Appendix to Lecture 5
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Background material: Levinson's account of the "For whom"
I've reproduced Levinson's account here in case you can't get hold of any of
the Library copies of his book. It is a wonderfully intelligent demonstration
of how CA can help us understand what seems to be a quirky tangle in a
conversation. As Levinson shows, no 'linguistic'
analysis would untangle the problem anything like as satisfactorily.
We can go through it in the seminar too.
The "for whom" example. (From Levinson p 329 ff)
(49) Schegloff, 1976: D9 [Edited]
( ) we were discussing, it tur-, it comes |
|2|| down, he
((Teacher)) s- he says, I-I-you've|
|3|| || talked with thi- si- I- about
|4|| || I ((speaker B)) said, it came down t' this:
- our main|
|5|| ||difference: I feel that a government, I- the main |
|6|| thing, is-
|7|| ||of the
government is, what is best for the country.|
((Teacher)) says, governments, an' you know |
|10|| he keeps- he talks
about governments, |
|11|| || they sh- the thing that they sh'd do is what's
what- that's exactly what I mean. He's- but |
|17|| he says|
(All the commentary below is from Levinson, in case you can't
get hold of the book and want to see what he says about the extract)
"The particular interest of this extract is a crucial ambiguity
associated with the utterance "For whom".
It is not, however, an ambiguity that lies in the linguistic structure of
the utterance, nor has it to do with
any lexical ambiguities of the words for and whom; and unlike linguistic
ambiguities; which scarcely ever
cause difficulties in context, this one demonstrably is (or becomes)
ambiguous for the participants.
The ambiguity is this: on one reading [which Levinson is going to call] (R1)
[speaker] A, in uttering 'For whom', asks a
question that we might
paraphrase as 'What exactly did your teacher say - governments should do
what's right for whom?
Whom did he have in mind?'
On the other reading (R2), A, in asking For whom, is actually trying to
show that he agrees
with B against B's teacher (T), and he is trying to show this by offering a
potential piece of
B's argument against T. To see this consider that B is reporting T as
saying that foreign
policy should be based on what is morally right - to which B might have
retorted by saying
Yes, but right for whom?, pointing out that ethical judgements of good or
bad depend upon
different parties' points of view. So on this reading, or interpretation,
A in saying "For
whom" is providing an utterance that B might have used against his teacher,
thus showing agreement with B.
That both readings of the utterance become available to B is clear.
First B starts off responding to R1,
the straightforward question interpretation, by beginning on a further
specification of what the teacher says.
But then A interrupts with a correction; we know this in part because only
corrections of such sorts are
priority items licensing violations of the turn-taking rules. But we also
know that 13 is a correction because
it utilizes a standard device for correcting misunderstandings, namely
reformulation that makes the same point
in different words. In the following turn, B then displays understanding
of the alternative reading, by
acknowledging A's agreement with him, that's exactly what I mean. We can
thus show that the ambiguity is a
participant's (and not merely an analyst's) ambiguity: each party deals
with each reading once - A by correcting
B's interpretation, and then reformulating his own intended reading, and B
by first beginning to respond to the
non-intended reading, and then showing understanding of the second reading
as an agreement with him against
his teacher, by acknowledging A's agreement.
But how does the ambiguity arise? Since it is clearly not a matter of
the grammatical or lexical ambiguity
of For whom, the source of the ambiguity must lie outside the utterance
itself in its sequential location
in the conversation. We need now to show that the structural location
itself predisposes us to both of
the relevant interpretations.
Stories, we noted, require the suspension of the normal turn-taking
system, which then requires resumption.
This could be provided for, it was argued, if story endings are easily
One recognizable and recurrent story ending format is a summing up of the
story, and that is what we find
occurring in our extract - B says It came down to this: our main difference
is ... and the summary follows.
So the slot in which A says For whom is the first slot after a story
ending. Such a slot is one where story
recipients can be expected to do one of two things: they may ask for
further details or clarifications of
the story - and this is the sequential basis for the simple question
interpretation, R1; or they may show
understanding and appreciation of the story (as e.g. in the expectable
laughter after a joke: see discussion
of (48) above), and it is this possibility that forms the basis of the
second, more complex, interpretation
R2. For one way of showing understanding is to express agreement in such a
way that prior understanding
must have taken place, and For whom does just this, by showing agreement
through displaying understanding
of the argument that B was having with his teacher.
But there's another element here: this agreement reading is reinforced
by consideration of the kind of
story that B's story is, namely an 'opposition story' or a reported
argument. Such stories have as features
not only an alternation of reported speakers, or an A-B-A-B structure of
reported turns, but also, mapped
onto the alternation of turns, the alternation of positions, or sides in
the argument. So when reported
speakers change, the positions being argued for change. Such structural
expectations lie behind our
ability to understand some minimal story like Pay the rent. I can't pay
the rent as being a reported
argument where one party said Pay the rent and the other I can't pay the
rent. Now it is just because B's
story here is an opposition story that we can hear A's For whom as taking
up B's position against the teacher.
For B is reporting an argument in which the teacher (T) and he alternated
in turns and positions in a
T-B-T-B ... sequence. Further, we can see that it is just because in
addition to being an opposition
story, it is one which ends with a turn by T, that A can jump in and show
story understanding by taking
B's turn after T's. And for A to do this is an optimal way of displaying
understanding, one of the expectable
things to be going on in the first slot after a story.
Analyses of this sort, which show how surrounding conversational
structure can impose rich interpretations
on utterances, provide important lessons for linguistic and psychological
theories of language understanding.
First, they indicate that semantic interpretation is only a small and not
perhaps the most complex aspect of
the communicational significance of an utterance. Secondly, they show that
speech act theory and allied
theories of utterance function can only be considered crude and (at best)
partial accounts of such situated
significance (consider, for example) what little of interest speech act
theory could say about For whom).
Thirdly, such analyses suggest that while it is correct to look for the
sources of such significance outside
the utterance itself, it may be a mistake to look too far afield, and
specifically that it can be premature
to invoke the application of large quantities of background knowledge."
All from Levinson 1983 Pragmatics, CUP, p 329 ff
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A course for the University of Southern Denmark, Odense 2003