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Review of  Language and Interaction

Reviewer: Giampaolo Poletto
Book Title: Language and Interaction
Book Author: Susan L. Eerdmans Carlo L. Prevignano Paul J. Thibault
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 14.1634

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Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2003 03:12:51 +0200
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.

Giampaolo Poletto, University of Pécs, 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, 1994).

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 events.

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 Nöth, 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 interaction.

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,

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 Press.

Clark, Herbert H. 1999. "On the Origin of Conversation". Verbum XXI (2):

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 Press.

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 1999.

Nöth, 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,
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Thibault, Paul J. 1990. Social Semiotics as Praxis. Text, Social Meaning
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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 Pécs, 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.