NORDISCO 2018: Keevallik – Emergent syntax

Keevallik presented a plenary talk at NORDISCO 2018.

Emergent syntax in the embodied world

Language is but one resource of sense-making and action formation. As interacting human beings we cannot merely rely on our earlier experiences of lexicon and grammar, because this abstracted knowledge does not in itself guarantee mutual understanding here and now. A more realistic view on the achievement of intersubjectivity is to be found in the complex interplay between the embodied language, body movements, and the material environment. In this paper I will use data from contexts where bodies are in focus, pilates and dance classes, to show how syntactic structure emerges step-by-step in teacher talk. It does so in response to the students’ moving bodies, while it simultaneously directs them through the partially known moves. While “living” in the students’ bodies with the fine-tuned prosody, the teacher times syntactic coordination, phrasal constructions and occasionally even morphological suffixes in relation to the ongoing physical exercise. Furthermore, structures that would be characterized as ungrammatical in textbooks are locally established as formula for synchronous compliance and make perfect sense for the participants in the specific activity context. In contrast to formal theories that consider grammar as a device of coherent expression of pre-planned propositions, this study argues that syntactic structure emerges as part of practical action across participants and modalities.