Sounds on the Margins of Language

Richard Ogden (Guest editor), Leelo Keevallik (Guest editor)

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issuepeer-review


In this SI we analyse a traditional CA topic, social action formation, from the linguistic-phonetic perspective of limits of talk. The presence of talk (whether spoken or signed) is a defining property of conversation; and for linguists, talk is the place where language is manifest. But conversation is full of places where there is no talk, even though there are sounds. Analysing how these sounds are used requires us to push CA methods to their limit, as we often cannot rely on our intuition. In spoken and embodied interaction, there occur many vocalisations that are made in the vocal tract which are not words or particles, but are non-lexical objects (also called ‘sound objects, Reber 2012). Examples from English in regular orthography include “ugh”, “mmm”, “argh!”, “pfft!”, “brrr” (used in English to mark ‘cold’), “phew”. There are many others that cannot be written orthographically, such as clicks, sniffs, or sighs; or items that are made up ad hoc. Items like these may be embedded within a linguistic context, but linguists do not normally think of them as linguistic objects: they do not belong to a major syntactic category, they may not conform to the phonological demands of the language, and the relationship between their form and meaning might not be arbitrary, which until recently has been considered the sine qua non of linguistic forms. Non-lexical vocalisations are therefore at the boundary of language and paralanguage, or non-language. Linguistics is logocentric; yet language is embodied, and its primary context of use is the physical world (Mondada 2016: 340; Perniss 2018; Sandler 2018: 1). Studies of sign language and gesture over recent years have led increasing numbers of researchers to explore how different semiotic streams, including the non-arbitrary ones, combine to produce meaningful packages (Goodwin 2007, Enfield 2009, Levinson 2013). Iconicity in general has enjoyed an upsurge of interest in the interactional studies of world languages (Clark 2016, Dingemanse & Akita 2017). Recent work in CA, at the same time, shows that bodily behaviours are also consequential for the formation and ascription of action (e.g. Keevallik 2013, 2018; Kendrick & Drew 2016; Mondada 2018). By understanding how participants in interaction use and make sense of non-lexical vocalisations, we gain a better understanding of not only how speech works alongside other embodied behaviours, but also of action formation and ascription. We propose a special issue of RoLSI on sounds on the margins of language in everyday conversation and various other markedly embodied activity contexts, such as weightlifting, running and board games. We anticipate a broad interest among interactional linguists, psycholinguists, phoneticians, multimodal interaction researchers, and conversation analysts, beyond just the usual readership of RoLSI. The papers in the SI will address the following questions: What are the phonetic features of non-lexical vocalizations? How do they relate to turn taking and syntax? How do they relate to action formation and action sequencing? What resources do participants have to make sense of them? The SI includes studies on Mandarin, Finnish, English and French. The sound objects in the papers range from more “natural” ones during heavy lifting – which involve e.g. pharyngeal and epiglottal sounds associated with physical effort – to more conventional stance markers like “aw!” in English. Some of them (like clicks) work alongside speech, while others (like sniffs or whistles) can appear as alternatives to speech. Collectively, the papers will show that many of the practices we observe have some elements of conventionalisation about them: that is, they are language specific in their connection of form and function. Others are more organically grounded, and so have more obviously indexical or iconic interpretations. Crucially, rather than sticking with functional labels, such as a “moan” or a “groan” our ambition is to help authors establish more precise, technical descriptions for the target objects, and thus promote a more fine-grained analysis of how various phonetic details are related to evolving turns and trajectories of action (cf. T. Walker, 2014). We will thus be covering new ground not merely in interaction research but also in linguistics. Unravelling the delicacies of how non-lexical vocalisations are intertwined with speech, body movement, gesture and facial expression in the moment-by-moment unfolding of naturally occurring interaction across languages helps us to explore the boundaries between what is a linguistic item, what is a by-product of the human vocal tract, and what is socially organised.
Original languageEnglish
JournalResearch on Language and Social Interaction
Issue number1
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 30 Dec 2019


  • conversation analysis
  • multimodality
  • phonetics
  • English language
  • Finnish language
  • Mandarin language
  • French language
  • Estonian language

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