LINGUIST List 23.4750

Tue Nov 13 2012

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Reber (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 13-Nov-2012
From: Terese Thonus <>
Subject: Affectivity in Interaction
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Announced at

AUTHOR: Elisabeth ReberTITLE: Affectivity in InteractionSUBTITLE: Sound Objects in EnglishSERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 215PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2012

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


'Affectivity in Interaction: Sound Objects in English' is a study of three Englishsound objects in a small (16:22 hours) British-English corpus. Elisabeth Reberfinds, describes, and analyzes 'oh' [əʊ], 'ooh' [uː], and 'ah' [ɑː] in mundaneconversation. She establishes a scheme for the analysis of sound objects thattogether reveal insights that a single analysis could not have. Each sound objectis analyzed acoustically, rhythmically, and interactionally and compared to itsaccounts 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 andphonetic description, as well as Conversation Analysis, to ''analyze affect-ladensound objects as communicative resources as they are deployed in talk-in-interaction in order to accomplish social actions and goals" (13). These tools arewell instantiated chapters in the volume 'Prosody in Interaction' (2010), whichReber co-edited with Barth-Weingarten and Selting.

Chapter 2 reviews previous literature on interjections, discourse markers, andvocalizations, critiquing studies that ignore the sequential deployment of thesesound objects in talk-in-interaction. For example, Reber rejects the analysis of 'oh'by discourse analysts Aijmer (2002) and Schiffrin (1987) because it assigns ''somekind of core meaning'' to a contextually- dependent discourse marker (35). Also,Reber assesses speech-act and syntactic analyses of interjections as limitedbecause they are confined to written graphemic representations: ''Frameworkswhich aim to analyze interjections as objects with full semantics and regardless oftheir 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 objectsanalyzed from Prosody-in-Conversation and Phonology-for-Conversationperspectives. The author approaches affectivity in talk-in-interaction throughprevious research on prosody as a contextualization device and also previousresearch on conversational activities. She cites cross-linguistic research byCooper-Kuhlen (2009), which states that affectivity in English is more likely to bemarked prosodically than lexically. Reber argues that these ''phonetic bundles'' canbe ascribed as affect for two reasons; they are neither lexical nor grammatical, butrather 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 onaffective displays in conversational activities. She identifies five sequences inwhich affect accomplishes specific actions in troubles talk, news delivery,complaints, assessments, and self-initiated or other-initiated repairs (60). Reberacknowledges 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 inher data. She thus expands her analysis from strictly qualitative to quantitative aswell (see Schegloff 1993).

Chapter 5 introduces Reber's data and transcription style. Of the more than 16hours of conversations, 5:50 hours (h) come from radio phone-in shows, 3:49 hfrom face-to-face interactions between family members, and 7:22 h from telephoneinteractions between friends and family. These data yield 340 instances of [əʊ], 32of [uː], and 55 of [ɑː], which are by far the most common affect-laden soundobjects in the corpus. Reber describes the methodological approach of the studyas ''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, illustratingfundamental frequency, intensity, and time (77). Chapter 6 presents a thoroughanalysis of 'oh' in repair sequences and news tellings. The token [əʊ] 'oh', forexample, appeared in a rhythmically-delayed sequential position as a ''newsresponse'' (112):

1 Dwa: at the ↑mOment Donald's uh:2 sprained a couple of uh3 <↓WHAT is it dOnald>?4 (1.15)5 Dwa: /HAM /6 /strIngs; and in /7 /[stEAd [of8 (D): /[pulled]9 Mar: /[< ' ` [?əʊ:]>;10 (-)

Chapter 7 analyzes tokens of [uː] 'ooh' in radio phone-ins and mundane complaintssequences/ troubles talk. Reber offers this example of [uː] in a turn-expansionsequence (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 [hh8 C3: [I A[M;9 M1: [he [he10 C3: [hehehe [he11 M1: [.hh12 <one or two hellos to all of your friends in13 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 ofbad 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 [h10 Gor: [.hhhh11 yOU're just (.) BO:RED. [hhh12 Sus: [mh: NO::;13 (-)14 Sus: WELL-15 I dIdn't pass my DRIving test;16 Gor: `% [ɑːː] . h17 (--)18 Gor: oh THAT'S a pIty;19 (.)20 wAs it toDAY;21 (--)22 Sus: <

NO:>,23 <

it wAs YESterday>;

Like Ruusuvuori's (2007) treatment of Finnish 'nii' (ni), Reber distinguishesbetween "different sorts of" 'ohs,' 'oohs,' and 'ahs' on both phonetic/prosodic andinteractional grounds, which she terms ''two intersecting contextualizationsystems'' (249). Chapter 9 deals with ''more affect-laden sound objects," alveolarand bilabial clicks, and whistling. These were extremely rare in Reber's data. Thelast 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 defereither a positive or negative uptake on the speaker's part. The third is to givegreater rights to the other speaker to evaluate news. Reber discovers that ''extrahigh and pointed'' 'ooh' signals positive excitement (and perhaps surprise) andresults in turn expansion (146), while 'ooh' with ''high pitch and a flat, rising-fallingcontour'' functions as a receipt of detailed, negative information in complaintsequences and troubles talk (158, 161). ''Low-falling and tailed'' 'ah' appreciatesthe 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 inEnglish' is its excellent list of references, which includes key journal articles, bookchapters, and monographs within the four research paradigms, as well as researchon affectivity from researchers operating within grammatical, semantic, anddiscourse analysis paradigms. Many of these sources -- particularly those writtenin or about languages other than English -- were unfamiliar to me and added to myunderstanding 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 dataset that Reber analyzed in a small range of conversational settings. AlthoughReber presents radio phone-in shows as "semi-institutional," she also states thatsuch conversations "constitute adjustments of the ones practiced in mundanecontexts" (60). Unfortunately, therefore, the data set lacks examples of thesesound objects in work and institutional settings, which one would have expectedgiven the plethora of research on these in studies of talk-in-interaction (i.e.,Conversation Analysis). Also, an entire chapter written about 12 clicks andwhistles found in the data because they, like 'oh,' 'ooh,' and 'ah,' ''are deployed asrecipient responses to affect-laden speaker actions'' (223) lacks credibility anddoes little to advance the author's argument.

The book is both strengthened by and hampered by its status as a dissertationrevision. One strength is its thorough treatment of "background" and"preliminaries," making the volume accessible to readers with little prior knowledgeof affectivity and talk-in-interaction research. Others are its thorough literaturereview and richly detailed, predictable chapter structure. However, it is alsohampered by its origin as a dissertation. While most researchers are susceptible tothe temptation of avoiding critiquing those they know and admire, dissertationwriters are in a particularly awkward position. Reber, like all scholars-in-training, isbeholden to her academic committee members. Therefore, in her review of theliterature, Reber neglects to provide the same critical appraisal of the work ofthose who supervised her dissertation. In her Acknowledgments (ix), she refers toElizabeth Couper-Kuhlen as ''my supervisor, mentor and friend," and to Marja-Leena Sorjonen as "my second supervisor.'' Reber also thanks Margret Selting fordiscussing data examples with her and therefore neglects to offer the same criticalanalysis 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 forpermission to use their data, and also acknowledges Couper-Kuhlen's ''meticulousproofreading 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 areader, would hope for critical (or at least different) input to the publication processfrom those less familiar with her work.

Reber's volume will be read with interest by linguists who work within a variety ofresearch 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 medicinemay also be interested in these findings. All that is necessary is that readers bewilling to consider an account of certain ''response cries'' (Goffman 1978) that isinformed by multiple paradigms and therefore highly informative and productive. Itis this analytical constellation that makes 'Affectivity in Interaction: Sound Objectsin English' a thorough and unique contribution to the analysis of conversation.More multimodal and multidisciplinary analyses of conversation are likely to resultfrom 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 LiteratureSociety (SKS).

Fischer, Kerstin. 2000. From cognitive semantics to lexical pragmatics: Thefunctional 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 ofconversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction 26. 99-128.

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

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

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

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1992. Semantics, culture and cognition: Universal humanconcepts in culture-specific configurations. New York/Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.


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

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