Negotiating understanding in conversation: A cross-linguistic study of other-initiated repair
Mark Dingemanse and N.J. Enfield, Language & Cognition Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
In conversation, people regularly have to deal with problems of speaking, hearing and understanding. We report on a cross-linguistic investigation of other-initiated repair (OIR, a.k.a. collaborative repair, requests for clarification, breakdowns, or grounding sequences) in twelve languages in 8 families from five continents. OIR is a structure of language behaviour jointly produced by two people, A and B. Different languages make available a wide but remarkably similar range of linguistic resources for OIR: from simple interjections to complex questions seeking clarification or confirmation.
We find that all languages make available a basic distinction between two types of formats for initiating repair. Open formats (e.g. ‘huh?’, ‘excuse me?’) indicate that there is trouble but leave open what or where it is. Restricted formats (e.g. ‘who?’, ‘she did?’) restrict the problem space by more precisely locating or characterising the trouble within the problem turn. A cross-linguistic dataset of over 2000 sequences of OIR allows us to examine a number of basic questions in the domain of other-initiated repair. What are the grounds for selecting one type of format over another? How is trouble resolved as a function of OIR format? What are the relative contributions of speakers A and B in signaling and solving the trouble? We find that across languages, other-initiated repair is guided by the same principles of processing and prosociality, suggesting we are dealing with a component of a universal infrastructure for social interaction.
Dingemanse, Mark, Francisco Torreira, and N.J. Enfield. 2013. “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items.” PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273.
Dingemanse, Mark, Joe Blythe, and Tyko Dirksmeyer. (in press). “Formats for other-initiation of repair across languages: An exercise in pragmatic typology.” Studies in Language.
Schegloff, Emanuel A., Gail Jefferson, and Harvey Sacks. 1977. “The Preference for Self-Correction in the Organization of Repair in Conversation.” Language 53 (2): 361–82.