The Turntaking-System

Term Paper 2001 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. The Turn-Taking Mechanism
2.1. Speaker and hearer roles
2.2 Turn-taking: Ways of speaker change
2.3 Defining a “turn”
2.4 Social functions of the Turn-taking system

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The concept of turn-taking covers a wide range: it is not just a theoretical construction in the linguistic field of discourse analysis, but an omnipresent pattern in communicative events, governing speech-acts and defining social roles as it establishes and maintains social relationships. Turn-taking is considered to play an essential role in structuring people’s social interactions in terms of control and regulation of conversation. Therefore the system of turn-taking has become object of analyses both for linguists and for sociologists.

The starting point of the analysis was to show regularities of conversational structure by describing the ways in which participants take turns in speaking. The first important approach to turn-taking was made by Duncan in 1972. From then on turn-taking has been accepted as one of the standard tasks “which must be managed if interaction is to occur”[1]. The most influential work in the area of turn-taking is the study by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson ( SS&J ) from 1974. They embody the so called ‘American approach of conversation analysis’. Their theoretical approach has to be seen as standard work for further discussions, although there have been several objections against it. SS&J regarded informal conversational settings and analysed the conventions which regulate turn-taking in there. They found out that there is an existence of rules the participants are aware of. SS&J say that the central principle in conversation is that speakers follow in “taking turns to avoid gaps and overlaps in conversation”[2] If gaps occur they are short. SS&J propose a simplest system for the organisation of turn-taking in conversation. The model consists of two components: the turn-construction and the turn-taking component. Their set of rules[3] has simple basic expressions: Speaker 1 gives speaker 2 the turn, he has to take it, if speaker 1 shows willingness to finish his turn, speaker 2 continues, if not, speaker 1 carries on[4]. This brings out the circularity involved in establishing rules which rely on the use of terms such as “transition-relevant places”, the possible point on which another speaker should take over the turn. As soon as such point is arrived at, at the end of every syntactical unit, the turn-taking component becomes applicable. The problem of the model is that it is based on several regularities, for example that it requires that in conversational turns just one of the speakers speaks at a time, which makes it difficult to transform this model into a room full of people where several conversations are simultaneously in progress. The critics, especially Duncan, embodying the British approach on discourse analysis, assume that speaker change is dependent on and directed by the use of certain linguistic and non verbal signals - in contrast to SS&J’s view of a smooth functioning of speaker change in conversation to the extensive observation of a number of principles. On the following pages I will comment on this basic contentious issue in the analysis of turn-taking, but furthermore concentrate on these questions:

- What are the general functions of the turn-taking system ?
- How are the roles of the speaker and hearer defined in regard to turn exchange ?
- What has to be seen as turn ?
- What are typical accompanying linguistic components in the turn-taking system ?

Aim of my analysis is to give a description of what the turn-taking system is and how it works in regard to the most important different linguistic approaches which have been made during the discussion about the last thirty days. Indeed, there have been a number of interesting works on turn-taking since the influencing analysis of SS&J. Their work should be regarded as basis of the analysis, but analysed in relation to Duncan, Coulthard as most important opponents. In the amount of new literature it is the “Discourse Reader” ( Jaworski / Coupland, ed. ) offering new views on turn-taking as it contains essays of American ( including Schegloff and Jefferson ) as well as of British linguists. Bublitz’ ”Supportive Fellow-Speakers and Co-operative Conversations” offers an interesting analysis of turn-taking in covering a wide range, whereas Anna-Brita Stenström’s “An Introduction to Spoken Interaction” does not manage to give new comments in the discussion of turn-taking. Her book is, as the name implies, an introduction to the topic, easy understandable. She regards turn-taking based on simple regularities[5].

The practical examples underlining my analysis are mostly taken from “A Corpus of English Conversation”, edited by Jan Svartvik and Randolph Quirk. They make use of certain symbols I adapted in my analysis: The speakers are abbreviated with letters A to Z ( whereas Quirk / Svartvik distinguish between age, gender and social status in some of their examples, something I did not adopt ). Simultaneous talk is marked by the use of “+” embracing the utterances ( e.g. +yes+ ); contextual comments are put into brackets. Svartvik and Quirk do not make use of punctuation marks, but of pause markers ( ‘.’ for brief, ‘ – ‘ for long pauses ). Prosodic elements ( intonation pattern, boosters, nucleus markers, markers signalling the end of a tone unit ), important element of the corpus are left out in my examples, as they are not that necessary in my analysis.

2.1. Speaker and hearer roles.

Turn-taking is based on the participation of diverse speakers, nevertheless there is a hierarchy dividing them. According to Bublitz, who focussed on conversations with more than two participants, we should divide the role of participants into a primary speaker, a secondary speaker and a hearer in everyday communications[6]. Speaker and hearer roles are defined along their communicative actions – meaning speaking, hearing, giving the hearer signals and making him a major or minor speaker contribution. Although everybody has the possibility to comment, to speak or just to listen ( in informal situations ), there is one primary speaker who offers the first topic. He launches the conversation, but he is not forced to keep the leading role throughout the whole talk. The role of the primary speaker can be defined with in performing speech acts such as telling, reporting, arguing etc. There can be communicative acts where we found more than one primary speaker.

The secondary speaker makes a minor speaker contribution to the topic, typically by performing speech acts such as agreeing, supporting, approving, doubting, inquiring, thus stating a position and manifesting an attitude, and who typically refrains from performing topical actions. The role of the hearer is firstly defined by more passive communicative actions, but it is the special character of the turn-taking system that active participation of each participant in certain ways is required. The hearer can not only be defined by a role just as listener, but also as speaker in a sense that he signals the speaker his attentiveness. This happens by the use of hearer-signals[7] or back-channels, small syntactical units, words like “Yes” ( in many variants: ‘yeah’, ’yep’ etc. ) or “Mmh”. Its task is to signal the speaker that the hearer agrees with that what has just been said.

A: I must admit that . the book-club offered to buy us a special pre-Christmas gift

B: oh yes

A: a little hardback book . it’s quite nice.

B: + m +

A: + I + read it before that happened

B: + m +

A: + otherwise + I wouldn’t have heard of it – ( laughs )

B: ( laughs )[8]

Participant B fulfils the role as hearer. His task to give the speaker hearer signals is realised by the use of back-channels such as ‘m’ or ‘ yes’ and elements like laughter. He signals his interest in that what speaker A tells him. In linguistic analysis these phenomenon has been described as “Back-channel behaviour”, “back-channel communication” or just as “giving feedback”. Next to back-channels we have to regard periods of silence or eye-contact as important constituents of communicative events. They do not carry information, but are important on a level of social relationships. Non-appearance of verbal and non-verbal hearer signals leads to a break-down of a conversation[9]. Therefore, apart from verbal hearer signals, only the corresponding non-verbal hearer signals are ‘constitutive of conversation’. If all these hearer signals would be missing, the speaker would not be aware if he still has a hearer. This is why the use of back-channels is very important in telephone conversations. Thus there is no possibility of eye-contact, the speaker needs other ways of giving feedback, like back-channels. Nevertheless, we should not interpret the use of hearer-signals as guarantee for his attentiveness. Of course, feedback-signals can be given automatically, without in fact listening to what the speaker just said. Somebody who does not speak is not necessarily hearing. Under this circumstances we could not speak of a conversation going on any longer.


[1] Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Communication in Everyday Life – A Social Interpretation. Norwood: Ablex Publ., 1989. 112.

[2] Jaworski, Adam / Coupland, Nikolas (ed.) . The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge, 1999. 20.

[3] “For any turn, at the initial transition-relevance place of an initial turn-constructional unit:

a) if the turn-so-far is so constructed as to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next technique, then the party so selected has the right and is obliged to take next turn to speak; no others have such rights or obligations and transfers occurs at the place.
b) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as not to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then self-selection for next speakership may, but need not, be instituted; first starter aquires right to a turn, and transfer occurs at that place.
c) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as not to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then current speaker may, but need not continue, unless another self-selects.

If, at the initial transition-relevance place of an initial turn-.constructional unit, neither a) nor b has operated, and, following the provision of c), current speaker has continued, then the rule-set a) – c) re-applies at the next transition-relevance lace, until transfer is effected.”

Sacks, H., Schegloff E.A. & Jefferson G.. “A Simplest Systematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation”. Language 50. London, 1974. 704.

[4] cf. Coulthard, Malcolm / Montgomery, Martin ( ed.). Studies in Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge, 1981. 166.

[5] According to Stenström the turn-taking system involves three basic strategies: to take the turn, to hold the turn and to yield the turn; cf. Stenström, 1994. 68 f.

[6] Cf. Bublitz, Wolfram: Supportive Fellow Speakers and Co-operative Conversations. Amsterdam , Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1988. 144.

[7] Bublitz, 1988. 169.

[8] Svartvik, Jan / Quirk, Randolph: A Corpus of English Conversation. Stockholm: Lund, 1979. 686.

[9] Cf. Bublitz, 1988. 171.


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Title: The Turntaking-System