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AUTHOR: Richardson, Kay TITLE: Television Dramatic Dialogue SUBTITLE: A Sociolinguistic Study SERIES: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics PUBLISHER: Oxford YEAR: 2010
Jessie Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University
This book was published in the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics Series. As the title and subtitle suggest, Richardson's primary goal is to study dialogue in television shows from a sociolinguistic perspective, and she presents her study in three sections: (1) an analysis of what the term ''television dramatic dialogue'' means and previous research in the field; (2) how to study such dialogue from a sociolinguistic perspective; and (3) more specific analyses from two television shows, 'Life on Mars' and 'House'.
Richardson begins her study by defining TV dramatic dialogue ''as onscreen/on-mike talk delivered by characters as part of dramatic storytelling in a range of fictional and nonfictional TV genres'' (p. 3). Her definition of TV dramatization includes more than those shows that would typically fall under the genre 'drama', pointing out that even ''[g]eneric categorization is no guarantee of similar language use'' (p. 15). Studying dialogue to understand the overall impact of TV shows on audiences is particularly important, as ''speaking voices have a potential hold on viewers' attention that is qualitatively different from'' other types of auditory input (p. 17).
The first chapter not only defines the type of dialogue Richardson will be concerned with throughout the book but also focuses on the variety of purposes dialogue can serve in TV shows. When looking at dialogue, she does not solely focus on linguistic content, per se, but rather on the linguistic structure of the interactions and their contextualization, and she notes the differences between vocal and verbal meanings of dialogue.
After defining TV dramatic dialogue and its purposes and importance in TV shows, Richardson provides an overview of previous studies that are relevant to the sociolinguistic analysis of dialogue. Her survey covers ''[g]eneral attempts to understand the communicative basis of screen dialogue'' and studies more focused on ''particular kinds of dialogue'' or ''communicative forms'' (p. 40). Her survey also includes cognitive approaches to TV dialogue; she writes that such studies serve ''the useful function of drawing attention to social meanings brought *to* the text *by* the audience, as well as those that might be taken away from the text by them'' (p. 41).
Moving on from definitions and previous studies, Richardson examines differing approaches to studying dialogue, including looking at dialogue from screenwriters' and audiences' perspectives, as well as thinking about dialogue's place in studies of social interaction and cognition. She first focuses on the differences between TV dialogue and characteristics of the types of dialogue found in conversational speech, written genres, and nonscripted journalism. For instance, when comparing characteristics of TV dramatic dialogue to those of conversational speech, she points out that comprehensibility is a major factor of TV dramatic dialogue; if there is too much overlap of utterances in the interaction, audiences may not be able to understand or follow the interaction. While TV dramatic dialogue differs from conversational speech, it is trending toward realism; that is, screenwriters are attempting to make dialogue more representational of what audience members might hear on a daily basis. This trend toward realism is showing up in formulaic utterances in dialogues, and Richardson points out that ''[f]unctionally basic dialogue in television … need not be uninteresting or poorly written'' (p. 57).
Richardson also focuses on the separation of screenwriter from actor, actor from character, and representation from audience interpretation, pointing out that ''[i]t is instructive to learn about how and where the lines are drawn between writing, acting, and directing, and the effects of these demarcation lines on the product'' (p. 85). She states that screenwriters, actors, and audiences understand that drama is a representation; as a representation, TV dramatic dialogue simulates everyday dialogue without being everyday dialogue (i.e., TV dramatic dialogue is moving toward realism, not necessarily naturalism).
One way that Richardson separates the screenwriters' responsibilities from the actors' is that the writers are expected to provide words for the utterances but the actors are expected to put realism into those utterances. One way such realism can be injected into dialogue is through the insertion of disfluencies: ''… expressions of disfluency are not part of *the (verbal) meaning* but instead are performance *errors*. Writers are meant to manage meaning only up to this particular water's edge'' (p. 65). In other words, writers provide what the actors need to say, leaving how those words will be performed to the actors.
While focusing on the separation of duties in creating realistic TV dramatic dialogue, Richardson states that the duties are understood but not often explicitly stated; in fact, she notes several times that there is not a wealth of guides available for writing quality dramatic dialogue. Instead, good screenwriters are often those who are thought to implicitly understand what incorporates realistic dialogue and how to write such dialogue without overdramatizing: ''Screenwriters do, consciously, know about such things as hesitation phenomena, discourse markers, and hedges, and about some of the functions these can serve in spoken interaction. … They know how to use dialogue as a way of advancing the narrative, and they also appreciate that such usage creates a source of problems for the naturalism they are also obliged to sustain'' (p. 83).
Richardson also looks at how audiences respond to dialogue through threads, blogs, review columns, and fan fiction, and considers different types of audiences, including the professional review, the fan, and the ''ordinary'' viewer. One way that TV dramatic dialogue takes on a life outside the TV imagined world is through catchphrases -- those phrases that become so associated with a particular character that audience members repeat the phrase in similar real-world situations where the character might say it. One thing Richardson notes about catchphrases is that they are oftentimes made up of quite ordinary language. One example of such a catchphrase is Joey's ''How you doin'?'' from 'Friends', which is ''unremarkable, linguistically'' (p. 101).
Richardson continues her survey of possible methods for using TV dramatic dialogue in sociolinguistic studies by looking at dialogue as social interaction and then analyzing characters and their dialogue through theories of social cognition. When audiences cognitively process characters, they have the option of top-down processing (i.e., schemata) or bottom-up processing (i.e., building a picture of who someone is through linguistic cues in the dialogue). Richardson notes that with dramatic language, there is a ''… double articulation of its discourse architecture (communication *among* characters embedded as part of communication between author and audience *via* characters)…'' (p. 147). That double articulation is what makes studying dramatic dialogue so intricate -- the number of possibilities for analyzing any given interaction is quickly multiplied when the sociolinguistic layers are separated.
Richardson concludes her study with two in-depth analyses of television shows: 'Life on Mars' and 'House'. The 'Life on Mars' study focuses on analyzing the dialogue as ''quality'' dialogue and its place in the ''ethnography of communication'' (p. 167). In other words, that particular study is concerned with analyzing the interaction between the actors and audience. The 'House' study, on the other hand, focuses on the pragmatics of interactions, specifically analyzing the interactions through politeness theory (or, rather, through impoliteness theory).
Richardson's book is, at its core, a survey: eight of the ten chapters are more focused on the breadth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking at all the possible ways TV dramatic dialogue could be studied within sociolinguistics) while only two chapters focus on the depth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking at specific case studies and putting analyses into practice). It is important to approach the book as a general reference book and not as a solidified case study (an example of a more in-depth case study on TV language is Quaglio 2009).
One of the strongest chapters in the book is the second, which focuses on providing a solid background of previous sociolinguistic studies: It could potentially serve as a stand-alone paper to help students understand the field of sociolinguistic research as it applies to media. Throughout the book, Richardson relies on a strong base of diverse sources, including ''pop culture'' sources like blogs. The reliance on so many types of sources strengthens her presentation of how dramatic dialogue can further sociolinguistic study. Another strength of the book is its appendix and notes section; these will benefit students and scholars who are interested in furthering their own pursuit of sociolinguistic study and TV language.
The only concern with the book is that it could be too ambitious in terms of the amount of material being covered in so few pages; with so much ground being covered (especially in the breadth analyses), it might be disorienting for students who do not have a strong background in sociolinguistic theory. However, this book would serve as a good text for a course studying media through linguistics, where each chapter could then serve as the backbone for material which will be covered from week to week.
Quaglio, Paulo. 2009. Television Dialogue: The sitcom 'Friends' vs. natural conversation. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jessie Sams is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin
State University in Nacogdoches, TX. Her primary research interests
include the intersection of syntax and semantics, genre studies based on
linguistic features, and English quotatives.