ICCA2018: Keevallik – Strain grunts

Keevallik presented this talk at the International Conference on Conversation Analysis, Loughborough, UK, July 2018.

The term response cry has found ubiquitous use since Goffman coined it in “Forms of Talk” (1981). This is what he says: “Unable to shape the world the way we want to, we display our manipulation of it to the verbal channel, displaying evidence of the alignment we take to the events, the display taking the condensed, truncated form of a discretely articulated, nonlexicalized expression.” (Goffman 1981: 100-101). Strain grunts were mentioned as one of the nine types of response cries, but have so far not been analyzed in terms of their phonetic, temporal, and interactional aspects.

Strain grunts are perhaps the least conventional items among response cries, i.e. clearly nonlexical, and therefore likely to be similar across languages. The data in this study come from Estonian, Swedish, and English. Phonetically the items feature pharyngeal trills and creaky voice glottal approximants. The initiation of a strain grunt is shown to be synchronic with the moment of maximum bodily effort, and thus not actually responsive to the event. Its temporal organization seems to diverge from most response cries. However, a strain grunt can be transformed in the course of its production, additionally displaying failure, success, or other matters important to the emerging physical activity. For example, a sound of bodily effort that transforms into a display of failure employs an extensive terminal outbreath khhh, or uuhh (similar to a “visible deflation” described by Clift (2014)), and these segments can be considered more temporally responsive to the event.

The paper analyzes the social accomplishment of phonetically different strain grunts, showing a range of practices from self-congratulation to performing strain to “doing being a diligent worker”. The study is based on video recordings of physical work, cleaning of a sheep stable of manure, and physical training, dance and pilates classes. Strain grunts are shown to be used for a public display of a precision-timed effort, mostly in the speaker’s but occasionally also in the recipient’s body. Differently from most response cries, strain grunts do not actually imply inability to “shape the world”. Quite the contrary – they can be used to instruct and adjust others’ current bodily action, such as in coordinating a lift of a heavy piece of manure or when advising a dance student to apply more effort at this very moment. The paper thus essentially questions the analytical boundary between vocal sounds and the social organization of participants’ bodies.

Strain grunts are subject to social order: they can be deliberately suppressed or produced for the audience, and their social acceptability varies from setting to setting. Even though a “natural” vocal sound produced by the body (displayed as being) under heavy strain, a strain grunt nevertheless makes public how its producer aligns with the current event.

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