views updated Jun 08 2018

CONVERSATION. The most basic and widespread linguistic means of conducting human affairs. Because of the pervasive, everyday nature of conversing, its scientific study has proved particularly complex. It has been difficult to obtain acoustically clear, natural samples of spontaneous conversation, especially of its more informal varieties. When samples have been obtained, the variety of topics, participants, and social situations which characterize conversation have made it difficult to determine which aspects of the behaviour are systematic and rule-governed.

Conversational analysis

In recent years, research in conversation analysis (an aspect of discourse analysis) has shown that conversation is a highly structured activity in which people tacitly follow a set of basic conventions. Occasionally, however, the rules are made explicit, as when someone says ‘Can I get a word in?’ or ‘Don't interrupt’. To have a successful conversation in the English-speaking world, several criteria need to be satisfied: for example, everyone must have one or more turns (opportunities to speak), with no one monopolizing or constantly interrupting. People need to have a sense of when to speak and when to stay silent, and also need to make their roles clear: speaking as a parent, friend, employee, etc. There is a great deal of ritual in conversation, as when people wish to join in (Excuse me, but …, Could I just say that …) or leave (Well, that about rounds things up …, Hey, is that the time?), change the topic (that reminds me …, Speaking of Mary …), or check on listeners' attention or attitude (Are you with me?, Don't get me wrong …). The subject-matter is an important variable, with some topics being ‘safe’ in certain social groups (in Britain, the weather, pets, children, and the locality), others more or less ‘unsafe’ (religious and political beliefs, questions of personal income such as How much do you earn?)


In conversation analysis, particular attention has been paid to the markers of conversational turns: how people know when it is their turn to speak. In formal DIALOGUE, there are often explicit markers, showing that a speaker is about to yield the floor; in debate, the person in the chair more or less closely controls speakers' turns. In conversation, however, the cues are more subtle, involving variations in the melody, rhythm, and speed of SPEECH, and in patterns of eye movement. When people talk in a group, they look at and away from their listeners in about equal proportions, but when approaching the end of what they have to say, they look at the listeners more steadily, and in particular maintain closer eye contact with those they expect to continue the conversation.

Features of conversation

There are several linguistic features that distinguish conversational style from other varieties of English. Speed of speech is relatively rapid: often over 400 syllables a minute, compared with a radio newsreading rate of around 200. There are many assimilations and elisions of consonants and vowels, such as the dropping of t in such words as cyclists, the reduction of and to n, or the compression of such auxiliary sequences as gonna and wouldn'a'been. It can be difficult to identify sentence boundaries in longer passages, because of the loosely structured narrative sequence (… so I went out and got on a bus and found I'd left my purse in the house so I didn't know what to do and I hadn't any money and anyway …). Informal DISCOURSE markers are common, such as you know, I mean, and you see. And there is a great deal of creativity in the choice of vocabulary, ranging from the unexpected coinage (Don't be sad—be unsad) and artificial accent (as in telling a joke about someone from a particular place not one's own) to the use of vague words (such as thingummy and watchamacallit). See PHATIC COMMUNION, REGISTER, REPETITION, SEXISM.


views updated May 29 2018

con·ver·sa·tion / ˌkänvərˈsāshən/ • n. the informal exchange of ideas by spoken words: the two men were deep in conversation. ∎  an instance of this: she picked up the phone and held a conversation in French.PHRASES: make conversation talk for the sake of politeness without having anything to say.


views updated Jun 11 2018

conversation †(mode of) living XIV; familiar discourse XVI; †acquaintance, company XVII. — (O)F. — L. conversātiō, -ōn-, frequent use or abode, intercourse, f. conversārī CONVERSE 1; see -ATION.
Hence conversational XVIII. So conversant †dwelling habitually; associating familiarly with XIV; versed in, familiar with XVI. — prp. of (O)F. converser CONVERSE 1.

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