Paper Two

Dialogue Dynamics, Violin Strings, and the Pragmatics-Semantics Continuum



The present paper proposes a model of knowledge dynamics in dialogue, applied to expert-novice dialogues dealing with violin-string change. The model works by focusing on breakdowns in the dialogues, where lack of understanding is signaled, and yields a functional stratification of the utterances in the dialogues, and more-or-less distinct levels of instruction, coordination, and verbal labelling. These levels are then shown to correspond to different positions in the continuum between pragmatics and semantics. The analysis also shows a close interplay between information management and social phenomena such as politeness.



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Short note on the paper:

This paper grew out of an empirical study of the dialogue produced by an expert subject who instructed a novice in how to change a string on a violin. The project was originally presented in Winter (1996) where the focus was on the expectation strategies used by the participants. In the paper included in this thesis, I focus on a model of how different kinds of utterances function as a response to breakdowns in the task of changing the string. (See section 1.4 in the Introduction.) The paper has been submitted to Pragmatics and Cognition.

Here, I present the most unrestrained exposure of my view of language, built upon the firm conviction that linguistic structure is a response to the breakdowns that occur in the everyday actions that we perform together in society, rather than a fixed syntactic structure that is intended to be used for describing the world, which is the function of language that emerges from the tradition of philosophy and linguistics. In my focus on language as a response to breakdowns, I side with artifact researchers like Petroski (1992/1994) who, according to his dictum "Form follows failure," sees the form of artifacts as a response to breakdowns in everyday activities.

Apart from areas of interest in common with artifact research, the model presented here contains several elements that lie far beyond the limits of classical linguistics, and even mainstream cognitive science. One example is to see the task that is performed, in my case the violin string change, as walking along a mental road. The subjects only see a part of the road at a time, and when the task comes to a point where several continuations are possible, this corresponds to a fork or crossroads. This metaphor explains much of what occurs in the dialogues. It is only the novice that has access to the violin, and thus has another perspective than the expert. The expert on the other hand has the knowledge of what will take place, and must form expectations about where on the mental road the novice is for the moment. The main model of the dynamics of this experiment is presented in section 1.4 in the Introduction.

In this paper as in Paper One, a main aim is to model the processes whereby our linguistic tools - words and expressions - come into being. In the metaphor above, we can say that words will be useful if they allow us to point in different directions at relevant forks on the mental road. Words are not coined in isolation, but responses to uncertainty in socio-cultural practices.

The paper proposes three different kinds of responses to different kinds of breakdowns, which I have called instructions, coordinations, and labels. Instructions are given, mostly by the expert to the novice, to get the other to choose a certain mental path rather than another; coordination phrases are used when expert and novice have differing mental images of where on the mental path they are, as a response to a breakdown on the level of instructions; label utterances finally concern what words are used in the dialogues, as a response to a breakdown on either of the other levels.

It is argued that this model ties together two of the main areas of the thesis: the continuum between pragmatics and semantics and what can be taken for granted in discourse. The higher levels of coordination and label utterances represent a breakdown in what can be taken for granted, and at the same time these higher levels represent a position closer to the determination of semantic conventions rather than pragmatic ones.

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