Turn-Taking and Beyond

* Stephen C. Levinson, ‘Turn-taking in Human Communication – Origins and Implications for Language Processing’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 6-14.

Of all the topics featured on this blog so far, I think turn-taking has been one of the most interesting to me. Some time ago, in a couple of posts here and here, I noted that cognitive scientists were getting interested in the development of language, and turn-taking was identified as a key characteristic of human speech. I put forward some literary examples in which turn-taking turned strange and problematic — where we could see hypothetical scenarios in which turn-taking could no longer be relied on.
      And in a recent Trends article, it’s back. Levinson provides a fascinating account of the way turn-taking works in the mind; it appears to be ‘at the limits of human performance’, requiring lots of resources to perfect and maintain. However it is also an ancient part of our evolution, shared with other primates in one form or another. Levinson asks, at the end, for more research into the ‘systematic imprint on language structure’ that turn-taking might cause: how deeply are grammar and syntax (and what else? phonetics and lexical structures?) shaped around this fundamental basis?
      That’s not really a question for a literary scholar like me, and this post isn’t going to be full of answers anyway: I have a lot to do at the moment! However, I’d say that some of this research could be literary research. Writers constantly test the interface between linguistic structure and turn-taking in their depictions of dialogue, creating grammatical patterns, exchanging puns, trying out rhythms within and between statements. They know something about it; they are capable of producing things that strike us as forced or unrealistic (often to a purpose), and they are capable of producing things that seem just right.

* Martin B.H. Everaert, Marinus A.C. Huybregts, Noam Chomsky, Robert C. Berwick, Johan J. Bolhuis, ‘Structures, Not Strings: Linguistics as Part of the Cognitive Sciences’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 729-43.
* Mark Dingemanse, Damián E. Blasi, Gary Lupyan, Morten H. Christiansen, Padraic Monaghan, ‘Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 603-15.

Turn-taking is not the only aspect of language that’s been discussed in Trends in Cognitive Sciences recently. Two other big reviews venture onto vast territory. Everaert et al. propose that linguistics and cognitive science should interact much more closely, that language should be seen as a ‘computational cognitive mechanism’, and that we should move beyond ‘surface-oriented approaches’. Dingemanse et al. also tilt at a pretty big windmill by taking on the idea that in human languages form and meaning only have an arbitrary relationship. They weigh up evidence for ‘systematicity’ (ways in which patterns of sound organise types of words) and ‘iconicity’ (ways in which words’ forms stand for their meanings) and conclude that we probably need these things to explain how languages work.
      This is all intriguing, but I still find that the more palpable topic of turn-taking is the one that makes me think. I like the way that it’s something deeply embedded in the basis of linguistic communications, which can still protrude strangely from highly developed social interactions.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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