The listeners: A multi-perspective analysis of AcchA and other Bangla response tokens

Das, Rolla (2016) The listeners: A multi-perspective analysis of AcchA and other Bangla response tokens. Doctoral thesis, NIAS.

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Thesis advisorKasturirangan, RajeshUNSPECIFIED
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    Abstract: Conversation is one of the central, indispensible aspects of our social life. However, natural conversation or ‘talk’ has often been considered chaotic and unsystematic and has been generally exempted from systematic, formal analyses. Additionally, hearer or recipient actions during talk have been not studied in much detail. Linguists, specifically pragmatists, who have studied communication, if at all, have largely investigated decontextualised, abstract conversations. Talk, as it happens, the contingencies that participants deal with during ongoing talk and the moment-bymoment negotiations of participants in understanding what is happening or what could occur next, have, therefore, rarely been addressed in earlier studies. More particularly, what have remained almost completely neglected are the various embodied resources that participants use to perform a wide variety of actions during talk. In my thesis, I refer to conversation or talk-in-interaction as a specific kind of discourse production, whereby more than one speaker interacts and collaborates in order to perform any action. In talk-in-interaction, participants not only share information but also conduct several socially relevant activities such as challenging, requesting, ordering and critiquing, to name a few. And participants conduct such varying activities not only by verbal spoken language but also by using a wide range of embodied resources. The overall concern in this thesis is with a specific form of action that participants perform during talk—the act of responding to what the prior speaker has said or done. Responding, using short, lexical (such as ‘wow’ or ‘I see’), non-lexical (such as ‘hmm’ or ‘uh huh’) and other embodied resources (such as head nods or shakes) are central to conversations. In spite of their ubiquity, however, these tokens have usually been ignored from formal studies of language. Typically, these tokens have been clubbed as part of an undifferentiated, homogenised group, which has obscured the differences between them. The lack of concern for these seemingly meaningless tokens could be due to the absence of focus on listeners and recipient activity, in general, in language research. Additionally, as these tokens are not incorporated into the clausal structures of utterances and are not inflected depending on space, time and number, linguists have, in the past, tended to ignore them. In recent years, however, these recipient actions have become the subject of investigations in a specific field of study, ethnomethodological Conversation Analysis (henceforth CA). In Bangla, the use of tokens such as AcchA, tAi, seki, thik Ache, o and head nods or shakes by speakers and recipients are pervasive. My initial lexicographic and grammatical explorations of these tokens led me to the speech type category, abyaya, to which AcchA and the allied tokens belong. This speech type, as a category has largely been ignored by linguists. Lexical units falling under this speech type have routinely been described, using syntactic dimensions; in other words, lexemes that do not inflect or change according to tense, aspect, number, gender or case are considered as abyaya. Moreover, in Bangla grammar texts and dictionaries, abyaya has been classified as lexemes that either perform functions pertaining to the creation of relations between clauses and sentences, or as words that denote ‘mental’ or affective states. My investigation of these tokens in conversations, reveal in contrast, a much wider range of functions of these tokens, including the indicating of attitudinal or affective states, summoning, topicalising or organising the discourse. I, therefore, argue that there is an urgent need to critically engage with this particular category, for two particular reasons: First, we need to ascertain whether this category can indeed accommodate the various types of lexemes conceptually or syntactically classified under it and second, whether the lexemes classified under it have shared characteristics that justify them being considered as members of this category. The larger question, thus, revolves around the concern whether the category has any analytical value at all. More specifically, for my dissertation, an engagement with the category was essential to indicate how an exclusive focus on the lexical and grammatical entries of the study tokens, or on the presence or absence of their syntactic roles fails to capture the multifaceted nature of these tokens, as evident in their routine use by the recipients of talk. In the second phase of my study, I explored the semantic and interactional functions of AcchA and allied tokens using standard experimental paradigms. I had aimed to understand whether participants indeed make any distinctions between the several senses of the token, AcchA and whether there is a systematic pattern of using AcchA in specific sequences. This format, however, appeared to be inadequate to understand the precise contextual uses of AcchA and to create individual repertoires of its use. In asking participants to display how they would use AcchA to express its different senses, I also forced them to ‘act’ in specific ways, which seemed to be distant from how speakers and recipients would normally use AcchA in natural circumstances. These results provided several insights that led me to critically evaluate the experimental paradigms, typically used to understand whether participants can distinguish the multitude of senses associated with specific lexical terms, can indeed be extended to lexical units such as AcchA, which could potentially be ambiguous. Moreover, it became obvious that interactional functions of tokens such as AcchA can not possibly be studied using decontextualised experimental studies. I, therefore, adopted a CA-based framework to analyse and understand the various forms and interactional implications of my chosen response tokens. CA allows for the examination of interaction as a dynamic, collaborative achievement, wherein each resource is locally situated and has diverse interactional consequences Such CA-based studies on response tokens in the few languages investigated so far have been able to provide nuanced understanding of how response tokens are used in interaction, how they connect to the larger organisation of talk, how each token is occasioned and linked to what has happened before and how it projects future courses of action. Bangla spoken conversations have, however, never been studied using a CA-based approach and its various forms of recipient actions and their diverse functions, therefore, never investigated. Following the more naturalistic methodological framework of CA, I, thus, analysed the use of my chosen Bangla response tokens in recordings of spontaneous conversations between Bangla speakers in the cities of Kolkata and Bangalore, both in India. This approach allowed me to document the multitude of senses that AcchA and its allied tokens could potentially represent in talk and provided for a nuanced understanding of the interactional functions of these tokens. I was, therefore, able to categorise both verbal lexical tokens, such as AcchA, o, thik Ache, and non-verbal lexical tokens, such as head nods and tilts, according to their semantic and interactional functions. The plain (individual) occurrences of these tokens, verbal or gestural as well as the use of their complex forms (combined occurrences of tokens, either verbal + gestural, such as AcchA with a head nod, or verbal + verbal, such as AcchA with thik Ache) revealed not just differences in affect but also crucial variation in how they manage the epistemic landscape of talk. Being short, they do not offer semantically precise information but rather, with their sequential placement, prosodic features and associated multimodal cues, indicate certain fundamental aspects of information transactions, such as whether information is received, whether it is new or whether it is already on shared ground. What is also noteworthy is the differential relations that these tokens have with prior talk, both in terms of content, as, for example, whether it is an informing or a narration of a mutually known event, as well as in terms of syntactic structure, as, for example, whether the prior turn involves a ‘WH’ question (involving, for example, What, When, Who, Whom or Why) or a declarative statement. This thesis also offers detailed descriptions and analyses of when and how these tokens occur as locally relevant epistemic resources and what implications they have for future actions or subsequent talk. In studying these tokens, as embedded in their contexts of use, I, thus, provide insights into a wide range of interactional practices through which speakers and recipients of talk collaborate in building common courses of action. This encompasses the understanding of these tokens in interactionally relevant ways, which contrasts with the prior conceptualisation of these tokens as semantically empty, pragmatically vacuous, ‘response cries’. There is a need to emphasise here that while I was clear on the choice of my first token, AcchA, the other tokens emerged from my observations of talk during interactions. Although my observations of natural conversations revealed that there were several ways in which participants could respond, as, for example, by using larger stretches of talk, I chose to analyse the use of short tokens such as AcchA, o, hya or thik Ache alone. This choice was motivated by my interest to see what kind of information or interactional significance could be indicated by these short, one-word responses. Subsequently, however, I examined significant differences, if any, in the meanings and interactional implications of these tokens as they occur alone in contrast to being part of a larger utterance. I am convinced that a similar approach, adopted to study response tokens categorised under the class of abyaya, would provide significantly different analytical clusters, within which these tokens can be potentially classified. This, I think, is not a trivial issue because while these tokens, like other words, have a contextual embeddedness, they fall at one of the extreme ends of a continuum. They are indexically tied to their context, specifically the discourse preceding it. It has been earlier noted that response tokens and assessments provide information about not just how the prior talk has been receipted by the participants but also how the participants project further courses of action. These appear not to be semantically precise but more general, brief responses. The difference between being semantically rich and representing a more general, but nuanced, response, displayed by such tokens however, demands future exploration. In conclusion, my thesis provides for an alternative way to study the variability of forms that response tokens can take, either when they occur alone or in combination with other forms, both lexical and kinesic, or in phonetically and kinesically enhanced forms. I have also offered a categorisation of these tokens on the basis of the different kinds of stances that participants adopt and express in response to prior talk, albeit through these tokens. Each of these tokens, either in their plain or complex form, thus, provide for versatile, but distinct, channels of negotiating whether the recipients would want the speakers to continue, provide more information on the ongoing talk, indicate that the speakers stop talking about the current issue, or modify the epistemic stances that they had been adopting, besides indicating affect and attitudes of various types, including, to name just a few, surprise, remembrance, wonder or affirmation.
    Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
    Additional Information: The thesis was submitted to Manipal University, Manipal. [Year of Award 2016] [Thesis No. TH27]
    Subjects: School of Humanities > Cognitive Science
    Divisions: Schools > Humanities
    Date Deposited: 03 May 2016 10:43
    Last Modified: 10 Jul 2017 10:09
    URI: http://eprints.nias.res.in/id/eprint/1062

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