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Review of  Affectivity in Interaction

Reviewer: Terese Thonus
Book Title: Affectivity in Interaction
Book Author: Elisabeth Reber
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 23.4750

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AUTHOR: Elisabeth Reber
TITLE: Affectivity in Interaction
SUBTITLE: Sound Objects in English
SERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 215
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

Terese Thonus, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA


‘Affectivity in Interaction: Sound Objects in English’ is a study of three English
sound objects in a small (16:22 hours) British-English corpus. Elisabeth Reber
finds, describes, and analyzes ‘oh’ [əʊ], ‘ooh’ [uː], and ‘ah’ [ɑː] in mundane
conversation. She establishes a scheme for the analysis of sound objects that
together reveal insights that a single analysis could not have. Each sound object
is analyzed acoustically, rhythmically, and interactionally and compared to its
accounts in dictionaries and other empirical studies.

Chapter 1 introduces Interactional Linguistics, a combination of disciplines which,
grounded in Contextualization Theory, uses linguistic tools of prosodic and
phonetic description, as well as Conversation Analysis, to ''analyze affect-laden
sound objects as communicative resources as they are deployed in talk-in-
interaction in order to accomplish social actions and goals” (13). These tools are
well instantiated chapters in the volume ‘Prosody in Interaction’ (2010), which
Reber co-edited with Barth-Weingarten and Selting.

Chapter 2 reviews previous literature on interjections, discourse markers, and
vocalizations, critiquing studies that ignore the sequential deployment of these
sound objects in talk-in-interaction. For example, Reber rejects the analysis of ‘oh’
by discourse analysts Aijmer (2002) and Schiffrin (1987) because it assigns ''some
kind of core meaning'' to a contextually- dependent discourse marker (35). Also,
Reber assesses speech-act and syntactic analyses of interjections as limited
because they are confined to written graphemic representations: ''Frameworks
which aim to analyze interjections as objects with full semantics and regardless of
their use in spoken discourse are not fully able to account for what they are'' (32).
Through these critiques, she positions her research solidly within a Conversation-
Analytical framework.

Chapter 3 more positively reviews previous literature on affect in sound objects
analyzed from Prosody-in-Conversation and Phonology-for-Conversation
perspectives. The author approaches affectivity in talk-in-interaction through
previous research on prosody as a contextualization device and also previous
research on conversational activities. She cites cross-linguistic research by
Cooper-Kuhlen (2009), which states that affectivity in English is more likely to be
marked prosodically than lexically. Reber argues that these ''phonetic bundles'' can
be ascribed as affect for two reasons; they are neither lexical nor grammatical, but
rather intricately woven into sequences of talk-in-interaction.

Having argued that ‘oh,’ ‘ooh,’ and ‘ah’ can only be effectively researched in oral,
conversational contexts, in Chapter 4, Reber surveys previous research on
affective displays in conversational activities. She identifies five sequences in
which affect accomplishes specific actions in troubles talk, news delivery,
complaints, assessments, and self-initiated or other-initiated repairs (60). Reber
acknowledges that these are not the only sequence types that instantiate ‘oh,’
‘ooh,’ and ‘ah,’ but has selected them because they are the most frequent types in
her data. She thus expands her analysis from strictly qualitative to quantitative as
well (see Schegloff 1993).

Chapter 5 introduces Reber's data and transcription style. Of the more than 16
hours of conversations, 5:50 hours (h) come from radio phone-in shows, 3:49 h
from face-to-face interactions between family members, and 7:22 h from telephone
interactions between friends and family. These data yield 340 instances of [əʊ], 32
of [uː], and 55 of [ɑː], which are by far the most common affect-laden sound
objects in the corpus. Reber describes the methodological approach of the study
as ''a comprehensive analysis of formal (sequential, prosodic-phonetic, lexical,
syntactic-grammatical) and functional contextual aspects (actions, activities)'' (78).
Using Praat 5.2 .03, she performed acoustic analyses of each token, illustrating
fundamental frequency, intensity, and time (77). Chapter 6 presents a thorough
analysis of ‘oh’ in repair sequences and news tellings. The token [əʊ] ‘oh’, for
example, appeared in a rhythmically-delayed sequential position as a ''news
response'' (112):

1 Dwa: at the ↑mOment Donald's uh:
2 sprained a couple of uh
3 <↓WHAT is it dOnald>?
4 (1.15)
5 Dwa: /HAM /
6 /strIngs; and in /
7 /[stEAd [of
8 (D): /[pulled]
9 Mar: /[< ‘ ` [?əʊ:]>;
10 (-)

Chapter 7 analyzes tokens of [uː] ‘ooh’ in radio phone-ins and mundane complaints
sequences/ troubles talk. Reber offers this example of [uː] in a turn-expansion
sequence (152):

1 M1: .hh has your ↑HUSband got a hairy chest.
2 C3: <oh he HAS>,
3 (.)
4 M1: HAS he,
5 C3: <YE[AH>;
6 M1: [[? uː];=
7 =↓ you are drOOling at the LIPS- .h [hh
8 C3: [I A[M;
9 M1: [he [he
10 C3: [hehehe [he
11 M1: [.hh
12 <one or two hellos to all of your friends in
13 CHEAdle>.

Chapter 8 analyzes types of [ɑː] ‘ah’ in troubles talk and deliveries of bad news.
Reber presents this example of an affect-laden ‘ah’ in response to a delivery of
bad news (198):

1 Sus: [okay;
2 (.)
3 hh well that's All I wanted to KNOW;
4 (-)
5 Gor: WHY’s that.
6 (---)
7 Sus: ↑hm::::
8 (.)
9 NOTHing; h [h
10 Gor: [.hhhh
11 yOU’re just (.) BO:RED. [hhh
12 Sus: [mh: NO::;
13 (-)
14 Sus: WELL-
15 I dIdn’t pass my DRIving test;
16 Gor: `% [ɑːː] . h
17 (--)
18 Gor: oh THAT’S a pIty;
19 (.)
20 wAs it toDAY;
21 (--)
22 Sus: <

23 <

it wAs YESterday>;

Like Ruusuvuori’s (2007) treatment of Finnish ‘nii’ (ni), Reber distinguishes
between “different sorts of” ‘ohs,’ ‘oohs,’ and ‘ahs’ on both phonetic/prosodic and
interactional grounds, which she terms ''two intersecting contextualization
systems'' (249). Chapter 9 deals with ''more affect-laden sound objects,” alveolar
and bilabial clicks, and whistling. These were extremely rare in Reber's data. The
last chapter of the book offers an overall summary and conclusions.

Key findings of Reber's study include her analysis of ''extra high and pointed'' ‘oh’
as fulfilling three functions. The first is to avoid affiliation. The second is to defer
either a positive or negative uptake on the speaker's part. The third is to give
greater rights to the other speaker to evaluate news. Reber discovers that ''extra
high and pointed'' ‘ooh’ signals positive excitement (and perhaps surprise) and
results in turn expansion (146), while ‘ooh’ with ''high pitch and a flat, rising-falling
contour'' functions as a receipt of detailed, negative information in complaint
sequences and troubles talk (158, 161). ''Low-falling and tailed'' ‘ah’ appreciates
the negativity of bad news and signals empathy while ''flat-falling and low'' ‘ah’
communicates responses to rejections and to bad news when the recipient is the
''consequential figure'' (247). In sum, Reber argues that affect-laden sound objects
''constitute neither random nor absolutely spontaneous productions'' (257).


One of the strongest features of ‘Affectivity in Interaction: Sound Objects in
English’ is its excellent list of references, which includes key journal articles, book
chapters, and monographs within the four research paradigms, as well as research
on affectivity from researchers operating within grammatical, semantic, and
discourse analysis paradigms. Many of these sources -- particularly those written
in or about languages other than English -- were unfamiliar to me and added to my
understanding of Reber's analysis and argument.

While Reber's findings are not strikingly different from those of prior researchers,
the depth of analysis presented sets the book apart from previous publications.
However, the greatest disappointment of the book, in my view, is the small data
set that Reber analyzed in a small range of conversational settings. Although
Reber presents radio phone-in shows as “semi-institutional,” she also states that
such conversations “constitute adjustments of the ones practiced in mundane
contexts” (60). Unfortunately, therefore, the data set lacks examples of these
sound objects in work and institutional settings, which one would have expected
given the plethora of research on these in studies of talk-in-interaction (i.e.,
Conversation Analysis). Also, an entire chapter written about 12 clicks and
whistles found in the data because they, like ‘oh,’ ‘ooh,’ and ‘ah,’ ''are deployed as
recipient responses to affect-laden speaker actions'' (223) lacks credibility and
does little to advance the author’s argument.

The book is both strengthened by and hampered by its status as a dissertation
revision. One strength is its thorough treatment of “background” and
“preliminaries,” making the volume accessible to readers with little prior knowledge
of affectivity and talk-in-interaction research. Others are its thorough literature
review and richly detailed, predictable chapter structure. However, it is also
hampered by its origin as a dissertation. While most researchers are susceptible to
the temptation of avoiding critiquing those they know and admire, dissertation
writers are in a particularly awkward position. Reber, like all scholars-in-training, is
beholden to her academic committee members. Therefore, in her review of the
literature, Reber neglects to provide the same critical appraisal of the work of
those who supervised her dissertation. In her Acknowledgments (ix), she refers to
Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen as ''my supervisor, mentor and friend,” and to Marja-
Leena Sorjonen as “my second supervisor.'' Reber also thanks Margret Selting for
discussing data examples with her and therefore neglects to offer the same critical
analysis of Selting’s work as she does of Wierzbicka’s (1992) or of Fischer’s
(2000). What is more, the author thanks Couper-Kuhlen and Elizabeth Holt for
permission to use their data, and also acknowledges Couper-Kuhlen’s ''meticulous
proofreading of the current manuscript in the final stages of production'' (ix).
Reber’s reliance on her mentors may be a good professional move, but I, as a
reader, would hope for critical (or at least different) input to the publication process
from those less familiar with her work.

Reber's volume will be read with interest by linguists who work within a variety of
research paradigms: Prosody-in Conversation, Phonology-for-Conversation,
Discourse-Functional linguistics, and Conversation Analysis (see also Barth-
Weingarten et al. 2010). Scholars with research interests in embodied interaction,
communication studies, and affectivity in psychology, sociology, and medicine
may also be interested in these findings. All that is necessary is that readers be
willing to consider an account of certain ''response cries'' (Goffman 1978) that is
informed by multiple paradigms and therefore highly informative and productive. It
is this analytical constellation that makes ‘Affectivity in Interaction: Sound Objects
in English’ a thorough and unique contribution to the analysis of conversation.
More multimodal and multidisciplinary analyses of conversation are likely to result
from studies like this.


Aijmer, Karin. 2002. English discourse particles: Evidence from a corpus.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Barth-Weingarten, Dagmar, Elisabeth Reber and Margret Selting (eds). 2010.
Prosody in interaction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cooper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth. 2009. A sequential approach to affect: The case of
“disappointment.’’ In Haakana, Markku, Minna Laakso and Jan Lindström (eds.),
Talk in interaction: Comparative dimensions, 94-123. Helskini: Finnish Literature
Society (SKS).

Fischer, Kerstin. 2000. From cognitive semantics to lexical pragmatics: The
functional polysemy of discourse particles. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Goffman, Erving. 1978. Response cries. Language 54. 787-815.

Ruusuvuori, Johanna. 2007. Managing affect: Integration of empathy and problem-
solving in health care encounters. Discourse Studies 9. 597-622.

Schegloff, Emanuel. 1993. Reflections on quantification in the study of
conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction 26. 99-128.

Schiffrin, Deborah. 1987. Discourse markers. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Selting, Margret and Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth (eds). 2001. Studies in interactional
linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sorjonen, Marja-Leena. 2001. Responding in conversation: A study of response
particles in Finnish. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1992. Semantics, culture and cognition: Universal human
concepts in culture-specific configurations. New York/Oxford: Oxford University


Terese Thonus teaches in the Department of English and directs the Writing Center at the University of Kansas. She researches oral discourse analysis and second language acquisition and writing and has published in 'Discourse & Society,' 'Text,' the 'Journal of Second Language Writing,' and 'Linguistics and Education,' among other venues. She is author, with Rebecca Babcock, of 'Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice' (Peter Lang, 2012).