New paper: Interjections (Oxford Handbook of Word Classes)

📣New! “Interjections“, a contribution to the Oxford Handbook on Word Classes. One of its aims: rejuvenate work on interjections by shifting focus from stock examples (ouch, yuck) to real workhorses like mm-hm, huh? and the like. Abstract:

No class of words has better claims to universality than interjections. At the same time, no category has more variable content than this one, traditionally the catch-all basket for linguistic items that bear a complicated relation to sentential syntax. Interjections are a mirror reflecting methodological and theoretical assumptions more than a coherent linguistic category that affords unitary treatment. This chapter focuses on linguistic items that typically function as free-standing utterances, and on some of the conceptual, methodological, and theoretical questions generated by such items. A key move is to study these items in the context of conversational sequences, rather than as a mere sideshow to sentences. This makes visible how some of the most frequent interjections streamline everyday language use and scaffold complex language. Approaching interjections in terms of their sequential positions and interactional functions has the potential to reveal and explain patterns of universality and diversity in interjections.

Anyone who writes about interjections has first to cut through a tangle of assumptions about marginality, primitivity, and insignificance. I think this is incoherent: linguistics without interjections is like chemistry without the noble gases.

Re-centering interjections is possible now because there’s plenty of cool new interactional work by folks like Emily Hofstetter, Elliott Hoey, Nick Williams, Kristian Skedsmo, Johanna Mesch, and many others.

A fairly standard take in linguistics is that interjections are basically public emissions of private emotions — a view that is remarkably close to folk notions about the category. However, corpus data suggests that interjections expressive of emotions are actually not all that frequent — interactional and interpersonal uses are much more prominent (yet they are the least studied). This is why re-centering is important.

In line with this, part of the chapter focuses on some of the most frequent interjections out there: continuers, minimal particles that acknowledge a turn is underway and more is anticipated (like B’s m̀:hm seen at lines 53 and 57)

I am always impressed by the high-precision placement of these items and by their neat form-function fit, a pliable template for signalling various degrees of alignment and affiliation, with closed lips signifying ‘keep going, I won’t take the floor’.

Traditional linguistic tools are ill-suited to deal with the nature of interjections. Perhaps this is why most grammars do little more than just listing a bunch of them & noting how they don’t fit the phonological system. Fortunately, interactional linguistics and conversation analysis offer robust methodological tools, ready to be used in descriptive & comparative work. One aim of this piece is to point folks to some concrete places to start.

In the NWO project Elementary Particles of Conversation, we undertake the comparative study of these kinds of items and their consequences for language; this chapter aims to contribute towards that goal by fostering more empirical & theoretical work.

Some further goals I set myself for this piece: 1) foreground empirical work rather than traditional research agendas; 2) elevate new work by junior & minoritized scholars; 3) treat matters in modality-inclusive & modality-agnostic ways.

I found that often, these goals converge & point to exciting new directions. For instance, including sign language data (as in this case from Norwegian SL Kristian Skedsmo, but also work by Joanna Mesch) shows the prospects of a cross-modal typology of interjections.

Originally tweeted by @dingemansemark@scholar.social (@DingemanseMark) on June 30, 2021.

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