Liminal signs

I have a new paper out as part of a special issue filled to the brim with things on the border of language if not beyond it. There are seven empirical articles on response cries, “moans”, clicks, sighs, sniffs, & whistles, flanked by an intro (by editors Leelo Keevallik and Richard Ogden) and a commentary (by me). It was truly a privilege to sit down and spend time with this collection of papers to write a commentary; and quite the challenge to formulate a coherent take on phenomena so diverse in form and function, and so neglected in the language sciences.

Why are these things neglected? As I note in my commentary, there are at least three reasons: we’ve not been able to capture them until recently; some quarters of linguistics have been actively disinterested in them; but most intriguingly, they may be designed to be overlooked, or at least overlookable.

One challenge I set myself was to come up with a characterisation of these items that doesn’t focus on what they are not. “Non”-labels like non-lexical, non-linguistics, non-conventional, non-phonemic, non-committal et cetera buy into the framing that these things are not language, and imply that they have no qualities of their own worth mentioning. However, there is at least one thing that unites them: their in-betweenness. Are they lexical or not? Conventional or not? Phonemic or not? Intentional or not? They seem to skirt these issues — and derive interactional utility from that very ambiguity. Hence: liminal signs.

Many liminal signs originate in bodily conduct with non-interactional functions: sighing, sniffing, moaning, etc. This lends them an air of plausible deniablity and makes them off the record. It also makes them awesome cases of exaptation and ritualisation. Speaking of which: when Darwin wrote about whistles and clicks, he had to rely on anecdotal reports from around the world. The papers in this issue showcase the power of sequential analysis to bring to light the workings of liminal signs in interaction.

Inspired by Harvey Sacks, the commentary also aims to highlight the methodological and conceptual contributions of this special issue — from transcriptional innovations like >.nh< to interdisciplinary connections. As Sacks wrote:

[I]t would be nice if things were ripe so that any question you wanted to ask, you could ask. But there are all sorts of problems that we know in the history of any field that can’t be asked at a given time. They don’t have the technology, they don’t have the conceptual apparatus, etc. We just have to live with that, and find what we can ask and what we can handle.”

(Spring 1966 Lecture, in Sacks, 1992, vol. I:427)

The papers in this issue are part of a wave of new research into multimodal talk-in-interaction that is making remarkable progress in just what the study of talk-in-interaction can handle.

Looking for something to read? Dip into this special issue and prepare to have your sense of the boundaries of language subtly shifted — one sniff, click, or whistle at a time. My commentary (short and open access) is here:

Dingemanse, M. (2020). Between Sound and Speech: Liminal Signs in Interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 53(1), 188–196. doi: 10.1080/08351813.2020.1712967

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