Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Spoken English 1 lecture notes

Course: Spoken English

Week: 2

Lecturer: Keith Richards

Topic: An introduction to spoken English

These notes are extracts only and do not include the arguments developed in the lectures. Neither do they include handouts or workshop activities. They are an additional resource designed primarily for those who attended the relevant lectures.

Some features of speech

The following represent a selection of features of spoken language which distinguish it from written language. For a fuller discussion, see Chapter 1 of Brown and Yule.

  • Immediate context used as resource
  • Incomplete utterances common
  • Syntactic simplification
  • Ongoing repair
  • Distinctive lexical features

Brown, G. and Yule, G. 1983. Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grammar in spoken language

Notice the way that A’s grammar in the following exchange is designed for interactional purposes. Instead of the predicted tag of ‘had I?’, she uses ‘was I’ which projects into her next utterance (‘I was’). Because her turn is designed as a question addressed to B, it selects B as next speaker, but when B attempts to continue her turn beyond ‘no’, A’s claim to the turn takes precedence (in the sense that B yields the floor), partly because of its form, which marks it as a continuance of A’s prior utterance.

A: I was about fourteen or fifteen and HADn't

started ┌work really ┐ was I? ┌I was just messing about

B: └?yeah yeah? ┘ └no you

Language and identity

‘When people use language, they do more than just try to get another person to understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. At the same time, both people are using language in subtle ways to define their relationship to each other, to identify themselves as part of a social group, and to establish the kind of speech event they are in.’

Fasold R. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Page 1.

Fasold’s claim is admirably borne out by what Maragaret Thatcher revealed about her own view of her importance when she appropriated the royal ‘we’:

Queen Victoria: ‘We are not amused.’

Margaret Thatcher: ‘We are a grandmother.’

Rules of use

The relevance of ‘rules of use’ (who can say what, to whom, in what circumstances, etc.) to TESOL are reflected in the frequency with which the following appears when communicative competence is discussed:

There are ‘rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless’

Hymes, D. 1971 On Communicative Competence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Page 15.

The importance of evidence

In order to study this, we need to use actual instances of spoken interaction rather than invented data:

‘Much of what passes for sociolinguistic enquiry is easy since it is only native speaker intuition. While there are areas of research where intuitions serve linguistics, one place where they serve nothing is the areas of direct, objective language use. ... Curriculum specialists, textbook authors, methodologists, and teachers, native speakers or not, have little justification in making unsupported judgements about actual occurrences of language in context.’

Preston, D. 1989. Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell. Page 3.

Context, though, is a slippery concept and the rules aren’t always clear. The macro-micro relationship offers one way of thinking about this. My sessions will move from macro (this week, covering cross-cultural communication and misunderstanding, then focusing on a single feature (alternation and co-occurrence) as illustrative of the relationship; then in week 5 the speech event (connecting macro and micro), and finally in week 6 conversation analysis (micro).

A Japanese woman offers tea

Saville-Troike’s example of a Japanese woman offering tea provides a fascinating example of how precise rules of use can be. Here the form of the offer is determined by the relationship with the addressee. Japanese informants have told me that there is now more flexibility at the more informal levels but that the situation is actually more complex than it appears here.

1 Ocha?


(to own children)

2 Ocha do?

[tea how-about]

(to own children, friends who are younger than self, own younger brothers and sisters)

3 Ocha ikaga?

[tea how-about (polite)]

(to friends who are the same age, own older brothers and sisters)

4 Ocha ikaga desu ka?

[tea how-about (polite) is Q]

(to husband (h), own parents, own aunts and uncles, h’s younger brothers and sisters)

5 Ocha wa ikaga desu ka?

[tea topic how-about (polite) is Q]

(to own grandparents)

6 Ocha ikaga desho ka?

[tea how-about (polite) is (polite) Q]

(to h’s elder brothers and sisters)

7 Ocha wa ikaga desho ka?

[tea topic how-about (polite) is (polite) Q]

(to teachers, h’s parents, h’s boss, h’s grandparents)


(to a guest of very high position in society

Saville-Troike, M. 1989. The Ethnography of Communication. Oxford: Blackwell. Page 53.


One way of approaching this is to look at examples of misunderstanding. Three writers who have explored this area are Thomas, Gumperz and Tannen. Extracts used for discussion in the workshop are reproduced below. I’ve taken quite a few from marriages to illustrate the part that assumptions can play in this process. First a quote to get the importance of pragmatic failure:

While grammatical error may reveal a speaker to be a less than proficient language user, pragmatic failure reflects badly on him/her as a person.

J. Thomas. 1983. Cross-cultural pragmatic failure. Applied Linguistics, 4/2: 91- 111. Page 97.

Thomas draws a distinction between pragmalinguistic failure,which ‘…occurs when the pragmatic force mapped by S onto a given utterance is systematically different from the force most frequently assigned to it by native speakers of the target language, or when the speech act strategies are inappropriately transferred from L1 to L2’ and sociopragmatic failure, which relates to ‘the social conditions placed on language in use’ (ibid. p.99).

Pragmalinguistic failure:

Russian konesno = of course (an enthusiastic affirmative)

Are you coming to my party?

Of course.

(Russian gloss: ‘Yes indeed…/I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’)

(English gloss: ‘Yes indeed…/I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’)

Is it a good restaurant?

Of course.

(Russian gloss: ‘Yes, (indeed) it is.’)

(English gloss: ‘What a stupid question!’)

Is it open on Sunday?

Of course.

(Russian gloss: ‘Yes, (indeed) it is.’)

(English gloss: ‘Only an idiotic foreigner would ask!’)

(ibid. p.102)

Sociopragmatic failure stems from different assessments based on features such as:

Size of imposition; e.g. Russian, ‘Give me a cigarette.’

Tabus; e.g. Mentioning consummation in coverage of a royal marriage.

Power and social distance; e.g. Excessive deference.

Value judgements; e.g. importance of truth.

Pragmatic ground rules; e.g. American: ‘We must get together sometime.’

Gumperz has looked very closely at the subtle clues that help establish relationships and understandings, illustrated by the following example:

A graduate student has been sent to interview a black housewife in the low income, inner city neighbourhood. The contact has been made over the phone by someone in the office. The student arrives, rings the bell, and is met by the husband, who opens the door, smiles, and steps towards him:

Husband: So y’re gonna check out ma ol lady, hah?

Interviewer: Ah, no. I only came to get some information. They called from the office.

(Husband, dropping his smile, disappears without a word and calls his wife.)

Gumperz, J.J. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 133.

The husband invites the researcher to respond as a member of the same social group (Gumperz suggests that a response of ‘Yea, I’ma git some info’ would have been appropriate), but the interviewer fails to pick up this cue and his reply positions him as an academic researcher and therefore a member of a group with which the husband does not identify.

Gumperz (ibid. p.135) also provides the following amusing example of miscommunication in marriage. Notice how the pragmatic force of the utterance is interpreted in two different ways:

A husband sitting in his living room is addressing his wife. The husband is of middle class American background, the wife is British. They have been married and living in the United States for a number of years.

Husband: Do you know where today’s paper is?

Wife: I’ll get it for you.

Husband: That’s O.K. Just tell me where it is. I’ll get it.

Wife: No I’LL get it.

Tannen is also associated with work on this area of marital interaction. The following examples are taken from:

Tannen, D. 1982. Ethnic style in male-female conversation. In J. J. Gumperz (ed.), Language and Social Identity. Cambridge: CUP.

Tannen’s own interpretations are provided below.

Example 1

Wife, New Yorker of East European Jewish extraction; husband, Greek.

Wife: John’s having a party. Wanna go?

Husband: OK


Wife: Are you sure you want to go to the party?

Husband: OK, let’s not go. I’m tired anyway.

Example 2

Husband: Let’s go visit my boss tonight.

Wife: Why?

Husband: All right, we don’t have to go.

Example 1 interpretations

Wife: She is being considerate to husband; consulting his preferences before her own. She even asked a second time to make sure, and all of this is ‘on record.’

Husband: By bringing up subject of party, his wife was letting him know she wanted to go, and when she brought it up a second time this was to let him know that she didn’t want to go. He therefore concluded that she’d changed her mind and found an excuse to make her feel better.

Comment: The roots of problem lie in different ways they expect to send and receive messages. The wife has a direct style and interprets the ‘OK’ as a positive response in free variation with other positive responses such as ‘yes’ or ‘yeah.’ The husband’s intonation, kinesics etc would have reinforced this. The husband, on the other hand, is adopting an indirect style where, for example, someone would do what a spouse or parent wanted without expecting to be told this directly.

In follow up research with Americans and Greeks, Tannen identified two features affecting interpretation of ‘OK’:

enthusiasm constraint: Americans treat it as affirmative (24%), while Greeks (0%) didn’t, at least half citing endaxi as an unenthusiastic response.

brevity effect: Americans considered that brevity indicated informality, casualness, and hence sincerity. For Greeks, brevity is a sign of unwillingness to comply with another’s perceived preference.

Example 2 interpretations

The husband and wife disagreed on interpretation of ‘Why?’ The wife said she meant it as a request for information, the husband said that it meant that his wife didn’t want to go.

Tannen makes the interesting point that such misunderstandings are likely to become more common as partners get to know one another. At the start they’re looking out for clues but eventually one slips into ‘We know one another so well that you’ll know what I want without my telling you’ and the other takes the view that ‘We know one another so well that we can tell one another exactly what we want.’

Address forms


We need to distinguish address forms, the terms we use to address people when we’re talking to them, from the way we refer to people and the way we summons them. We may use the same term for all these, but not necessarily. For example, I might refer to Sheena Gardner as ‘my colleague’, ‘the Senior Tutor’, or ‘Dr Gardner, but when I address her directly I use his first name. Similarly, I might be summoned from doctor’s waiting room as ‘Keith Richards’ would but find it very odd to be addressed in this way during the consultation.

FN and TLN

The basic distinction is that between the use of a title and last name (TLN), and the use of a first name (FN).

Power and Solidarity

Brown and Gilman’s study (1960) is widely recognised as a classic in the field and is based on ‘T’ and ‘V’ forms, the T form being taken from the Latin familiar pronoun tu and the V form from the deferential vos (it is worth noting that the distinction between the two forms, not available in English, is roughly analogous to that between FN and TLN). Brown and Gilman’s fundamental point is that pronoun usage is governed by two semantics: power and solidarity. The power semantic, which the authors believe to have been the original one, is non-reciprocal because two people cannot have power over each other in the same area at the same time. Where it applies, the powerful person says T to the non-powerful one and receives the deferential (and non-reciprocal) V in return. Where there is no difference in power, the same pronoun is used reciprocally. (See Fasold 1990 Ch 1 for a fuller summary )

Although power is an important factor in determining address forms, and was dominant at least up to the beginning of the last century, it is not the only one. In some cases there will be no power difference but a considerable difference in the extent to which speakers have things in common, and here the solidarity semantic will determine the choice of form. Where there is no power difference, and hence no basis for establishing a T-V relationship, the choice of T-T or V-V will be made depending on the degree of solidarity which applies, with T-T used where two people are close (or ‘solidary’) and V-V where they are distant. I came across an interesting example from a Swiss teacher who insisted on the T-T form with her adult class in the classroom, effectively using the power differential there as a basis for insisting on the T-T option. However, outside the classroom only the solidarity dimension was in play and here V-V applied. The change took place instantly at the classroom boundary.

Kin Terms

One of the things which marks the transition from youth to adulthood in England is the dropping of kin terms: ‘Aunt Deborah’ becomes just plain ‘Deborah’. Sometimes the transition is invited by the recipient or requested by the speaker, but often the transition just ‘happens’ — what was socially unacceptable a few months ago is now perfectly legitimate. This shift marks a new relationship which has all sorts of social implications, and once it is made, as with any other rite of passage, it cannot be ‘unmade’.

Brown and Gilman show that since the middle of this century the solidarity semantic has been more or less established as the dominant one. However, as subsequent studies have confirmed, they recognise that there is considerable variation in pronoun use according to the background of the speaker. Different societies will have different rules about what constitutes solidarity, and even within one society there will be a range of factors influencing choice. Researchers also recognise that it’s possible to violate the rules in order to make a linguistic point. In the past, for example, I have switched from the short form to the full form of my younger daughter’s name to show displeasure.

Brown, R. and Gilman, A. 1960. The pronouns of power and solidarity. In T. Sebeok (ed,), Style in Language, pp 253-276. Cambridge Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fasold, R. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Alternation and co-occurrence (Ervin-Tripp 1986)

Our decision to use a particular form is the product of a process which will also influence our other linguistic choices. There would be something downright odd, for example, about talking to ‘Dr Talbot’ (‘Good morning, Dr Talbot.’) in the way that we would talk to ‘Debs’ (‘Hi Debs, howzit goin’?’), and exceptions are likely to be funny or embarrassing. The significance of any particular address form (alternation) will depend on the context in which it is selected and the social rules which are relevant to this. Once the choice is made, however, co-occurrence rules apply. These are the rules which determine that once ‘Debs’ has been selected the language used will be different from that accompanying ‘Dr Talbot’. There may, of course, be violations of such co-occurrence, sometimes quite crude and deliberate (‘You really screwed up, Dr Talbot’) and at other times relatively minor and unintentional. ‘How’s it going’ is a good example of the latter. Here, as Ervin-Tripp points out, a phrase from casual speech ends with the formal suffix ‘-ing’, which is less appropriate than the informal ‘-in’.

An illustrative exchange.

Although all other spoken data used in these lectures will drawn from recorded exchanges, the following exchange was written for the purposes of analysis. It is therefore artificial and you should not assume that it necessarily captures the subtleties of spoken exchanges. Analyse the exchange and compare your reading with mine.

Participants: Paul Roberts, Marketing Manager

Deborah Talbot, Administrative Assistant

Scene: Corridor outside Paul Roberts’ office

Time: 8.25 (work starts at 9.00)

PR: So how are you settling into the new flat then, Deborah?

DT: Fine thanks, Mr Roberts.

PR: Redecorating from top to bottom I suppose.

DT: No, not yet — it’ll take weeks to sort out the unpacking.

PR: Still living out of boxes then?

DT: Well, there always seems something more important to do.

PR: You ought to get it done, you know. The sooner it’s out of the way the better.

DT: You can talk.

PR: Pardon?

DT: I mean, well, I was just thinking of the move here. You know, the boxes in your office. They took ages to move, them, didn’t they?

PR: I think we had things pretty well under control. Which reminds me, Ms Talbot, could you make sure the minutes of that last board meeting are out by 11 o’clock this morning. Make that a priority.

DT: Yes, Mr Roberts.


If this were a recording of an authentic exchange, there would almost certainly be a pause between ‘Well you can talk’ and ‘Pardon’. The ‘Pardon’ may well not have occurred at all. Whatever the case, it is clear that a change takes place in the interaction following Deborah’s comment.

The exchange takes place in the workplace, but in a neutral area and outside work time, so the social topic seems appropriate. Notice, though, that the asymmetrical relationship between the two interactants is clearly marked. The fact that Paul uses FN to address Deborah but receives TLN in reply provides sufficiently clear evidence of this, but there are other aspects of the interaction which are also worth noting. For example, Paul initiates the exchange, and Deborah’s role is essentially responsive, so there is a sense in which he might be said to be in control. He also feels free to offer advice on her actions in her private life (something which would normally be the privilege of friends), and some would argue that in doing so he transgresses the boundaries of what is acceptable. At any rate, this advice is what prompts Deborah’s, ‘Well you can talk.’

Paul’s response to this indicates that it is inappropriate, that Deborah has violated the norms which apply in this asymmetrical relationship by challenging his own actions in an unacceptable way (although this would be appropriate if she were responding to the advice of friends). Deborah immediately seeks to repair the damage by explaining what prompted her comment and attempting to shift the topic to an earlier move. Paul withholds agreement but acknowledges the explanation. Deborah once more attempts to involve him in a discussion of the problems of moving (‘They do...’) but receives a curt and quite formal response which closes the topic.

The initiative is now once more with Paul, and we can see a marked contrast between the exchange which follows and the earlier one. Here are the features which seem to me to be significant:

1. By comparison with the earlier ‘social’ exchanges, Paul’s turn is long. Generally speaking, long turns are not features of brief social exchanges (although they may be, depending on the interactants and the topic), but they often feature in instruction-giving.

2. Paul switches the topic abruptly to business. There are two things worth noting here. The first is the abruptness of the switch, which is not characteristic of ordinary conversation, where more gradual shifts are common (Jefferson has identified what she calls a ‘step-wise transition’ from one topic to another). There is some concession to the need to mark such sudden shifts, however, in the use of ‘Which reminds me...’ The second aspect of interest is the topic itself. Particular topics are appropriate to particular situations and particular relationships, and by shifting to business (perhaps inappropriately, given the time) Paul firmly re-establishes the asymmetrical relationship which Deborah’s ‘Well you can talk’ had violated.

3. The asymmetry is confirmed by the switch to TLN when addressing Deborah. This effectively marks the move from a ‘social’ relationship to an ‘office’ relationship, where Paul is the boss. Such shifts are the norm in some cultures, where colleagues switch from TLN to FN when they leave the workplace switch back on their return (I have seen German lunches quoted as an example of this).

4. The imperative which concludes Paul’s turn is stronger than the ‘ought’ which featured his advice on unpacking. Again, the former may be characteristic of their office relationship.

The passage ends with Deborah’s explicit assent to Paul’s instruction and implicit acceptance of the office relationship.

The power of address forms

Ervin Tripp (1986) provides the following painful example of the power of address forms. You may like to develop your own analysis before reading the discussion below.

‘What’s your name, boy?’ the policeman asked. ...

‘Dr Pouissaint. I’m a physician. ...’

‘What’s your first name, boy? ...’


(Pouissaint 1967, quoted in Ervin-Tripp 1986)

Ervin-Tripp, S. 1986. On sociolinguistic rules: alternation and co-occurrence. In J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (eds), Directions in Sociolinguistics, pp 213-250. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


The exchange involving Dr Pouissaint Ervin-Tripp refers to as ‘perfect’, because the impact of the policeman’s selection depends on the fact that both participants fully understand the address system in operation.

On the surface, this is no more than an initial exchange in which an ‘acceptable’ form of address is established, but at a deeper level much, much more is happening. It opens, for example, with a direct insult. Dr Pouissaint is black, the policeman white, and the use of the term ‘boy’ is used here as a marker of race, implicitly denying the recipient the normal rights associated with adult status in this community. At the same time, it establishes an asymmetrical relationship between the policeman and the doctor. Dr Pouissaint’s reply represents an implicit rejection of the policeman’s position since the use of the term ‘boy’ is not consistent with the use of a title and last name as a form of address. In fact, in reinforcing his claim with an explanation of why the title is appropriate, Dr Pouissaint is reversing the asymmetry, at least in so far as the term ‘Doctor’ is deferential (on this subject, it’s interesting to note that in the UK while members of the medical profession are addressed directly as ‘Doctor’, this does not extend to academics, where the title is always used with the last name). It is most certainly not appropriate for a stranger to address a doctor by his or her first name.

The policeman’s response is a blunt rejection of this: his explicit demand for a first name, made more emphatic by the repetition of ‘boy’, represents a denial of the doctor’s right to claim occupational or adult status. The reply, ‘Alvin’, is an acceptance of the policeman’s formulation of the situation and the status of the parties involved. The effect on the speaker is profound:

As my heart palpitated, I muttered in profound humiliation. ... For the moment, my manhood had been ripped from me. ... No amount of self-love could have salvaged my pride or preserved my integrity.

Linguistic choice may be largely determined by social factors, but it also derives its power from these, and its impact — as we see here — may be personally devastating.

Other examples

You might also like to reflect on the following examples:

Example 1

‘Feelings of bad blood between Alison Halford, the senior police officer who claims that sex discrimination blocked her promotion, and her chief constable were disclosed in a letter read to an industrial tribunal yesterday.

Eldred Tabachnik, QC, representing Miss Halford, said that an initial honeymoon period when she arrived as assistant chief constable of Merseyside evaporated after six months and she wrote to James Sharples, chief constable, accusing him of a ‘vitriolic and unfounded attack’ on her. The letter to Mr Sharples said: ‘When I tried to defend myself, you became more vehement in your attitude and we moved from Alison to Miss Halford to madam ... your attitude seems mercurial, inconsistent and unpredictable.’”

The Times 14.5.92

Example 2

‘Just before he [Ray Illingworth] left Yorkshire [cricket club] (the first time) he received a letter from the secretary saying that they did not intend to offer him a contract, which began ‘Dear Ray Illingworth’ — but the ‘Ray’ had been crossed out. As Illingworth wryly observed: ‘They couldn’t even bring themselves to call me by my first name or use a fresh piece of paper.’

The Observer 5.6.94

Example 3

‘No longer is it necessary for the public address system to crackle into life as it did in 1950, when Fred Titmus made his county debut: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, a correction to your scorecard; for F.J. Titmus, read Titmus, F.J.’

The Observer 5.6.94

(Note: At that time ‘gentlemen’ were distinguished from players by being addressed by TLN while players were addressed by LN. This was reflected on the scorecard by the use of initials before the name for gentlemen and after the name for players. Titmus was a mere ‘player’, a professional rather than an amateur and entitled to none of the privileges accorded to the latter.)

Example 4

Inspector: Yeah well yes well what you’re basically saying is that um Detective Inspector Jenkins is wrong, Detective Inspector er Miller is wrong er Acting Superintendent until recently Chief Inspector Butler is wrong Chief Inspector Walker is wrong all these people are wrong but Barry you are right.

Constable: You know I can’t take them on sir.

J. Thomas. 1984. Cross-cultural discourse as unequal encounter: towards a pragmatic analysis. Applied Linguistics, 5(3): 228-235.