6.2 Talk In Interaction

We shall start with a look at speech as it most commonly occurs – spoken utterances exchanged between people – which has been dealt with in detail by conversation analysts. Conversation analysis (CA) arose from ethnomethodology, the main insight of which was that ‘the primordial site of social order is found in members’ use of practices to produce, make sense of, and thereby render accountable, features of their local circumstances’ (Boden and Zimmerman (eds.) 1991:6). It is such features that are useful for the purposes of this dissertation as they allow us to see how texts are created, interpreted (as humorous or not) and responded to (with laughter, silence, censure etc), all in situated contexts. This is not to eliminate the individual from the equation. Rather, because these activities are collaborative and accountable accomplishments, ‘agency emerges not as a metaphysical principle or a member’s illusion but as an essential feature of the organisation of the social interaction’ (p.8, original emphasis). Thus, talk is not seen in isolation from social and institutional organisations but in fact acts as a mechanism for the local achievement and reproduction of such things.

Further, CA uses only naturally occurring conversation and not invented examples or experimentally produced data and emphasises conversation’s sequential nature (Heritage & Atkinson 1984:4-5). For them the many difficulties of speech act theory ‘ultimately derive…from the from the failure of its proponents to grasp that utterances are in the first instance contextually understood by reference to their placement and participation within sequences of actions’ (1984:5). Thus, the illocutionary force of talk will be determined not in isolation but by reference to what the particular turn accomplishes in a sequence of prior and following utterances, or what Heritage calls ‘the architecture of intersubjectivity’ (1984a:254). Where there is uncertainty, the sequence can be extended to clarify the matter – Heritage says that talk is both ‘context-shaped’ and ‘context-renewing’ (1984a:242). All of this also has a significant methodological advantage in that it is public and thus affords analysts clearer access than the isolated or invented text materials that require considerable hypothesising and speculating on the observer’s part (Heritage & Atkinson pp.8-9). ‘Analysts may thus proceed to study with some assurance the factual exhibits of understandings that are displayed and ratified at the conversational surface’ (p.11).

Potter and Wetherall exemplify these points with the following extract taken from Button and Casey.

N: Anywa::y
H: pk! Anyway,
N: So:::
H: p
N: You’ll come about eight, Right?
H: Yea::h
N: Okay
H: Anything else to report
H: (.3)
N: Uh::::: m:::,
H: Getting my hair cut tomorrow,=
N: Oh, rilly

They comment that generative grammar (the data of which is ‘regularised, standardised, and decontextualised’, they quote Lyons (1967) as saying) has little to say about such speech, much of which is not relevant to generative grammarians’ purposes. ‘For example, utterances are regularly ungrammatical in everyday talk without eliciting comment [as the above extract shows], they cohere into sequential discourse, and they are commonly the joint achievement of two or more people’ (p.13). Further, against the Chomskyan emphasis on the limitless creativity of the native-speaker, much of everyday speech has been found to be quite predictable. ‘Far from being impossibly unique, performance data is often boringly repetitive’ (p.13). (‘performance’ here is used with the meaning of ‘language in use’, in contrast to ‘competence’, our unconscious knowledge of language. It is not a reference to ‘cultural/dramatic’ performances.) Indeed, it is such predictability of certain utterances in certain situations that allows, for example, writers of foreign language teaching materials to create a wide variety of gap-filling exercises and cloze tests. And, not forgetting the topic of humour, it also allows comedians to enact such scenes as in this extract from a monologue from Shelley Berman (SB). He is speaking on the telephone.

SB: Oh, hello, er Nichols’ Department Store? See, I (0.5) [Resignedly] All right. [Audience laughter 3.0] Emergency, emergency! Hang on there for just a second, this is an emergency and I’ll let you go in just a second, er, see, here’s the thing, see. You don’t know me. I, I work in the office building right across the street from your-er-er-er store, and I was (0.5) no-er-the south west, and I was just sitting, I was looking out of my window and I noticed there’s, there’s a woman hanging from a window ledge on your building about ten flights up and she’s – no operator you’re missing the point, I don’t wish to speak to the woman. No, I, er [Audience laughter] you know I’d, you know I’d like someone to go up there and pull her in (0.5) Well I don’t care who. How about you? You’re over there, what about yourself? (.) I, oh, I, what time is your coffee break? [Audience laughter] No I don’t think she can wait till then. You know, who knows how long she’s been hanging there before I noticed her? I can see her from here and her knuckles are very white. The woman’s [Audience laughter] been hanging there for hours obviously. I’m afraid she’ll slip you know before your break comes. What? Oh, I see. Well do you think that department can help? Well, all right. Would you connect me please?
(Bird 2000)

Although this is a monologue, the mechanism of the humour is entirely dependent on the audience being able to deal with it as a dialogue and construct (at least approximately) the utterances of the other interlocutor in order to make this text cohere. Not for the first time, then, we see that it is what is absent, what the audience themselves contribute, that completes this sketch, and this is possible primarily because of the predictability of such exchanges, or, to put it another way, because the construction of meaning in a conversation is invariably a joint exercise. However, the audience are not free to contribute according to their own random desires but, as in any conversation, are constrained by what the speaker says. As this is not an actual conversation, and as Berman is in control of what is said, he is able through his own sequential development to strongly influence what it is that audience members contribute. Here, as a comic figure fully exploiting the licence his role in performance space gives him, he leads the audience into creating the absurdly inappropriate replies given by the dull functionary at the switchboard to news of a serious life-threatening situation.

A Pragmatic Approach to Humour> 6.1 Speech Acts

6.2 Talk In Interaction

6.3 Some Features Of Talk>