The Language of Conversation

B. Sample Texts and Analyses

Conversation Text: Army Story

AThere's a standard line in the army too er if er a tent pole broke er in the middle of a wet stormy night and there'd be a half dozen men thrashing around a whole lot of soggy canvas you'd go up and say - did your tent pole break
(general laugh)
BYes (general laugh)
AAll sorts of comments come back from underneath
BYes (general laugh) - yes but that that sort of question can be malicious can't it I mean
COh yes
BIt it it can be sadistic
BIt it can be said - that army situation
DIt obviously is
BSounds as if it is the sadistic one whereas um the the comment that this woman said to me I don't it wasn't sadistic it wasn't said in that sort of way and er but it was it was the worst
(thing she could have said yes
(the wrong thing to say
DYeah but we're doing it all the time you go in and er cooking the tea dear (laugh)
Dand if she's not feeling so good she says no I'm painting the bloody ceiling can't you see it
EI tend to do that an awful lot yeah it's just yeah
CThose things are important my wife is always accusing me of not answering I I think there is no answer er (general laugh) appropriate so I just keep on reading and
ADid you ever see the Mad Magazine series of this
BMy wife says to me I've asked you that question ten times (general laugh) what can you say
AThe they have a whole lot of them these silly questions silly answer you know a chap comes in absolutely drenched and dripping and and the idiotic person says er is it raining outside and the answer is - no I've just had a shower with my clothes on

Discussion of Army Story


The following commentary is an abridgement of a discussion between a group of teachers and one University lecturer on a conversation text. The discussion was a free one; little attempt was made to follow a set plan or systematically to work through a set of questions. The discussions largely developed from whatever any of the participants thought was of interest in the conversation text. If there was any order in the original discussion it lay largely in the fact that the comment tended to follow the sequence in which items commented upon occurred in the text, but this order was by no means invariable.

The original discussion when transcribed came to nineteen foolscap sides. It was obviously desirable to abridge this discussion in order to provide a more economical discussion for the general teacher.

The abridgement has attempted to be faithful to the points made by speakers in the original discussion and where possible have tried to use the language that they used. It also tries to give greater coherence to the commentary than the original discussion had. In general the discussion centred around two main points: the features in the language that characterise the text as spontaneous conversation, and aspects of the participants and their relationships that are appropriate to the language. The abridgement has sometimes had to reorder material as it was originally discussed and occasionally to amplify a point where the discussion was inconclusive. But at no point has it attempted to introduce any new material nor omitted any point that obviously emerges as important in the group discussion.

It should be remembered that this commentary is a careful paraphrase and selection from a much longer discussion. As such it is more coherent, polished and perhaps definite in certain points that the original discussion is. It does not serve as a model of the inductive process but rather as a model of a careful formulation of results of an induction approach.

This point is important since teachers should not expect their own class discussion of the conversation text to be as polished and coherent or as full as this abridgement. The discussion upon which the abridgement is based is by no means coherent, always relevant or carefully planned. The proper use of this abridgement is as a check upon the results of classroom discussion to see that nothing important has been left out. The abridgement is suggestive; it cannot claim to be exhaustive of all possible comment nor to represent the 'correct' view on all points.

Abridgement of Discussion of Army Story

What particular features show that this text is a transcription of a conversation?

Well, for example, in the very first line you've got 'there's a standard line in the army.' This is a colloquial expression used in an army situation and an army term. It is more likely to be used by a member of the older generation.

The use of too in the same line indicates that there has already been some co-text which is referred to.

There are also voiced pauses (eg, er) which indicate that this is a transcription of spontaneous speech.

An interesting feature is the use of 'd' = would. This indicates that the speaker is describing a habitual action. It also serves perhaps to make the story more immediate. A. also uses here (and here'd be a half dozen men) rather than the expected there. This also creates immediacy.

The general laugh that follows acts as feedback, showing the speaker that his story has been successful and encouraging him to continue if possible.

It is noticeable that A. changes his voice at one point to emphasise that he is reporting speech: did the tent pole break. It's the equivalent of quotation in written English.

There is also a change in A's speech from third person as subject (a half dozen men) to second person you. The speaker is to some extent identifying himself as a participant in the repeated situation he is describing.

Some of the words used in this speech mark it as perhaps more formal than a lot of conversations: thrashing and soggy; and also the prepositional group; in the middle of a wet, stormy night. A's speech is characterised by a careful choice of words. This is also reflected in his later utterance where he uses drenched and dripping. He is obviously an experienced raconteur.

Another feature that would show that this is a transcription of speech is the uses of incomplete sentences. For example, B. finished one of his sentences in the middle of a word: it it can be said. Sometimes a sentence may be apparently incomplete because it is interrupted. B's sentence that army situation ... Sounds as if it is the sadistic one etc, is interrupted by It obviously is.

Another sign that this is conversation is the frequency of yes or yeah. B. uses it first, then C. says oh yes. The yes acts as a rapport signal. A. less obvious rapport signal is: It obviously is.

Speaker hesitation, as seen in repetition, is also another sign of the spontaneous origin of the material. See, for example, it it it can be sadistic. There is also the use of anacoluthon or a change in grammatical structure where B. says ... whereas um the comment that this woman said to me I don't it wasn't sadistic ... B. obviously is going to say something like I don't think it was sadistic but changes his mind and introduces an it in apposition to the comment this woman said to me ... so as to clearly establish the subject of wasn't sadistic.

B's speech is perhaps more formal than conversation often is. His sentence structure is relatively complex with several clauses including subordinate ones marked by as if, whereas and that. The use of whereas to make a comparison is perhaps more common in written English than it is in spoken. Console is also a formal rather than a colloquial word.

It is interesting to note that while B. is finishing off with the worst thing she could have said, E. overlaps with the wrong thing to say. Not only is this an anticipation of E's part, showing the extent of her involvement, but it is also an agreement signal. She too comes to the same kind of conclusion.

There are very few pauses in the conversation. There are breaks but they tend to be filled by either repetitions of words or phrases or ers or yeahs. The conversation is carried on at a steady pace, almost as if the people were falling over themselves to keep it going or get into it. This is a sign of involvement, of the intrinsic interest of the topic for the participants. They feel they have a lot to say about this so they may be trying to force their way in and being temporarily blocked but still coming back in. See for example, the way A. is blocked temporarily by B. towards the end of the passage but still manages to have his say.

The participants tend to vary in the way that they introduce themselves into the conversation. B. and D. first get themselves into the conversation by indicating general agreement and then introducing a qualification. E, on the other hand, just steps into a convenient pause. She has no marked introductory feature though what she says is tied to the rest of the conversation by the anaphoric pronoun that. C. also uses an anaphoric pronoun those to establish his connection with the rest of the conversation. He starts off with a rather vague generalisation those things are important before getting down to the particular case. A. on the other hand re-enters the conversation by asking a question which he intends to answer himself though he is temporarily interrupted by B. whose speech is related back to that of C by the use of my wife.

Some differences between the main contributors A, B. and D. can perhaps be detected through their language. A's anecdotes are presented very professionally: there is a sense that they have been delivered before. There is perhaps an element of oral rehearsal behind what he says. There is a good choice of language, as has been mentioned, and some alliteration drenched and dripping. B. and C. on the other hand give the impression of blurting out something which they have just thought of or are relating for the first time. There is more repetition and anacoluthon, particularly in B. A. is the most experienced or skilled conversationalist.

One of the big differences is that A's stories have little to do with him personally. With B. and C, there is a personal situation described. It's their wife, or something that's happened to them. A. is in a different position. He's less concerned with his personal experience. The only time the first person pronoun occurs in A's speech is as part of an anecdote, I've just had a shower with my clothes on. B. on the other hand refers to me twice and also to my wife. C. also uses the I, me, my forms. The contribution from E. is also personal.

Only one of the participants is a woman, the rest are male. The question arises whether there is any way of deducing that E is a woman apart from voice quality. In other words is the language used more appropriate to a woman than to a man? On the whole it seems that the language is not marked for the sex of the participant. It was suggested that she says I tend to do that where that refers back to the wife who says I'm painting the bloody ceiling, can't you see and that this is evidence that the speaker is identifying with the woman. But this is not conclusive since even a male speaker could identify with the general type of situation: exasperation at an inappropriate remark. Perhaps also I do that an awful lot is more likely to be said by a woman than a man. But on the whole one would have to conclude that the language is not marked to indicate that E. is a woman.

D. is more colloquial than the others. See for example we're doing it all the time, she's not feeling so good, I'm painting the bloody ceiling. In written English she's not feeling so good would presumably have to be she is not feeling very well. With A. and B. there is a sense that written English is closer, at least in vocabulary. See, for example, sadistic and malicious.

Various reasons may be suggested for this difference in formality in the speech of the participants. It may be that A. and B. are more used to the written word and it influences their speech. Or it may be that A. and B have not completely switched notes. The first possibility seems likelier since the situation was one in which the participants were highly involved. Dominant personality characteristics are likely to be represented in the speech of the participants because their defensive mechanisms are not operating at the level they normally would.

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