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Review of  Prosody in Interaction

Reviewer: Rebecca Rubin Damari
Book Title: Prosody in Interaction
Book Author: Dagmar Barth-Weingarten Elisabeth Reber Margret Selting
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Cognitive Science
Discipline of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 23.1717

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EDITORS: Dagmar Barth-Weingarten, Elisabeth Reber, and Margret Selting
TITLE: Prosody in Interaction
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Discourse and Grammar 23
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Rebecca Rubin Damari, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University


‘Prosody in Interaction’ collects a set of papers presented at a conference of
the same name in 2008. The stated purpose of the book is to advance “the
interactional-linguistic approach to the study of talk-in-interaction,”
addressing theoretical and methodological questions, while increasing the rigor
of phonetic analysis of prosody in interaction (Preface by the editors, p. xi).
‘Prosody in Interaction’ positions itself as one in a series of books on the
topic, with the others including Couper-Kuhlen and Selting (1996), Selting and
Couper-Kuhlen (2001), and Couper-Kuhlen and Ford (2004).

The twenty-three chapters in this wide-ranging volume are divided into an
introductory section and three subsequent sections: (1) “Prosody and other
levels of linguistic organization in interaction”; (2) “Prosodic units as a
structuring device in interaction”; and (3) “Prosody and other semiotic
resources in interaction.” Each section consists of analytic papers and shorter
commenting papers, which supplement the main papers in a variety of ways. The
main chapters vary in their subject language, type of data, (non-)use of
acoustic measures, and relationship of prosody to discourse factors.

The book is accompanied by a website housing audio and video clips of examples
from most of the analytic chapters.


Margret Selting’s introductory chapter, “Prosody in interaction: State of the
art,” orients the reader to a history of the field since the 1980s, highlighting
its interdisciplinarity and addressing a variety of methodological and
theoretical approaches to the intersection of prosody and interaction. Selting
also addresses the complementary questions of why analysts of interaction should
be interested in prosody, and why phoneticians and phonologists should be
interested in the role of prosody in interaction. She makes a compelling case on
both counts, employing examples from her own research to demonstrate how prosody
is co-constitutive of meaning. The author closes the chapter with sections on
research questions, directions, and challenges. In this chapter, as is the case
throughout the volume, the reader feels the influence of the methodologies and
questions of Conversation Analysis (CA) and Interactional Linguistics, which
focus on the organization and mechanics of interaction.

Part 1. Prosody and other levels of linguistic organization in interaction

The first analytic chapter, “The phonetic constitution of a turn-holding
practice: Rush-throughs in English talk-in-interaction,” by Gareth Walker,
prioritizes the integration of prosodic and non-prosodic components of the
phonetic design of talk. In naturally-occurring conversation in British and
American English, Walker acoustically analyzes duration, pitch, and other
articulatory features of the join between turn-constructional units (TCUs).
Walker argues that close juncture, articulation rate, and phonation (but not
pitch) constitute “rush-throughs,” which are recognized by participants as a bid
to hold the conversational floor.

In “Prosodic constructions in making complaints,” Richard Ogden argues that two
complaint formats -- one designed to receive an affiliative response (i.e.
“A-complaints”) and the other designed to end a sequence (i.e. “X-complaints”)
-- not only have distinct lexical and sequential characteristics, but also take
phonetically distinct forms. Ogden combines auditory and acoustic analyses of
American and British English complaints to show that A-complaints are typically
delivered at a pitch higher than the speaker’s average pitch, with a pronounced
fall at the end of the turn, while X-complaints are typically quieter, faster,
and produced with a more typical pitch for the speaker. Finally, the author
argues that these phonetic properties are associated not with complaining per
se, but with seeking an affiliative response in the case of A-complaints, or
exiting the sequence, in the case of X-complaints.

“Prosodic variation in responses: The case of type-conforming responses to
yes/no interrogatives,” by Geoffrey Raymond, considers differing prosodic shapes
of type-conforming responses to English yes/no interrogatives (YNIs) -- i.e.,
“yes” and “no” -- along with their sequential contexts. Through auditory
analysis of intonation contours and speech rate, Raymond shows that these
prosodic features can disrupt the flow of an interaction that would otherwise be
kept on track by the use of “yes” or “no” responses to YNIs. Depending on their
prosodic design, type-confirming tokens can project more talk when a sequence
might otherwise seem to be closed, can anticipate a next turn, and can even
challenge elements of a YNI. Raymond emphasizes that YNIs’ “structured
sequential environment and…limited range of specialized tokens” (p. 127) provide
a particularly fruitful site to examine the role of sound variation in
manipulating elements of interaction.

In “Retrieving, redoing and resuscitating turns in conversation,” John Local,
Peter Auer and Paul Drew examine the sequential and acoustic prosodic
characteristics of three different ways that speakers “try again” to get their
voice heard in conversation after a turn that was attempted before was lost.
Retrievals typically occur immediately after the trouble source and are
phonetically “downgraded”, i.e., they are shorter in duration, maintain the
pitch contour of the first attempt, have a pitch range no higher and no wider
than the first attempt, and are no louder than the first attempt. In contrast,
redoings are usually delayed and are more likely to be upgraded phonetically,
lexically, and/or syntactically. Finally, the phonetic production of
resuscitations, defined as second attempts sequentially removed from the
relevant first attempt, depends on their sequential and interactional position.
The authors show that these patterns are mostly consistent across English and
German conversation.

“Doing confirmation with ja/nee hoor: Sequential and prosodic characteristics of
a Dutch discourse particle,” by Harrie Mazeland and Leendert Plug, treats the
Dutch particle “hoor,” described in previous literature as emphasizing some
aspect of the previous utterance. The analysis focuses first on describing the
sequential contexts in which “ja (yes) hoor” and “nee (no) hoor” appear, showing
that “hoor” can be used to link the confirming turn to the larger interactional
activity in various ways. Then, based on auditory and acoustic analysis, the
authors describe the distinctive intonation contours of types of “hoor” with
different interactional functions. The use of “hoor” accompanying “ja” or “nee,”
combined with the use of distinctive prosodic realizations, echoes Raymond’s
chapter on the different interactional functions of type-conforming responses to

Part 2. Prosodic units as a structuring device in interaction
“Intonation phrases in natural conversation: A participants’ category?,” by
Beatrice Szczepek Reed, questions whether intonation phrases are a salient unit
for conversational participants. Based on American English conversational data,
she argues that current speakers regularly divide their speech into shorter
chunks (ranging from one word to several), and that these chunks are usually
defined “in more mode than one,” i.e., lexically, syntactically, through pauses,
in-breaths, gesture, gaze, and other mechanisms (p. 199). Cues that seem to help
next-speakers orient to chunks include final lengthening, coherent overall pitch
contour, syntactic and semantico-pragmatic boundaries, as well as glottal
closure. Szczepek Reed thus argues that turns-at-talk are constituted from
chunks, but that chunks may be defined by any number of intonational, syntactic,
or other characteristics, and that terms for chunks that solely emphasize
intonation are not useful. She proposes instead a focus on the interactional
functions of chunks, rather than their intonational properties.

In “Speaking dramatically: The prosody of live radio commentary of football
matches,” Friederike Kern shows, through auditory and acoustic analyses, how
prosody contributes to the drama of German radio descriptions of football (i.e.
soccer) matches in progress. The author argues that radio commentators
semantically and prosodically distinguish between “building up of suspense” and
“presentation of a highlight” (p. 224). Suspense is built through the use of
high-rising intonation, minimal peaks on accented syllables, final level
intonation, close latching between prosodic units, and absence of lengthening on
accented syllables. In contrast, a climax is indicated by highest pitch, slower
articulation rate, more pauses, and a steep drop in pitch on the last syllable.

“Tonal repetition and tonal contrast in English carer-child interaction,” by
Bill Wells, presents a case study of a mother-child interaction in which the
young child systematically echoes and contrasts with his mother’s tone depending
on his interactional goals. The study is presented in contrast to previous
studies arguing that children acquire an inventory of tones or pitch accents
with inherent meanings. Using auditory and acoustic measures of pitch, and
transcripts that include graphical representations of pitch contours, Wells
argues that a 19- to 21-month old child repeats some aspect of the tonal contour
of his mother’s utterances when his mother asks him to repeat something and when
she initiates a repair of some aspect of his speech, however, he produces a
contrasting tone to initiate a topic change.

Part 3. Prosody and other semiotic resources in interaction

“Communicating emotion in doctor-patient interaction: A multidimensional
single-case analysis,” by Elisabeth Gülich and Katrin Lindemann, shows how
emotions that are not explicitly named in interaction can nonetheless be made
clear through other communicative resources, including prosody. The case
analysis used is that of an epileptic patient being interviewed (in German) by a
doctor from a psychiatric hospital. In telling a narrative about a seizure, the
patient does not say explicitly that she was afraid during the episode, but, the
authors argue, demonstrates fear implicitly through her use of prosody, gesture,
facial expression, and gaze.

In “Multimodal expressivity of the Japanese response particle Huun: Displaying
involvement without topical engagement,” Hiroko Tanaka demonstrates that the
response particle “Huun” can be used to display engagement with and uptake of
another speaker’s talk while withholding explicit evaluative judgment. In a
conversation between two middle-aged women, the prosodic characteristics of
affiliative tokens of “Huun” -- extreme lengthening and a dramatic
falling-rising contour -- are supplemented by supportive “multimodal displays,”
including gaze and head and body movement. Despite the fact that these tokens
seem to be intended and interpreted by participants as endorsing the previous
utterance, they also serve to bring a topic to a close, since they are
non-lexicalized responses.

“Multiple practices for constructing laughables,” by Cecilia E. Ford and Barbara
A. Fox, identifies phonetic and embodied practices used in American English for
inviting recipient laughter, including smiley voice, modulation of pitch and
loudness, laryngealization, and audible breathing, among others. They argue
that, while each of these practices taken alone can have many interactional
meanings, the combination of several of these phonetic and embodied practices,
in particular, sequential contexts, allow participants and analysts to identify
an utterance as a “laughable.” The authors also point out mismatches between the
phonetic properties of “speech-laugh” and the terms that are usually used to
describe it in CA, and call for the development of finer-grained transcription
methods than those currently used in CA research.

“Constructing meaning through prosody in aphasia,” by Charles Goodwin, describes
how an aphasic speaker, Chil, exploits prosody, in combination with gesture and
sequential organization, to make himself understood, even with a severely
limited vocabulary. Goodwin uses transcripts enhanced with pitch tracks and
illustrations of gestures and gaze to demonstrate how Chil combines these
resources, along with segment duration and strategic timing, to enact distinct
meanings, even when his utterances are simply repetitions of the word “no.”

Ten out of the thirteen main chapters are followed by a “Comments” chapter, in
most cases of no more than 5 pages, written by another author. These chapters
take a variety of approaches. In addition to highlighting the primary
contributions of the preceding chapter, these comments introduce relevant
theoretical background, conduct further analysis of an example from the
preceding chapter, ask questions of its author, or raise questions for further


Though the analytic chapters vary in their specific goals, their sources of
data, and so on, they hang together well due to their shared focus on the
sequential organization of interaction, drawing upon evidence from a combination
of current-speaker action and next-speaker action, and in several cases,
embodied as well as spoken. Each takes a detailed, qualitative approach to one
interaction at a time, with several authors stating explicitly that the examples
they choose to illustrate their points are representative of a larger set of
similar cases. In the chapters that use them, acoustic analyses are, overall,
rigorous and convincing. The commenting chapters encourage the reader to think
more deeply about some aspect(s) of the preceding chapter; I found these to
enhance the reading experience greatly.

It cannot be overstated how helpful the accompanying website was for reading
this book. Being able to hear, and in many cases watch, interactions unfold --
and being able to listen to clips of individual words and phrases that are the
focus of an author’s analysis -- made the analysis come to life. I believe this
feature of the book can serve as an example for any publications that take sound
variation into account for an analysis of interaction.

While the book emphasizes its grounding in interactional linguistics, it will
also appeal to readers who come from different theoretical backgrounds. Selting
addresses phoneticians, phonologists, and those “concerned with the analysis of
conversation or interaction,” (p. 5) in her introduction. Several fields of
study have hypothesized or identified relationships between prosody and
interaction outside of interactional linguistics, e.g., sociology (Goffman 1981
[1979]), interactional sociolinguistics (e.g. Gumperz 1978; Tannen 2005 [1984]),
and sociophonetics (e.g. Hay and Drager 2007; Podesva 2011; Yaeger-Dror et al
2010). Though each of these fields has its own distinct theoretical and
methodological underpinnings, I believe researchers from a variety of approaches
will find chapters in this book of interest. Two chapters I found to be of
particular interest are Walker’s “The phonetic constitution of a turn-holding
practice,” which provides detailed analysis of rush-throughs on the basis of a
variety of clearly presented acoustic measures, and Ford and Fox’s “Multiple
practices for constructing laughables,” which relies on rigorous multimodal
analysis to identify a range of interactive practices used to elicit laughter.
Nonetheless, to readers who are less familiar with the methods of CA, arguments
made in some chapters may not be entirely convincing, particularly when claims
supported by evidence from a single language or speech community are implied to
be universal.

It is unfortunate that such a useful and thought-provoking volume is hampered by
poor proofreading. Throughout the book the reader finds a distracting number of
misspellings, missing letters, misuses of punctuation, and formatting problems.
Additionally, not all of the authors provided their transcription conventions,
which is a problem for readability and interpretation, particularly since
different conventions are used across the chapters. Some authors (e.g. Selting,
Local et al, and Wells) refer the reader to existing transcription systems;
however, it would be much more convenient to have at least some basic
conventions explained in the chapter itself (or in a footnote or appendix),
rather than leaving the reader to go look outside the book for explanation.

Despite these limitations, however, the volume makes a varied and convincing
case that “prosody in interaction…is deployed by participants in systematic ways
in a context-sensitive fashion and functions as an essential resource in the
management of social interaction” (Preface, p. xi). This book is recommended to
readers from any field who have an interest in the interactional functions of


Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth, & Cecilia E. Ford (eds.). 2004. Sound patterns in
interaction: Cross-linguistic studies from conversation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth, & Margret Selting (eds.). 1996. Prosody in
conversation: Interactional studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1981 (1979). Footing. In Forms of talk, 124-159. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gumperz, John. 1978. The conversational analysis of interethnic communication.
In E. Lamar Ross (ed.), Interethnic communication. Athens, Ga.: University of
Georgia Press.

Hay, Jennifer & Katie Drager. 2007. Sociophonetics. Annual Review of
Anthropology 36. 89-103.

Podesva, Robert J. 2011. Salience and the social meaning of declarative
contours: Three case studies of gay professionals. Journal of English
Linguistics 39(3). 233-264.

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

Tannen, Deborah. 2005 (1984). Conversational style: Analyzing talk among
friends. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yaeger-Dror, Malcah, Tania Granadillo, Shoji Takano & Lauren Hall-Lew. 2010. The
sociophonetics of prosodic contours on NEG in three language communities:
Teasing apart sociolinguistic and phonetic influences on speech. In Dennis R.
Preston & Nancy Niedzielski (eds.), A reader in sociophonetics, 133-176. New
York: Walter de Gruyter.

Rebecca Rubin Damari is a post-doctoral fellow and co-director of the Social Interaction Research Group (SIRG) in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. Her recently completed dissertation examined binational couples’ variation in stancetaking practices at the discursive and phonetic levels. She is currently working on a large, interdisciplinary research project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The research aims to understand what interactional skills military personnel need to employ in order to communicate successfully in encounters with strangers abroad.