What is the function of minimal turns?
Recall that, from an examination of our example transcript for recurrent patterns in the data (see Step 4), we noted that Jim appeared to be using a disproportionate number of minimal turns. Consequently, this led us to pose the following second research question:
What is the function of Jim’s minimal turns in this conversation?
So, what is the function of Jim’s minimal turns in this context? Well, the way to begin to answer this is to examine two things: (1) their sequential placement, i.e. where exactly they appear within the ongoing talk, and (2) what happens immediately following their production.
Passing the opportunity to repair the prior talk
As we have seen, Tom and Jim are discussing holidays and Tom begins in L01-02 by indicating that he has been various places in Spain (.) for two weeks. Jim orients to this utterance by producing the minimal response mm in L03. What can we make of this? Well, we have noted several times already that the current speaker in a conversation strives to ensure that he or she is being attended to, heard and understood by the other interlocutors and that the other interlocutors similarly endeavor to indicate to the current speaker whether or not he or she has succeeded.
Of course, any talk may be a possible trouble source: I may say something and you may not have heard me correctly or you simply may not have understood what I have said. In these instances it is relevant that you would attempt to initiate some repair of the mishearing or misunderstanding. This may be achieved in a variety of ways. Typically, however, so-called requests for clarification such as, ‘Sorry?’, ‘She said what?’ and ‘Pardon?’ serve to resolve the difficulty.
Now, as any talk may present difficulties, immediately after any utterance can be a place for the listener to initiate a repair. In fact, speakers will monitor these after-talk positions to determine whether or not repair on the just prior talk is being initiated. The way is, therefore, open for the logical inference that the production of minimal responses such as mm, yeah and the like, in specifically passing an opportunity to take a full turn at talk, can be perceived as passing an opportunity to initiate repair on the immediately prior talk. Inasmuch as tokens such as mm operate to pass an opportunity to initiate a repair they may be seen as betokening the absence of problems and, therefore, as signaling understanding of the prior talk.
With this in mind, let us take a closer look at Jim’s minimal turns.
We know that the end of a speaker’s turn-constructional unit is an opportunity for the turn at talk to transfer to the other participant and also an opportunity for the other participant to signal any lack of understanding of what the speaker has just said. So, for example, if Jim had not understood (or not heard) what Tom had said in L01-02 then he could have initiated a repair with a request for clarification (such as sorry?, what do you mean?, pardon? and similar). It would then have become conditionally relevant that Tom should attend to the misunderstanding (or mishearing) and repair the breakdown before proceeding.
Jim, of course, does not initiate a repair on the immediately prior utterance but, instead, produces the minimal response mm in L03. Tom can, therefore, legitimately interpret this minimal response as signaling Jim’s understanding of his L01-02 utterance.
Subsequently, in L04 Tom continues talking (self-selecting under Rule 3) with the utterance and er: erm you know it’s okay. Again, the end of this turn-constructional unit represents a TRP at which Jim could claim a turn at talk and again initiate a repair on Tom’s immediately prior utterance if he had either not understood or not heard all or part of it. However, once again, Jim produces a minimal response (yeah in L05). Inasmuch as this does not specifically initiate a repair on the immediately prior utterance it is interpretable as signaling understanding (and possibly agreement) with Tom’s utterance.
In fact, all of Jim’s minimal turns can be plausibly analyzed in this fashion, i.e. by forgoing the opportunity to initiate a repair they are interpretable as signaling understanding and agreement with the immediately prior talk. This function is sometimes referred to as the supportive function.
Passing the opportunity to take a full turn at talk
To reiterate, we have noted that it is relevant that conversation partners should indicate their current state of understanding of talk which is in progress. This is especially applicable at possible transition relevance places, i.e. where the current speaker’s talk is potentially complete and the listener may take the opportunity to take a turn at talk. Therefore, the production of minimal turns such as mm and yeah at possible transition places is also interpretable as the listener declining the opportunity to take a full turn at talk. This, therefore, displays the current listener’s understanding that the talk in progress is not yet complete.
Consider that Tom’s full turns at talk typically extend over a number of lines of transcript. For example, his utterance the things that are luxuries like Kit Kats an:d things like that (.) and cakes like that (.) are just a tiny bit dearer extends from L17 to L23. This can be viewed as one full turn at talk which is interspersed with Jim’s minimal turns (yeah in L18, L20, L22 and L24) all of which overlap Tom’s ongoing stretch of talk. Let us take a closer look at this sequence, which is reproduced below for ease of reference.
17 Tom: the things that are luxuries //like*
18 → Jim: yeah
19 Tom: Kit Kats an:d //thing*s
20 → Jim: yeah
21 Tom: like that (.) and cakes like that (.) //are jus*t
22 → Jim: yeah
23 Tom: a tiny //bit dear*er
24 → Jim: yeah
In L17 Tom continues his discussion of the price of commodities in Spain, initiating with the things that are luxuries like. The final word like of this utterance is overlapped in L18 by Jim producing the minimal response yeah. Tom’s utterance is not a complete turn-constructional unit and so there is no transition relevance place at which Jim could legitimately self-select as next speaker and take a turn at talk (under Rule 2). Arguably, therefore, his L18 yeah may be analyzed as a violative interruption.
Now, Tom continues with his turn-constructional unit (begun in L17) with Kit Kats an:d things. Again, the final word of this utterance (things) is overlapped by Jim uttering yeah in L20. Once more we may consider that, as the location of the word things does not represent a transition relevance place then Jim’s utterance is another case of violative interruption. However, note that the word an:d uttered by Tom, and which immediately precedes the overlapped word, is spoken with a lengthened consonant.
Words with lengthened sounds which occur towards the end of turn-constructional units are often interpretable as the current speaker moving towards the termination of their utterance and inviting another participant to take over a turn at talk. So, an alternative analysis of Jim overlapping Tom’s L19 utterance is that this is an instance of a so-called misprojected TRP. In other words, it is possible that Jim was anticipating an upcoming TRP (which did not actually occur because Tom continued with his turn-constructional unit) and that, therefore, this is analyzable as an inadvertent overlap. Now, because CA does not impute psychological states or rationales to the interlocutors, it is not possible to unequivocally analyze this overlap, as we do not know if Jim had in fact interpreted the lengthened consonant in an:d as signaling an upcoming TRP. All we have to go on is the transcribed text and so we must seek to answer the fundamental question of CA (‘Why that now?’) by examining its sequential placement and what takes place immediately following its utterance.
In fact, we see that Tom again continues with his extended turn at talk in L21 with like that (.) and cakes like that (.) are just. Jim’s L20 yeah is, therefore, once more plausibly analyzable as declining the opportunity to take a full turn at talk: consequently displaying his understanding that the talk in progress is not yet complete.
As Tom continues his extended turn in L21, there is yet another instance of Jim overlapping this talk with yeah. On this occasion, however, we see that the overlapping of Tom saying are just occurs immediately following a brief pause. Now, this pause appears to mark a possible end of Tom’s turn-constructional unit (and cakes like that (.)) and represents a TRP. Tom’s utterance does not specifically nominate Jim as next speaker, although in so-called dyadic conversation (i.e. involving just two participants) it is not necessary to do so, as it is obvious to whom any utterances are directed. Rule 2 then comes into play and Jim appears to self-select as next speaker. However, once more, Jim takes only a minimal turn at talk, producing yeah in L22. We see, though, that Tom appears not to have completed his turn at talk and he continues (under Rule 3) through L21-L23 (and cakes like that (.) are just a tiny bit dearer). Arguably, therefore, this particular instance of overlap (Jim’s L22 yeah) is an example of inadvertent overlap. However, the important point to note here is that, in again passing the opportunity to take a full turn at talk, Jim arguably acknowledges once more his understanding that the talk in progress is not yet complete through the use of the acknowledgement token yeah.
We have seen that Tom does continue his talk into L23 with a tiny bit dearer. This is also overlapped by Jim uttering yeah in L24. As this overlap does not occur at a TRP then, according to the rules of turn-allocation set out above, this is arguably analyzable as a violative interruption.
Now, as we have seen, the analysis of the various overlaps in this stretch of talk as either violative interruption or inadvertent overlap derives from the particular model of turn allocation proposed by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974). There are, however, several alternative turn-taking models. For example, Coates (1993) has argued that the Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson model may not adequately explain the turn-taking strategies used in all-female discourse. She invokes a concept known as positive politeness to explain the preponderance of simultaneous talk in all-female discourse as shows of solidarity between the interlocutors. The details of this need not concern us here but we ought to bear in mind that there may be competing explanations and we should, therefore, be cautious in interpreting any findings. However, as Coates (1993, p. 186) points out, “Evidence that…an interpretation is accurate comes from the response of participants to…their turn being overlapped by another.” That is to say, whether or not the interlocutors perceive any instances of overlapping talk as a violation of the turn-taking rules (that are applicable to their particular context) ought to be determined by an examination of how the interlocutors themselves treat the simultaneous talk.
Now, in our extract, it is Tom’s talk that is overlapped. If he had perceived Jim’s overlapping talk as potentially violating the turn-taking rules (including any instances of inadvertent overlap) then we might reasonably expect evidence of attempts to rectify the situation such as (1) dropping out, (2) competitive allocation, and (3) recycling (see Resolving Overlapping Talk). In fact, none of these conversational management procedures are invoked. Rather, Tom appears to orient to Jim’s overlapping minimal responses as signaling Jim’s understanding that an extended unit of talk is underway and that it is not yet complete, and so he continues with his talk. Jim appears to forgo the opportunity to take a full turn at talk on each occasion and this is interpretable as exhibiting the understanding that Tom is engaged in an extended unit of talk and that he should continue with that extended unit. When minimal responses such as mm and yeah are used in this way they are said to exhibit a continuer function.
Continuers tend to occur at or near grammatical boundaries and those that appear near such boundaries generally overlap the extended talk. In our extract, it is apparent that the acknowledgement tokens yeah and mm generally do appear at or near the grammatical boundaries of Tom’s talk (five of the eight yeah continuers appearing in overlap). As Clark and Schaefer (1989, p. 281) point out, “acknowledgements are placed where they are in order to mark the scope of their acceptance.” The yeah continuers in this sequence do appear to mark Jim’s scope of acceptance of the prior information.
Considering the sequential placement of Jim’s minimal turns, they appear to do two things. First they pass the opportunity to repair Tom’s immediately prior talk. By forgoing this opportunity they are, therefore, interpretable as signaling understanding and agreement with the immediately prior talk. Second, they pass the opportunity to take a full turn at talk and, in so doing, they display Jim’s understanding that the talk in progress is not yet complete. The first usage displays the supportive function, i.e. the acknowledgement tokens (mm and yeah) are interpretable as signaling understanding and agreement with the prior talk. The second usage displays the continuer function, i.e. the tokens encourage the current speaker to continue with their turn.
Clark, H. H., & Schaefer, E. F. (1989). Contributing to discourse. Cognitive Science, 13, 259-294.
Coates, J. (1993). No gap, lots of overlap: Turn-taking patterns in the talk of women friends. In D. Graddol, J. Maybin, & B. Stierer (Eds.), Researching language and literacy in social context.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking in conversation. Language, 50 (4), 696-735.
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