Thursday, September 17, 2015

Negotiating Meaning in Conversation

Some years ago reading William Croft (Explaining Language Change) convinced me that we negotiate meaning in ordinary conversation. Now we've got some empirical evidence on just how this is done, thought that's not how the authors frame their research. 

They frame it as repair of communication, which is fine. But surely one of the reasons for "repair" – which seems to happen every 90 seconds on average – is that meaning isn't clear. It must thus be clarified. That's negotiation, for the most part small scale and routine, but it's the back-and-forth that counts.

Seán Roberts summarizes the research in a post at Replicated Typo. From his summary:
In this paper, a team of linguists looked at over 2000 cases of problems with communication in 12 languages.  On average, people have a problem with understanding every 90 seconds! The team coded each instance and found that the same 3 basic tools were used in each language:
• Open Request: Signalling a problem with the whole utterance (Huh?)
• Restricted Request: Asking for clarification of a part (Go where?)
• Restricted Offer: Asking for confirmation of what was heard (Go between them?)
Each tool is increasingly specific about the source of the problem, but takes longer on average to produce.  This means that the amount of work to repair the problem is shared between the speakers. 
The full article is published in PLoS ONE 10(9):

Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems

Mark Dingemanse, Seán G. Roberts, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Paul Drew, Simeon Floyd, Rosa S. Gisladottir, Kobin H. Kendrick, Stephen C. Levinson, Elizabeth Manrique

Published: September 16, 2015 • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136100

Abstract: There would be little adaptive value in a complex communication system like human language if there were no ways to detect and correct problems. A systematic comparison of conversation in a broad sample of the world’s languages reveals a universal system for the real-time resolution of frequent breakdowns in communication. In a sample of 12 languages of 8 language families of varied typological profiles we find a system of ‘other-initiated repair’, where the recipient of an unclear message can signal trouble and the sender can repair the original message. We find that this system is frequently used (on average about once per 1.4 minutes in any language), and that it has detailed common properties, contrary to assumptions of radical cultural variation. Unrelated languages share the same three functionally distinct types of repair initiator for signalling problems and use them in the same kinds of contexts. People prefer to choose the type that is the most specific possible, a principle that minimizes cost both for the sender being asked to fix the problem and for the dyad as a social unit. Disruption to the conversation is kept to a minimum, with the two-utterance repair sequence being on average no longer that the single utterance which is being fixed. The findings, controlled for historical relationships, situation types and other dependencies, reveal the fundamentally cooperative nature of human communication and offer support for the pragmatic universals hypothesis: while languages may vary in the organization of grammar and meaning, key systems of language use may be largely similar across cultural groups. They also provide a fresh perspective on controversies about the core properties of language, by revealing a common infrastructure for social interaction which may be the universal bedrock upon which linguistic diversity rests.


  1. The systematic study of conversation repair dates back at least to the mid-70's (as some of the citations in the paper acknowledge) when conversation analysts such as Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson first started their very close analyses of ordinary talk. Conversation analysts eschewed statistical study, for the most part, since the features they studied were overwhelmingly observable. They focused, instead, on how the mechanisms they uncovered (conversation repair among them) served the ongoing negotiation of the collaborative effort of social talk. These concerns originated in Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, which is devoted to the study of the social negotiation of shared meaning:
    "Ethnomethodology required sociologists to attend to the moment-by-moment processes by which social action was constituted, and gave a quite new salience to the present participle - 'doing',' accomplishing', 'bringing off', 'glossing' - as a descriptor of social behaviour, because of ethnomethodological concern to grasp the ongoing constitution of social phenomena in real time. This insight led to the view that the 'order' of shared or 'typified' meanings is a precarious one, requiring continuously to be 'accomplished' and 'negotiated' by competent social actors if it is to survive." ( )
    The paper you cite brings statistical confirmations and broadens the domain of observation to twelve languages (both of which are very valuable contributions, IMHO) but we've had "empirical evidence on just how this is done" for quite a while now.

  2. @Bill, thanks for this. In other work coming out of this project we frame things more explicitly in terms of negotiating meaning, e.g. in papers in Studies in Language (, esp. pp. 8-10) and Open Linguistics (