Media Dictionary of SLX — Conversation

In several fields of studying language in social life, we’re interested in understanding what exactly happens for people who are communicating with each other. Many people are generally used to thinking that what happens in a conversation depends on the agreed upon meaning of people’s words and how those words fit together grammatically: If we’re talking and I say “I see a telephone” we know that I’m saying there’s something happening with me visually perceiving a thing, and I’m also labeling that thing as a telephone. We know that I’m seeing the telephone and that the telephone is not necessarily seeing me. Right? Easy. We can say that speech gets some of its meaning from words and how words fit together.

But wait, there’s more! Meaning is much more complex than that. There is so much more to communication than words and grammar! As a brief aside, even words and grammar aren’t quite as simple as described above. Even that kind of meaning is messy and situated. We’re not thinking about words and grammar now–let’s think about what happens in interaction.

Returning to the example of “I see a telephone.” a sociolinguist or discourse analyst would still have a ton of questions even after we figured what “I see a telephone” means by itself. Who am I talking to? Did they ask me a question? Why are we talking about what I see, or telephones? Don’t I see other things too? What’s so important about the telephone? We need to understand some of the answers to these questions if we really want to know what’s happening in a conversation. When we’re actually IN a conversation ourselves, we usually understand these things intuitively (or sometimes not, but that’s another story). As researchers of language, we often have to unravel exactly how these understandings are built and shared. Let’s observe this conversation and see if we can figure out what’s happening between these two, um, people:

In this conversation, our two protagonists (shall we call them Blue and Red?) work together to test hypotheses about the nature of what they’re both seeing. Is it a cow? Is it a chicken? Is it a cat? They sometimes agree with each other and sometimes disagree. They point out new information to each other. They propose actions to one another and then mutually undertake them. Yet they use an extremely reduced vocabulary and don’t rely very much on principles of grammatical organization. If we wanted to add to the grammar and word meanings being used here we could rewrite this section:

37 Blue: Hm. (pause) Mrm. nyep yp. Ah:. Cow.

38 Red: huh?

39 Blue: cow.

40 Red: cow?

41 Blue: cow.

42 Red: cow.

43 Blue: yep

44 Red: hrp.

45 Blue: =yep

46 Red: merp.

47 Blue: cow.

48 Red: yep, cow.

as something like:

B: I think this object is a cow.

R: What did you say?

B: I said I think this object is a cow.

R: Really, a cow? I’m not so sure.

B: It is definitely a cow. I’m certain.

R: You’re right. I agree it’s a cow.

But the scene isn’t written that way (and of course it would be a lot less funny if it was). But we can understand what’s happening anyway, because we understand that part of meaning in communication is not in the content of what one person says, but in what gets negotiated between people. Sociolinguistics and discourse analysis (and other subfields by other names) are partly interested in how the process of building these negotiated meanings through interaction actually works. This clip is a great illustration that these negotiated meanings are central to communication and social life.

It also strikes me as yet another example of how authors and creators sometimes can take advantage of sociolinguistic principles for great effect in their work. The writers of this scene obviously know that a lot of meaning can be communicated in a conversation without relying too much on word meanings and grammar. And it’s not only a matter of writing, of course. The performances of the puppeteers bring life to the characters and expertly incorporate gestures and intonation (which are also deeply communicative as well).

So I hereby propose, as I did for The Elcor of Mass Effect, that The Martians Discover A Telephone belongs in the canon of great sociolinguistically informed literary works. Disciplines of language research benefit from continuing the long and excellent tradition of seeing people’s language use and language play as informed by their rich understandings of how language and communication work. (An early example that many other language scholars might be familiar with is Bakhtin’s exploration of heteroglossia in the work of Charles Dickens.)

Oh, um, and maybe you’re wondering about the line numbers? Yes, I transcribed the whole thing. Please enjoy and share. I’d love to hear what others see happening in this scene from a sociolinguistic point of view!

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