LINGUIST List 32.1372

Mon Apr 19 2021

Review: Discourse Analysis; Historical Linguistics; Pragmatics; Syntax: Maschler, Pekarek Doehler, Lindström, Keevallik (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 31-Aug-2020
From: Marine Riou <>
Subject: Emergent Syntax for Conversation
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Yael Maschler
EDITOR: Simona Pekarek Doehler
EDITOR: Jan Lindström
EDITOR: Leelo Keevallik
TITLE: Emergent Syntax for Conversation
SUBTITLE: Clausal patterns and the organization of action
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language and Social Interaction 32
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Marine Riou, Université Lyon 2


From the perspective of interactional linguistics and conversation analysis, this collective volume focuses on how specific syntactic structures, from subordination to coordination, are used as resources in talk-in-interaction. The aims are to “explor[e] the ways in which patterns of complex syntax – that is, syntactic structures beyond a simple clause – relate to the local contingencies of action formation in social interaction, and how they are tied to participants’ nonverbal (prosodic and/or embodied) conduct” (p.1), and to present grammar as “a highly adaptive resource for interaction” (p.2). The languages analyzed are English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Mandarin and Swedish, and the range of settings include face-to-face and telephone conversations, and institutional (e.g. physical therapy) and service settings (e.g. fitness class).

Chapter 1 is an introduction by Simona Pekarek Doehler, Yael Maschler, Leelo Keevallik and Jan Lindström entitled “Complex syntax-in-interaction: Emergent and emerging clause-combining patterns for organizing social actions”). The editors build the case for a “new conceptualization of grammar as a locally sensitive, temporally unfolding resource for social interaction” (p.3), starting from the existing evidence that the clause is a relevant unit of interaction. They formulate the central question addressed in the book: “How does the organization of complex syntax in real time (i.e., in the very process of its production) relate to the on-line unfolding of turns and actions, and hence to such fundamental tasks in social interaction as action projection, formation, and ascription?” (p.2).

Chapter 2 by Elwys De Stefani is entitled “Nel senso (che) in Italian conversation: Turn-taking, turn-maintaining and turn-yielding”. The structure nel senso (che) “in the sense (that)” is traditionally analyzed as introducing a relative clause with relativizer che. Following the analysis of 44 instances of nel senso and nel senso che in Italian talk-in-interaction, the author argues that this “formulaic chunk of talk” (p.51) can also be used as a multi-word conjunction in which there is no antecedent head noun modified by a relative clause. This resource is used by participants “both as a projector construction – hence projecting more talk by the same speaker – and as a trail-off device which, on the contrary, makes speaker-change relevant.” (p.51). The chapter analyzes nel senso (che) as a turn-initial object in responsive actions, used as an increment (extending one’s own turn or a co-participant’s turn), and as a trail-off device yielding the floor. The discussion groups the main findings according to four levels of analysis: turn-construction, syntax, prosody, and action.

In Chapter 3 (“The emergence and routinization of complex syntactic patterns formed with ajatella ‘think’ and tietää ‘know’ in Finnish talk-in-interaction”), Ritva Laury and Marja-Liisa Helasvuo connect the morphosyntactic features (person, tense, polarity, complementation) of two cognitive verbs to their interactional use (sequence, action). Using two corpora of Finnish talk-in-interaction (Arkysyn and the Recording Archive at the University of Turku), the authors analyzed 337 occurrences of ajatella ‘think’ and 619 occurrences of tietää ‘know”. Their results indicate “opposing profiles”, where the two very frequent cognitive verbs occur in “semi-fixed formulaic expressions” (p.79). Almost always used in the present tense, tietää commonly occurs in the negative form, in responsive position, and without a complement (e.g. e:mmie tiiä. ‘I don’t know.’). By contrast, ajatella favors the past tense, affirmative polarity, and complementation. The authors argue that these morphological and sequential patterns result from the actions for which they are used. While tietää is used for “asking about and denying epistemic access to something” (p.78), ajatella is used “to frame the expression of stance, plans, and the speaker’s internal thoughts” (p.78).

In Chapter 4 (“The insubordinate-subordinate continuum. Prosody, embodied action, and the emergence of Hebrew complex syntax”), Yael Maschler focuses on clauses introduced by subordinator she- (‘that/which/who’), and more particularly, on so-called “insubordinate” clauses, i.e. clauses that are syntactically unintegrated or loosely integrated. The dataset contains 154 tokens of audio and/or video recordings of casual conversations from the Haifa Multimodal Corpus of Spoken Hebrew. Showing that these insubordinate she-clauses perform the same actions (elaboration, evaluation) as canonical, integrated she-clauses, the author argues that they should be conceptualized on a continuum of integratedness. Contrary to the view that insubordinate clauses derive from their integrated counterparts through disintegration, she postulates that it is the insubordinate she-clauses which grammaticalized into fully integrated subordinate she-clauses.

Chapter 5 by Hilla Polak-Yitzhaki (“Emergent patterns of predicative clauses in spoken Hebrew discourse: The ha’emet (hi) she- ‘the truth (is) that’ construction”) is based on the analysis of 33 tokens of the ha’emet (hi) she- construction in the Haifa Multimodal Corpus of Spoken Hebrew. In traditional grammar, the construction is considered bi-clausal, with the first part seen as a main clause. In the same vein as previous work on N-be-that constructions cross-linguistically, the author proposes that in interaction, ha’emet (hi) she- is more aptly described as a formulaic fragment with a projecting function. The chapter presents three types of social work that speakers can project with the construction: “displaying the speaker’s stance, setting the record straight regarding the speaker’s personal world; and revealing delicate information” (p.130). A number of similarities with discourse markers are noted (position at turn periphery, prosodic separation, morphosyntactic reduction), and the chapter ends with a discussion of whether the ha’emet (hi) she- construction should be considered a discourse marker or a projecting construction, or whether this distinction should be maintained at all.

In Chapter 6 (“From matrix clause to turn expansion: The emergence of wo juede ‘I feel/think’) in Mandarin conversational interaction”), Wei Wang and Hongyin Tao report on the analysis of 226 tokens from Mandarin conversation. They argue that wo juede grammaticalized into an evaluative marker (subjective and intersubjective) as well as an epistemic marker (downgrading the speaker’s epistemic claim). Additionally, the authors identified a few cases where wo juede is used for turn expansion. However, the evaluative use of wo juede in the data far outweighs (88%) any other use identified. The chapter closes on an interesting section addressing the “pathways of emergence of the extended uses” that the wo juede construction developed, from matrix clause to stance marker and conversation organizational device.

In Chapter 7 (“Practices of clause-combining: From complex wenn-constructions to insubordinate (‘stand-alone’) conditionals in everyday spoken German”), Susanne Günthner presents her analysis of 80 tokens of conditional clauses containing wenn (“if”). Wenn-constructions in German talk-in-interaction can function as a turn-holding device, because their syntactic and semantic incompleteness “creates an expectation” (p.206) and “open[s] a syntactic gestalt” (p.206). In addition, the author argues that some stand-alone wenn-constructions are not preceded or followed by any unit which could function as a superordinate clause, and therefore, that they constitute “self-contained communicative actions” (p.206) and turns in their own right.

Chapter 8 by Leelo Keevallik (Grammatical coordination of embodied action: The Estonian ja ‘and’ as a temporal organizer of Pilates moves”) centers on 105 tokens of clause-initial conjunction ja (‘and’) in a video-recorded Estonian Pilates class. The majority of clauses in the dataset do not contain a clause-initial connector. By contrast, the author argues that clause-initial ja is an important cue for participants to follow the structure of the class and synchronize as a group. With a ja-preface, the instructor can signal “return to a less strenuous position and terminate the exercise” and “launch an identical series of moves” (p.240) with a slight variation (e.g. switch to the other leg). The author identifies the conjunction as “a temporal index in the embodied trajectories of action” (p.240).

Chapter 9 by Jan Lindström, Camilla Lindholm, Inga-Lill Grahn and Martin Huhtamäki (“Consecutive clause combinations in instructing activities: Directives and accounts in the context of physical training”) explores a conventionalized two-part pattern used to deliver instructions in Swedish in the context of physical training. This pattern is composed of two clauses, one matrix (declarative or imperative) clause functioning as a directive and one subordinate clause providing an account, the two clauses being connected with a conjunction or adverbial connective. The chapter is based on the analysis of 43 tokens extracted from video-recorded sessions of physical training conducted in two varieties of Swedish (Sweden and Finland). The authors argue that each of the two clausal components accomplishes an action (directing and accounting respectively), but that together, they accomplish a complex action, namely, an instruction. Observing that clients typically comply immediately following the directive, the authors argue that the trainer’s subsequent account is not so much about execution, but understanding: it comes as “an elaboration of the directive to increase the pedagogical moral of the instruction” (p.269).

Chapter 10 by Nadine Proske and Arnulf Deppermann is entitled “Right-dislocated complement clauses in German talk-in-interaction: (Re-)specifying propositional referents of the demonstrative pronoun das”. Centering on 93 tokens found in German talk-in-interaction, the chapter proposes a reanalysis of a syntactic pattern that has been described as a cataphoric demonstrative pronoun (das) followed by a complement clause introduced by a complementizer (dass), e.g. “aber das hab ich nich MITbekommen. dass es da so YOUtubevideos gab” (‘but I wasn’t aware of that. that there were videos about that on Youtube’). Because the second part of this construction leads to the retrospective interpretation of demonstrative das as cataphoric, the authors argue that it is a conventionalized turn expansion device, for example used in case of repair.

In Chapter 11 (“Relative-clause increments and the management of reference: A multimodal analysis of French talk-in-interaction”), Ioana-Maria Stoenica and Simone Pekarek Doehler analyze relative clauses produced as self-increments: when a speaker uses a relative clause to extend their turn beyond a transition relevance place (TRP). The chapter results from the analysis of 20 occurrences extracted from video-recorded conversations and audio-recorded focus groups. The authors show that relative clause self-increments contribute to managing recipients’ responses or lack of response. In particular, this type of syntactic structure is used for two types of action: referential repair (when the co-participant displays trouble with referent recognition) and referential elaboration (when the co-participant displays referent recognition). The chapter ends on an enlightening hypothesis that resorting to complex syntax incrementally (instead of starting a new turn with a simple clause) is a way for speakers to maximize the progressivity of talk: “it allows speakers to strike a balance between the competing principles of intersubjectivity (mutual understanding) and progressivity” (p.321). In the conclusion, the authors connect their findings to three theoretical issues, (1) arguing that relative clauses emerge from interactional contingencies rather than semantic-pragmatic properties, (2) challenging the subordinate status of relative clauses, and (3) rethinking some increments as accomplishing actions of their own (rather than merely prolonging the action of the previous turn).


With no less than eleven individual contributions and data from nine languages, this volume is a key contribution to the study of syntax in interaction. The target readership is interactional linguists and conversational analysts. Chapters vary in the size of their dataset (from 20 to 956 tokens) and methods (from standard conversation analysis to mixed methods involving corpus linguistics), yet their conclusions point in the same direction. Syntactic constructions traditionally analyzed as a combination of a matrix clause and a subordinate clause are reinterpreted in light of their interactional functions, as formulaic fragments doing interactional work. Crucially, the book as a whole promotes the argument that grammar emerges in real-time, through syntactic fragments that are “patched together on the fly in response to local contingencies” (p.1). Even though each chapter focuses on one language, striking crosslinguistic similarities arise. The editor’s opening chapter as well as Paul J. Hopper’s afterword bring together many of the individual threads woven throughout the volume. These opening and closing discussions contribute an insightful and fascinating level of conceptualization. That similar syntactic structures across languages take on similar interactional functions could have deserved more concrete and systematic discussion, but overall, the collective volume is an inspiring contribution to studying emergent syntax “in the wild”.


Marine Riou is an Assistant Professor in English Linguistics at Lumière Lyon 2 University (France) and Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University (Australia). Her main research interests include grammar and prosody in interaction, corpus linguistics, and linguistics applied to health.

Page Updated: 19-Apr-2021