LINGUIST List 23.1717

Tue Apr 03 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis; Phonology: Barth-Weingarten, Reber & Selting (2010)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 03-Apr-2012
From: Rebecca Damari <>
Subject: Prosody in Interaction
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Announced at
EDITORS: Dagmar Barth-Weingarten, Elisabeth Reber, and Margret SeltingTITLE: Prosody in InteractionSERIES TITLE: Studies in Discourse and Grammar 23PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2010

Rebecca Rubin Damari, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University


‘Prosody in Interaction’ collects a set of papers presented at a conference ofthe same name in 2008. The stated purpose of the book is to advance “theinteractional-linguistic approach to the study of talk-in-interaction,”addressing theoretical and methodological questions, while increasing the rigorof 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 thetopic, with the others including Couper-Kuhlen and Selting (1996), Selting andCouper-Kuhlen (2001), and Couper-Kuhlen and Ford (2004).

The twenty-three chapters in this wide-ranging volume are divided into anintroductory section and three subsequent sections: (1) “Prosody and otherlevels of linguistic organization in interaction”; (2) “Prosodic units as astructuring device in interaction”; and (3) “Prosody and other semioticresources in interaction.” Each section consists of analytic papers and shortercommenting papers, which supplement the main papers in a variety of ways. Themain chapters vary in their subject language, type of data, (non-)use ofacoustic measures, and relationship of prosody to discourse factors.

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


Margret Selting’s introductory chapter, “Prosody in interaction: State of theart,” orients the reader to a history of the field since the 1980s, highlightingits interdisciplinarity and addressing a variety of methodological andtheoretical approaches to the intersection of prosody and interaction. Seltingalso addresses the complementary questions of why analysts of interaction shouldbe interested in prosody, and why phoneticians and phonologists should beinterested in the role of prosody in interaction. She makes a compelling case onboth counts, employing examples from her own research to demonstrate how prosodyis co-constitutive of meaning. The author closes the chapter with sections onresearch questions, directions, and challenges. In this chapter, as is the casethroughout the volume, the reader feels the influence of the methodologies andquestions of Conversation Analysis (CA) and Interactional Linguistics, whichfocus 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-holdingpractice: Rush-throughs in English talk-in-interaction,” by Gareth Walker,prioritizes the integration of prosodic and non-prosodic components of thephonetic design of talk. In naturally-occurring conversation in British andAmerican English, Walker acoustically analyzes duration, pitch, and otherarticulatory features of the join between turn-constructional units (TCUs).Walker argues that close juncture, articulation rate, and phonation (but notpitch) constitute “rush-throughs,” which are recognized by participants as a bidto hold the conversational floor.

In “Prosodic constructions in making complaints,” Richard Ogden argues that twocomplaint 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 takephonetically distinct forms. Ogden combines auditory and acoustic analyses ofAmerican and British English complaints to show that A-complaints are typicallydelivered at a pitch higher than the speaker’s average pitch, with a pronouncedfall 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 authorargues that these phonetic properties are associated not with complaining perse, but with seeking an affiliative response in the case of A-complaints, orexiting the sequence, in the case of X-complaints.

“Prosodic variation in responses: The case of type-conforming responses toyes/no interrogatives,” by Geoffrey Raymond, considers differing prosodic shapesof type-conforming responses to English yes/no interrogatives (YNIs) -- i.e.,“yes” and “no” -- along with their sequential contexts. Through auditoryanalysis of intonation contours and speech rate, Raymond shows that theseprosodic features can disrupt the flow of an interaction that would otherwise bekept on track by the use of “yes” or “no” responses to YNIs. Depending on theirprosodic design, type-confirming tokens can project more talk when a sequencemight otherwise seem to be closed, can anticipate a next turn, and can evenchallenge elements of a YNI. Raymond emphasizes that YNIs’ “structuredsequential environment and…limited range of specialized tokens” (p. 127) providea particularly fruitful site to examine the role of sound variation inmanipulating elements of interaction.

In “Retrieving, redoing and resuscitating turns in conversation,” John Local,Peter Auer and Paul Drew examine the sequential and acoustic prosodiccharacteristics of three different ways that speakers “try again” to get theirvoice heard in conversation after a turn that was attempted before was lost.Retrievals typically occur immediately after the trouble source and arephonetically “downgraded”, i.e., they are shorter in duration, maintain thepitch contour of the first attempt, have a pitch range no higher and no widerthan 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 ofresuscitations, defined as second attempts sequentially removed from therelevant first attempt, depends on their sequential and interactional position.The authors show that these patterns are mostly consistent across English andGerman conversation.

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

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

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

“Tonal repetition and tonal contrast in English carer-child interaction,” byBill Wells, presents a case study of a mother-child interaction in which theyoung child systematically echoes and contrasts with his mother’s tone dependingon his interactional goals. The study is presented in contrast to previousstudies arguing that children acquire an inventory of tones or pitch accentswith inherent meanings. Using auditory and acoustic measures of pitch, andtranscripts that include graphical representations of pitch contours, Wellsargues that a 19- to 21-month old child repeats some aspect of the tonal contourof his mother’s utterances when his mother asks him to repeat something and whenshe initiates a repair of some aspect of his speech, however, he produces acontrasting tone to initiate a topic change.

Part 3. Prosody and other semiotic resources in interaction

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

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

“Multiple practices for constructing laughables,” by Cecilia E. Ford and BarbaraA. Fox, identifies phonetic and embodied practices used in American English forinviting recipient laughter, including smiley voice, modulation of pitch andloudness, laryngealization, and audible breathing, among others. They arguethat, while each of these practices taken alone can have many interactionalmeanings, the combination of several of these phonetic and embodied practices,in particular, sequential contexts, allow participants and analysts to identifyan utterance as a “laughable.” The authors also point out mismatches between thephonetic properties of “speech-laugh” and the terms that are usually used todescribe it in CA, and call for the development of finer-grained transcriptionmethods than those currently used in CA research.

“Constructing meaning through prosody in aphasia,” by Charles Goodwin, describeshow an aphasic speaker, Chil, exploits prosody, in combination with gesture andsequential organization, to make himself understood, even with a severelylimited vocabulary. Goodwin uses transcripts enhanced with pitch tracks andillustrations of gestures and gaze to demonstrate how Chil combines theseresources, along with segment duration and strategic timing, to enact distinctmeanings, even when his utterances are simply repetitions of the word “no.”

Ten out of the thirteen main chapters are followed by a “Comments” chapter, inmost cases of no more than 5 pages, written by another author. These chapterstake a variety of approaches. In addition to highlighting the primarycontributions of the preceding chapter, these comments introduce relevanttheoretical background, conduct further analysis of an example from thepreceding chapter, ask questions of its author, or raise questions for furtherresearch.


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

It cannot be overstated how helpful the accompanying website was for readingthis 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 thefocus of an author’s analysis -- made the analysis come to life. I believe thisfeature of the book can serve as an example for any publications that take soundvariation into account for an analysis of interaction.

While the book emphasizes its grounding in interactional linguistics, it willalso appeal to readers who come from different theoretical backgrounds. Seltingaddresses phoneticians, phonologists, and those “concerned with the analysis ofconversation or interaction,” (p. 5) in her introduction. Several fields ofstudy have hypothesized or identified relationships between prosody andinteraction 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 al2010). Though each of these fields has its own distinct theoretical andmethodological underpinnings, I believe researchers from a variety of approacheswill find chapters in this book of interest. Two chapters I found to be ofparticular interest are Walker’s “The phonetic constitution of a turn-holdingpractice,” which provides detailed analysis of rush-throughs on the basis of avariety of clearly presented acoustic measures, and Ford and Fox’s “Multiplepractices for constructing laughables,” which relies on rigorous multimodalanalysis to identify a range of interactive practices used to elicit laughter.Nonetheless, to readers who are less familiar with the methods of CA, argumentsmade in some chapters may not be entirely convincing, particularly when claimssupported by evidence from a single language or speech community are implied tobe universal.

It is unfortunate that such a useful and thought-provoking volume is hampered bypoor proofreading. Throughout the book the reader finds a distracting number ofmisspellings, 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 sincedifferent 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 basicconventions 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 convincingcase that “prosody in interaction…is deployed by participants in systematic waysin a context-sensitive fashion and functions as an essential resource in themanagement of social interaction” (Preface, p. xi). This book is recommended toreaders from any field who have an interest in the interactional functions ofprosody.


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

Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth, & Margret Selting (eds.). 1996. Prosody inconversation: 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 ofGeorgia Press.

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

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

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

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

Yaeger-Dror, Malcah, Tania Granadillo, Shoji Takano & Lauren Hall-Lew. 2010. Thesociophonetics 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. NewYork: 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.

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