Reflections on Tannen

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Deborah Tannen (2007) Talking voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imaginery in Conversational Discourse (chapters 1 & 7)[edit]

Deborah Tannen (b. 1945) is Professor of sociolinguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, known not only for her scholarly work but also for her popular books on interpersonal communication. The book at hand, Talking voices, has an academic character and was first published in 1989 and revised in 2007. The subheading of the book is Repetition, dialogue and imagery in conversational discourse and its central idea is that conversation is made up of linguistic strategies that have been thought essentially literary.

Tannen, being a professor of linguistics, is clear about the fact that her main interest is conversation analysis and language per se, not as much the social and cultural processes surrounding the language use. This is motivated, among other reasons, by the fact that conversational discourse also provides the source for strategies which are taken up by other, both written and spoken literary genres. The main interest of the book is the linguistic strategies that Tannen calls involvement strategies, because they “reflect and simultaneously create interpersonal involvement” (p. 1).

The Introduction chapter of the book consists of two introductions, one written for the original edition of the book, the other for the second edition. Between the editions have 18 years of academic development within the field of linguistics happened, which is also reflected in the texts. The original introduction presents an overview of the chapters, of which chapters 3 through 5 present the core analysis, presenting involvement strategies from repetition to constructed dialogue to imagery, and chapter 6 the conclusions, discussing the interplay of these involvement strategies.

When it comes to involvement in discourse, Tannen states that involvement in language is created through two ways; sound (being rhythmically involved) and sense (participation in the making of meaning) (p. 2). The latter being somewhat self-explicative, Tannen explains her focus on examining sound through the scenic and musical nature of thought, experience and discourse.

Repetition in conversation can involve different kinds of lexical and syntactic parts such as words, phrases and clauses, but also phonological and prosodic repetition. Chapter 3 examines repetition and suggests that it is, indeed “at the heart […] of how discourse itself is created” (p. 2-3). Apart from trying to show that repetition reflects both individual and cultural differences, Tannen also discusses the automaticity of repetition and the neurological evidence for the human beings’ need to imitate and repeat their conversation partners’ utterances. She concludes that repetition has its important role in all functions of conversation; production, comprehension, connection and interaction and that the congruence of these functions contributes to an overriding function, conversational coherence.

In chapter 4 Tannen challenges the previously used term “reported speech” meaning that dialogue in itself is always constructed and that the speakers carry full responsibility and credit for their dialogical actions. This is illustrated, among other examples, by an example of storytelling (p. 3). Chapter 5, in its turn, examines the emotional power of specific, concrete, imageable details in discourse and the role the details have in creating interpersonal affinity in conversation. The examples Tannen mentions present different kinds of conversational situations where telling of details serves in different functions, for instance establishing romantic intimacy. An interesting example here is radio show talk, which can be described as a written literary discourse as it is a mix of speaking and writing – i.e. orally following a manuscript written for the show (p. 4).

The framework of the studies can be described as twofold: at the bottom we have discourse analysis, which is the ground for all of Tannen’s research cited in the book. The other part, intertextuality, is a theoretical paradigm that has increased in importance during the 18 years that were between the first and the second edition, and which Tannen now sees the entire book as a part of.

Discourse analysis (DA) is described as a subdiscipline to linguistics with diverse meanings and ingredients, as it does not refer to a particular theory or method as conversational analysis (CA, see e.g. Sacks & Schegloff) does. Instead, it simply describes the object of the study; language beyond sentence, its purpose being opening up the field of language study for a variety of theories and methods. After having established this crucial difference, Tannen concludes that some of the works of noted scholars such as Jakobson, Sapir and Worf would nowadays be considered as DA. Discourse analysis is interdisciplinary by nature, connecting and touching upon areas such as linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, literature, rhetoric, philology, speech communication and philosophy (p. 6). Introduction to the first edition ends with a short personal tribute to previous scholars who have inspired Tannen in her work within CA.

For linguists, intertextuality is about “notions of relationality, interconnectedness and interdependence in discourse” (p. 8) Tannen refers to Agha when stating that within the field of linguistic anthropology intertextuality “opens up our traditional concern with communicative events to a concern with social processes that consist of many events, ordered or linked to each other in time”. Apart from the term intertextuality, many other terms have been used to describe the concept, among these for instance interdiscursivity. All in all, the term refers to the realization that meaning in language is a result of complex relationships linking items within a discourse and connecting current elements of language to prior ones (p. 9).

In her introduction to second edition, Tannen aims to shed new light to her topic through recontextualizing it in the current theory, largely by displaying and summarizing research that has been conducted in the field since the first edition was published, but also through her own research conducted since 1989. She then relates these to the different areas that are in focus of the book; repetition, constructed dialogue and imagery.

Plenty of interesting research is mentioned in the text. Of these I would especially like to note the following:

• Scollon (2004): the framework of mediated discourse analysis where language is seen as meditational means by which actions are undertaken, not the action in itself. Further on, an important notion concerning intertextuality is the relation of text to text or language to language: there is no direct relation, as it is always mediated by people’s actions (p. 12) • Gordon (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006): analysis of family discourse in order to explore the complex relationship between intertextuality and the creation of identity in interaction - > a family creates its own unique identity by their repetition of parts of previous discourses (p. 13) • Briggs (1993): intertextuality is an active social process and a means of creating, sustaining and/or challenging power relations (p. 14) • Rieger (2003): self-repetition as a conversational strategy. Bilingual speakers have different forms and functions for self-repetition depending on the language they use (p. 16) • Maybin (2006): a study of 10-12 year old children’s off-task conversations at school, which showed that the micro level processes of the conversations contribute to children’s longer term induction into institutional practices, social beliefs and practices, as well as construction of their individual identities (p. 19)

A conclusion that Tannen lands on is that understanding intertextuality in interaction gives us insights concerning how language works “to create, convey and interpret meaning and to express and negotiate interpersonal relationships” (p. 24). This thought is well connected with the main idea of chapter 7, Afterword, in which she suggests a new direction for linguistics, a humanistic linguistics.

It might seem somewhat insufficient to only study the introduction chapters and the afterword, but in Tannen’s case, these include surprisingly detailed information about the book’s entire approach and setting. Nevertheless, the chapters studied for this text succeeded in awakening my interest for further learning and I plan to continue reading and examining Tannen’s thoughts.