Analysing Talk In Interaction
Lectures 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University

Lecture / Seminar 5: Conversation Analysis II - meaning and action

The appendix to this lecture


As Lecture 4

Conventional meaning, sequential placement, and subsequent proof.

Recall that for CA, words do things. What things? Are the things it does visible just from the words used?

Partly. In fact I have misled you a little when I say that for CA "words do things". A much better (but longer) slogan would be ""People use words (among other things like pauses) in their very local context to do things".

But the words are still important, aren't they?

To some degree, yes. It's not the case that, for CA, any sound can mean anything at all, and that its meaning is wholly determined by its sequential placement (its local context).

The words speaker A uses have all their dictionary meanings, and all the allusions and implications, that they normally have. They can also have conventional, idiomatic meanings. But having all of these doesn't tell us what the words mean here and now. After all, some of those meanings may be contradictory, or completely ambiguous.

For example, if a speaker uses words like "this" or "they" or "we" and so on, it's not much use looking in the dictionary to find out what those words mean. It helps a little, of course, especially if you are learning the language. But it can't tell you the really significant fact of who 'they' are, what 'this' is, and so on. Only the local context could ever tell you that.

A: (to partner): when will the children arrive?
B: we'll get them here tomorrow
[we= speaker plus one or more others currently present; here, B+A]

A: (to doctor): when will my test results come in?
B: we'll get them here tomorrow
[we= speaker alone or plus others not present eg the medical team]

Or even (changing the example a little):

Winston Churchill: (in a speech): We will fight them on the beaches!
[presumably not actually including Churchill himself]

So the conventional meaning (or rather meanings in the plural) of words can never be enough.

If the conventional meanings aren't enough, then what else is used?

Sequential Placement.

It matters greatly where, exactly, the words are put in the conversation. Their placement will make their meaning clear. [Edited, from my data; Psy=psychologist, Pat= Patient; here's the notation link if you need it. ]

1 Psy wondered if youíd mi:nd completing this. .h itís basically
2 itís about- what >Įsocial activities or recreational activities
3 youíve been up to in the past< three months. .hhh just to
4 see how youíre getting on with things:(.6) okay?
5 (3.1)
6 Pat last three m-(.) months
7 Psy Įyeh just rou:gh(.)ly I know itís hard to say
8 exactly but- (1.6) if you jus think since (.3) Ea:ster (.6)
9 >whether youíve been doing any of those< things

 The patient's words at line 6 are clear enough semantically - they are a statement in which every word is quite clear. But of course he is not simply saying 'last three months'. The placement suggests something very different. It is in the place you would expect the second pair part of a question-answer pair. It isn't an answer, so it must be relevant to the non-production of an answer. A search in the preceding turn will reveal that these words formed part of the question, so repeating them is presumably a comment that these words are causing some difficulty.

Confirmation and reconstruction in the next turn

It is very important for CA that speakers continuously interpret the previous turn and make that interpretation manifest in their own. It is CA's distinctive contribution to linguistics. It is a very different from any theory of language which looks for the meaning of words in and of themselves.

Abstract examples

If I say

"the washing up needs to be done soon",
you might reply
"I'm sorry, I was going to do it earlier"
(in which case you have constructed the first pair part as a complaint), or
"Ok, I'll do it"
(which would turn it into a request), and so on.

As I say, for CA, you don't get the meaning of what someone says just by looking up what they say in the dictionary. The same word, in different places, means different things. The same sentence in different places, means different things.

To give a less fictional illustration, look again at the last lines of the Psych-Patient extract above.

6 Pat last three m-(.) months
7 Psy Įyeh just rou:gh(.)ly I know itís hard to say
8 exactly but- (1.6) if you jus think since (.3) Ea:ster (.6)
9 >whether youíve been doing any of those< things

 Line 7 shows that the Psychologist is 'orienting' to the difficulty that the patient is reporting. That is to say, by explaining what his original question meant, he is recognising Pat's turn as not just a simple semantic statement but, in its sequential, a request fro clarification.

 So in CA terms, an utterance:

a) has a range of conventional meanings (fro the dictionary etc)
b) narrowed down by its sequential location ...
c) and open to be confirmed or challenged by the next speaker.

A reminder about 'Preference structure'

You can see that happening by the fact that people modify their behaviour when faced with rule infringements. They don't just pass over it. e.g. of the principle that turns should be taken up quickly:

[From Levinson]

A: So I was wondering would you be in your office in Monday by any chance
A: Probably not

A is explicitly recognising that the other speaker has not done the proper thing (replied quickly), but A does not simply pass over it; s/he assumes that B has some reason not to respond quickly, that not-responding-quickly means something. Given (as we noted in the last lecture) that preliminary pauses are generally used as markers of dispreferred responses. A infers that what is coming is a rejection and moves to deal with it.

For this seminar

We shall look at a rather more complex example. I've put it here in an appendix to this lecture. It's a reproduction of an example which Schegloff (1976) and Levinson (1983, pp 329 ff) examine minutely. It's all about a simple utterance ("For whom?") and the complexities of what it means in context. Levinson has a marvellous analysis of it which I recommend you read, if interested.

For next seminar

You should be reading more of Hutchby and Wooffitt. And as from next week, we'll be spending time looking closely at the material on the 'CA tutorial' that you have on disk, so you might want to have a skim through it now.

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A course for the University of Southern Denmark, Odense 2003