Linguistweets: Hofstetter: Interactionally situating the power scream

Hofstetter will be presenting at Linguistweets 2020, December 5th, on “Interactionally situating the power scream: Bodily motivated vocalizations.”


Everyday interaction is filled with sounds that are connected to bodily events: breathing, sniffing (Hoey, 2020), crying (Hepburn, 2004), grunting, and so on. Most linguistic theories, however, exclude the body from consideration, arguing its contributions are insufficiently symbolic or conventionalized, and most of all, merely unintentional by-products. In contrast, ethnomethodological and interactional linguistics studies show how speakers orient to such sounds as meaningful and accountable (e.g. Keevallik 2020).

This paper begins to address the lack of research concerning ‘bodily motivated’ sounds, specifically the diverse vocalizations involved in physical strain, using a corpus of 25 hours of recorded naturally occurring rock climbing as data (368 strain vocalizations). It uses the term ‘bodily motivated’ to capture the dual nature of these sounds as both physiological and social events. The analysis proceeds using multimodal conversation analysis, that is, it elucidates the pragmatics of the vocalizations as demonstrated through the participants’ own orientations to the phenomena in situ. The participants in the data treat the vocalizations as simultaneously physiological and socially meaningful for their ongoing interaction, which makes available their understandings of the vocalizations for both co-participants at the time of recording, and the analyst for research.

Participants distinguished between three variations: 1) ‘power screams’, laryngeally constricted vocalizations made during intense physical strain, 2) ‘power hups’, shorter bursts with glottal onsets that accompany motion, often jump-like moves, and 3) ‘strain releases’, outbreaths that accompany a relaxation of muscles. The former are treated as projecting motion, whereas the latter projects cessation. Climbers have a particular need to distinguish strain vocalizations as safety partners (belayers) must anticipate the climber’s motions in order to safely manage the rope equipment.

This study proposes the concept of ‘bodily motivated’ sounds as an emically defined form of vocalization that blurs the boundaries between the ‘merely physiological’ and ‘socially meaningful display’. Such vocalizations provide a perspicuous opportunity to examine how the body and language are interwoven.

Hepburn, A. (2004). Crying: Notes on Description, Transcription, and Interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37(3), 251–290.

Hoey, E. M. (2020). Waiting to Inhale: On Sniffing in Conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 53(1), 118–139. Keevallik, L. 2020. Linguistic structures emerging in the synchronization of a Pilates class. In C. Taleghani-Nikazm, E. Betz & P. Golato (eds), Mobilizing others: Grammar and lexis within larger activities (pp.147-174). John Benjamins.