis of and
reflections on processes of implicit language learning, and, with
reference to curricula of second language teaching, the proposal of
didactic applications for L2 students aged 11 to 18.
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