Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Speech Acts Collide

I recently had two experiences in which people -- college-aged individuals on or near a college campus -- used routine speech formulas in surprising ways.

The first was relatively easy to explain. As I left my office, I smiled at a young woman who was sitting just outside the door and said, "Hello."
CDN: Hello.
Woman: Good, how are you doing?
This exchange resembles what Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson (1974:716) call a greeting-greeting adjacency pair. In conversation analysis an adjacency pair is a set of two utterances that are expected to occur together. "Their first components can be termed 'first pair-parts'; they set constraints on what should be done in a next turn (e.g., a 'question' making 'answer' specially relevant for next turn)..." (1974:717). In a greeting-greeting adjacency pair, the utterance of a greeting by one person (the 'first pair-part') creates an expectation that the person addressed will utter a greeting in return.

It is common for greeting-greeting adjacency pairs to include reciprocal exchange of the same word or phrase: 'Hello,' answered with 'Hello.' Similarly, conventionalized questions are often exchanged in a slightly more elaborate pattern. For example: 'How are you?' 'Fine, how are you?' 'Fine.'

The young woman who I greeted outside my office responded to my "Hello" with what would commonly be a response to a greeting -- just not the response to this particular greeting. This can be seen a mild speech error, possibly caused by drawing from a stock of greeting-greeting scripts without much reflection.

The second formula mismatch was probably not a speech error, and is somewhat harder to understand. I entered a restaurant to have lunch. Since I didn't see anyone waiting to escort me to a table, I walked a few steps in. At that point, a young man walked toward me and the following exchange took place.
Man: How's it going?
CDN: Fine, thanks.
Man: How's it going?
CDN: well.
Man: Just you today?
CDN: Oh, yes. One please.
It seems clear that the young man was hoping for a response from me along the lines of 'One please,' a response that he did eventually get, but only after three attempts.

As you can see, I took his "How's it going?" to be a greeting and responded with the conventionalized, "Fine." (In fact I was feeling fine at the time, but even if I hadn't been, 'Fine' would be an expected response in the greeting sequence. 'I'm very busy today,' or 'I'm suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome' would not be.)

Since I did not respond as he expected, the man repeated his attempt. Again, I took this as a greeting, although I was a bit perplexed at the repetition. I thought that perhaps his emphasis on the word going was meant to cue some sort of meta-linguistic understanding: going is a verb; fine is an adjective. I carefully responded with an adverb: "Well."

Still not getting his point across, the man asked another question, which I assume was intended to get at the same information: "Just you today?" Finally, I supplied the information necessary for him to carry out his job, and he showed me to a seat.

In retrospect it seems to me that the man was using "How's it going?" as a sort of indirect speech act.* Typically in an indirect speech act, an utterance performs an action that is not typically associated with its surface form. For example, 'Can you pass the salt?' appears to be a question (or an interrogative, in the language of speech act theory), but rather than expecting an answer such as 'yes' or 'no,' the person who asks it probably expects the hearer to pass the salt. Thus, indirectly it is a command, a directive speech act (Searle 1975).

On one level the sentence 'How is it going?' appears to be a question. I took it to be a greeting (which, in my experience, it most often is). But the man who asked it apparently intended it neither as a literal question nor as a greeting, but as an invitation for me to tell him how many people were in my party. I had never come across such a usage. I am wondering now if this is a local practice I had simply missed, or if this man was unique in his usage.

Sacks, Harvey, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. 1974. A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking in conversation. Language 50: 696-735.

Searle, John. 1975. Indirect speech acts. In P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds) Syntax and Semantics Volume 3: Speech Acts. pp. 1-24. New York: Academic Press.

*Normally I would link a term like indirect speech act to a Wikipedia page or other web resource that defines it, but the Speech Act page on Wikipedia is not very good.

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