LINGUIST List 14.1634

Tue Jun 10 2003

Review: Discourse/Pragmatics/Socioling: Eerdmans et al.

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  • Giampaolo Poletto, Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

    Message 1: Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

    Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2003 00:43:45 +0000
    From: Giampaolo Poletto <>
    Subject: Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz

    Eerdmans, Susan L., Carlo L. Prevignano and Paul J. Thibault, ed. (2003) Language and Interaction: Discussions with John J. Gumperz, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Announced at

    Giampaolo Poletto, University of P�cs, Hungary

    Addressing scholars rather than students, this volume, revises the previous Discussing Communication Analysis 1: John J. Gumperz, presenting a thematically homogeneous collection of interrelated and informatively dense essays, in the form of interviews, conducted by Prevignano, di Luzio, and Thibault, and peer commentary, by Levinson, Thibault, Prevignano, Balim, and Eerdmans, on the research and findings of John J. Gumperz, whose Interactional Sociolinguistic Analysis is herein highlighted, in relation to the theory and practice of communication and interaction analysis, to promote a critical confrontation with other approaches to human interaction.

    Rooted in the fields of sociology, anthropology and linguistics, Interactional Sociolinguistics pursues the goal to discover and understand ''how interpretation and interaction are based upon the interrelationship of social and linguistic meanings'' (Schiffrin, 1994).

    Gumperz's perspective focuses on the communication ecologies, where societal power relationships and ideological processes are reflected in the participants' interpretive acts and conversational inferencing.

    A crucial role is played by contextualization cues, pure indexicals with the functions of enabling social actors to retrieve presuppositions, so as to make sense of what seen and heard in interactive encounters, and of interacting with symbolic, fully-coded, lexical and grammatical signs in the processes of constituting speech events.

    The first two of the ten essays in the volume, each with a final bibliographical note, presents Gumperz's research program and main issues.

    Di Luzio explains the trajectory of his research, from the earliest dialectological studies, to the interest in the social motivations for linguistic variations, the interpretative basis of interactional sociolinguistics and the notion of contextualization cues. The results of earlier research state that interaction determines and displays the diffusion and limitation of linguistics variables; that speakers' perceptions or definitions of language equivalence or diversity do not depend on genetic affiliation; that speech communities prove linguistically heterogeneous; that linguistic variation and alternation are communicatively functional and meaningful. The results of his hermeneutical methods of analysis of communicative and dialogical interactions show the ways language (speech) and society (culture), linguistic cognitive and communicative aspects, speakers' and analysts' theory and praxis, are tightly interwoven, which is reflected throughout the volume.

    Many issues central to the volume are then exposed in a forum in the second paper, especially focusing on the ethnographic roots of Gumperz's sociolinguistic research and the need to separately consider linguistic forms and the communication practices embedding them and their meaning. The beginning of his current trend dates back to Discourse Strategies (Gumperz, 1982), along with the notion of contextualization cues and processes, relevant to the functioning of linguistic signs in inferential processes (Gumperz, 1992).

    The central papers shed light on the question of how to interpret utterances in context.

    Along with an internalist approach to formal and content properties of Gumperzian contextualization cues, where the term ''cue'' denotes an encoded or conventional reminder, from the standpoint of Gumperz's Language in Social Groups (Gumperz, 1971) Levinson displays the relationship between utterances, specifying their interpretative contexts in implicit ways, through verbal and non-verbal resources, and contexts, viewed as not externally imposed on the former. More implicit modalities of semiosis modify the explicit propositional meanings of utterances, cutting across apparent surface distinctions and misleading about meaning-making resources.

    In an attempt to develop a unified approach to them, when other than the deployed semiotic resources, Thibault's echoes the above third paper, identifying and examining, one by one, indexical, intertextual and metatextual ''social meaning-making practices'' (see Lemke, 1990, Thibault, 1991), to analyze how agents access and co-ordinate their deployment in a culture activity structure-types and discourse genres. He proceeds from the Bakhtinian work on speech genres conceived of as not to be studied oppositively (see Bakhtin, 1986). He stresses that the definition of index provided by Pierce (see N�th, 1990) is no longer applicable, in reason of Gumperz's perspective of indexicality, concerned with the making and specifying of contextual relations. Indexicality corresponds to Langacker's ''grounding'' (Langacker, 1987), in a conceptually unified framework to be necessarily produced. Along with Gumperz's central notion of contextualization, Thibault finally provides a distinction in indexicality, intertextuality, metadiscursivity, hinting at aspects of the permanently dialectical local and global - instantial and systemic - discursive relations.

    Continuing with a specific aspect of the above question, Prevignano confronts Grice, Leech and other ''maximist'' pragmatists, with Gumperz and the ''minims of interaction'', used as a mutual signal of what someone is doing during the interaction, governing ''boundary markers'' (Duranti, 1985, 1992). They are embedded in activity structures and entailing interpretive principles, historical in two senses, with reference to the participants' applications and interpretations of each other's interactional minims, and from the analyst's viewpoint, for an ethnographic and analytical reconstruction and understanding, along with the common object of study, human interaction.

    After considering the different interpretations of and perspectives on communication, up to Berge's skeptical view (Berge, 1994), Gumperz's is envisioned, as to the definition of scriptical ''contextualization cues'', which make interpretable, in the place of explicitly lexicalized or verbalized explanations or rationalizations, the type of act/action/activity human agents are engaging in, ''participatory actions'' for Clark (Clark, 1999), according to Prevignano's ''semiotic principle of interaction'' and to Gumperz's motto ''speaking is interacting'' (Gumperz, 1982).

    Balim's paper displays the perspective of computer mediated communication and applied computational linguistics to interpret utterances in the light of their context as perceived by the speakers and hearers involved, of elements such as discourse participants' knowledge, intentions, desires, beliefs, and of the models created during the interaction, when mutual inferences and reason are argued to be made in a system forming top-down constraints. With respect to the author's work (see Balim and Wilks, 1991), or others' (see Barwise and Perry, 1983), in the field of Natural Language Processing, where the context of a communication is of primary importance in discourse understanding, Gumperzian ''contextualization cues'', aiming to show the interaction between indexical and symbolic signs, may contribute to the defining discourse structure and demarcating shifts in context.

    In the area of intercultural communication, Eerdmans evaluates two of Gumperz's exemplar case studies connecting to his initial ethnographic research: the job center interview; the rape trial cross-examination, reanalyzing Paul Drew's study (Drew, 1992) and intending to prove the inadequacy of sequential analysis relevant to situated interpretation.

    Then she argues on the usefulness of interactional sociolinguistics in a second language teaching and learning context, as a tool to explain conflicts or misconstructions between participants' and interlocutors' interpretative frames of what seen and heard, when the former interpret and negotiate the latter's contributions during inter-ethnic communication.

    Given that communicative - or interactional - competence is ''co-constructed'' (Jacoby and Ochs, 1995) by participants in interactive practice, mutual understanding and efficient communication imply the individuals' knowledge of interactive and rhetorical strategies transmitting information from speaker to hearer and vice versa (see Gumperz and Roberts, 1991).

    Detailed sociolinguistic analyses of speech events implying contacts between different cultures or ethnic groups, more and more frequent today, are relevant to motivate the inclusion of specific cultural contents in language curricula, to avoid that teaching is ''divorced from intrasocietal issues of linguistic diversity'' (Gumperz, 1996).

    The eighth, ninth and tenth papers complete the first edition, with a closing bio-bibliographical note.

    Gumperz intervenes with a Response essay, on the evolution of his career as a sociolinguist, on the volume contributions, on his current thinking about language and interaction, on the ways linguistic and cultural diversity and sociocultural boundaries are displayed in and shape linguistic interaction.

    Considering himself a linguist anthropologist, he regards his study of interaction as integral to the broader framework of ethnographic investigations, conducted on the taken-for-granted ways local populations deal with issues encountered in their everyday activities.

    He shares the view of talk as constituted by sequentially-organized conversational exchanges, of conversation somehow creating its communicative ecology. He clarifies the meaning and origin of some terms and expressions he uses, as, for example, ''discursive practice'', akin to Hank's use (Hanks, 1996); the agreement of his approach to semiotic phenomena with Silverstein's, with special reference to the classification and function of contextualization cues (Silverstein, 1992, 1993); the relevance of metacommunication as a strategy for linguist anthropologist to avoid dichotomies of the kind 'language and thought', 'language and culture', and others.

    Along with a context conceived of as not external to and independent of semiotic systems dynamics and properties, Thibault again surveys some of the contributors' theoretical issues, in relation to some notions. First, action and interaction are viewed as a unifying principle for the analysis of semiotic resources multimodally co-deployed. Actions embedded in higher-scalar ecosocial environments interact with the lower-scalar embodied dynamics of participants to discursive interaction. Secondly, the fully-coded message content and the contextualization cues, described by Gumperz and Levinson, are integral to a theoretically-unified framework, on considering the typological and topological dimensions language as a mixed-mode semiosis, in line with the Principle of Alternation (see Lemke, 1999).

    Some previously examined key issues are conclusively reviewed, in a discussion on the role of inferential processes in interpreters' understandings of each other's meanings in interactional events. Gumperz maintains they are relevant for understanding the contribution of the cross-cultural factors in communicatively diverse environments, passing then to further comment on ideological processes in human interaction and share his views on other approaches to interactional sociolinguistics.


    The volume manages to overview in detail the trajectory and horizons of John J. Gumperz's research, diachronically and synchronically, within the framework of his fields of interest and focusing on some of his key issues. Interrelation and interaction thematically and structurally tie together the different contributions collected, with the protagonists repeatedly recalling and re-elaborating concepts, ideas, terms. Balim's paper just introduces the perspective on NLP and is not further developed. Certainly it adds to the multifaceted, actual and productive applications and directions of Gumperz's approach and methods.


    Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1986. ''The problem of speech genres''. In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, V.W.McGee (trans.), C. Emerson and M. Holquist (eds), 60-102. Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Balim, Afzal and Wilks, Yorick. 1991. Artificial Believers: The Ascription of Belief. Hillsday, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Barwise, Jon and Perry, John. 1983. Situations and Attitudes. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

    Berge, Charles R. 1994. ''Communication''. In The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, R.E. Asher (ed.), 614-620. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    Clark, Herbert H. 1999. ''On the Origin of Conversation''. Verbum XXI (2): 147-161.

    Drew, Paul. 1992. ''Contested evidence in courtroom cross-examination: The case of a trial for rape''. In Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings, P. Drew and J. Heritage (eds), 470-520. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Duranti, Alessandro. 1985. ''Sociocultural dimensions of discourse''. In Handbook of Discourse Analysis I. T.A. Van Dijk (ed.), 193-230. London: Academic Press.

    Duranti, Alessandro. 1992. Etnografia del Parlare Quotidiano. Rome: La Nuova Italia Scientifica.

    Gumperz, John J. 1971. Language in Social Groups. A.S. Dil (ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Gumperz, John J. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Gumperz, John J. and Roberts, Celia. 1991. ''Understanding in intercultural encounters''. In The Pragmatics of Intercultural and International Communication, J. Blommaert and J. Verschueren (eds), 51-90. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Gumperz, John J. 1992. ''Contextualization revisited''. In The Contextualization of Language, P. Auer and A. di Luzio (eds), 39-53. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Gumperz. John J. 1996. ''On teaching language in its sociocultural context''. In Social Interaction, Social Context and Language. Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp, D.I. Slobin et al. (eds), 469-480. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and Communicative Practices. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Jacoby, Sally and Ochs, Elinor. 1995. ''Co-construction: An introduction''. Research on Language and Social Interaction 28 (3), 171-83. Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. 1. Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Lemke, Jay. 1990. Talking Science, Language, Learning, and Values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

    Lemke, Jay. 1999. ''Opening up closure: Semiotics across scales''. Paper presented at the conference, Closure: Emergent Organizations and their Dynamics, University of Ghent, Belgium, may 1999.

    N�th, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

    Schiffrin, Deborah. 1994. Approaches to Discourse. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Silverstein, Michael. 1992. ''The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough?''. In The Contextualization of Language, P. Auer and A. di Luzio (eds), 55-76. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Silverstein, Michael. 1993. ''Metapragmatic discourse and metapragmatic function''. In Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics, J.A. Lucy (ed.), 33-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Thibault, Paul J. 1990. Social Semiotics as Praxis. Text, Social Meaning Making and Nabokov's 'Ada' [Theory and History of Literature Series 74]. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press.


    Giampaolo Poletto is Bachelor in Foreign Languages and Literature, English and Russian, and Humanities in Italy, with teaching qualifications for secondary schools in English and in Italian, teaching in Italy and abroad for ten years, as well as at the university level. He is now a second year student in a PhD program in Applied Linguistics at the University of P�cs, in Hungary, with a research project on pragmatic and psycholinguistic aspects of humor, in relation to processes of second language acquisition, comprehending a discourse analysis of Italian humorous texts, the analysis of and reflections on processes of implicit language learning, and, with reference to curricula of second language teaching, the proposal of didactic applications for L2 students aged 11 to 18.