Judith Holler (University of Manchester) und Katie Wilkin (University of Manchester):

The evolution of reference in face-to-face dialogue

Vortrag im Rahmen von „Das Konkrete als Zeichen“, 12. Internationaler Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik (DGS), Stuttgart, 9. bis 12. Oktober 2008; Sektion „Gesten in der Kommunikation: Prozesse der Konkretisierung und Abstraktion“.



The present research focuses on how speakers’ referring expressions develop over the course of a dialogic interaction. Previous studies (e.g., Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs) have focused on a very similar issue, but by analysing verbal communication only. Here, we investigate speakers’ use of both, speech and co-speech gestures. The data stem from a referential communication task (based on Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986). Two participants at a time engage in a task which requires one participant to describe twelve Chinese tangram figures (rather abstract looking, geometrical shapes, printed in black on white cards) to the second participant, one at a time. Both participants have the same set of cards in front of them but in different orders. It is the ‘director’s’ task to instruct the ‘matcher’ to arrange their cards in the same order as their own, over six repeated trials. As part of this process, the participants repeatedly refer to the same figures. Typically, the process involves conceptualising the rather abstract figures as something concrete, such as real-world objects and persons.

What we find is that the speakers draw on gesture as an important source for allowing this concretisation to happen. Often, they use full body enactments to ‘bind’ the individual geometrical components together in the form of a figure, and thus embody the respective figure. One part of our analysis focused on the role gesture plays in the process of creating the final reference for a figure. Our first finding showed that, not only did participants draw on gesture to a considerably extent in this process, but they also, in general, continued to use gesture throughout, even with increasing common ground (or mutually shared knowledge; Stalnaker, 1978). Moreover, in many cases, the gestures appeared to take on sign-like properties with increased shared understanding. Our qualitative and descriptive analysis showed that when gestures tend to retain their form and information content, this allowed speakers to produce more concise, elliptical verbal referring expressions. Often, the verbal component of the referring expression was ambiguous or vague, left details unspecified and was a more abstract representation of the respective figure being talked about. The gesture, through representing the entire, or parts of, the referent, allowed the interactants to associate the verbal expression with an embodied representation of the referent. In other words, the gestures seemed to ground the verbal reference in a visual, concrete world.

Using observations concerning sign formation and sign usage in the Australian Aboriginal population (Kendon, 1988) in our analysis, the findings also shed light on modes of representation and processes of abstraction in gesture (e.g., from mimetic to analogic enactment), on fusion of individual gesture elements into more sign-like forms, information reduction in the gestural and verbal components of references, and on the use of gestures as an alternative to speech.

We also interpret speakers’ flexible use of gesture with respect to the notion of efficient communication and least joint effort (e.g., Clark, 1996). In all, the research provides insight into the semantic and pragmatic processes of gesture-speech reference evolution in dialogue and advances our understanding of semantic and social-interactional aspects that influence verbal and gestural communication.