IPrA2021 for the NLV team: Löfgren reports

The panel ‘Non-lexical vocalizations and the sensing body’, organized by Emily Hofstetter and Leelo Keevallik, was held during the IPrA-conference on June 27th to July 2nd 2021. The panel gathered researchers from all over the world with an interest in non-lexical sounds, their forms and functions in social interaction.

The panel was held in two parts, with three talks during each part, as well as a slot for a concluding discussion at the end. Emily Hofstetter kicked the panel off with her talk on power screams, vocalizations that occur during moments of intense strain, in the context of rock climbing. These have often been popularly believed to result in more force on the part of the producer, but research has not been able to show unified results on that matter. Hofstetter demonstrated a trajectory of strain with preparation related to inbreath, stress related to strain sounds and a release related to an outbreath. Strain sounds and outbreaths can be made accountable if occurring at inapposite times. Generally, the power screams have low response relevance, a common feature of non-lexicals in general, as observed in other presentations during the panel. The body is available to account for why the sound is happening–it is inferable from the context—and the power screams are thus bodily motivated phenomena.

Thereafter, Heike Baldauf-Quillatre and Cordula Schwarze presented vocal-bodily displays of hesitation, concluding that hesitation is a category that participants draw on, that it is scalar, and distinguishable from searching. Different resources (such as hesitation markers, voice quality, non-lexical vocalizations, gaze and lexical displays) can be used to display hesitation, and hesitation markers do not always imply hesitation; nor are they always involved when a participant is displaying hesitation. A question from the audience targeted whether hesitation was an action or a practice, and the reply was that it is probably a practice to introduce a dispreferred answer.  

Yotam ben-Moshe then presented his work on stance-taking gasps in Hebrew interaction. He demonstrated how gasps, or pulmonic ingressive vowels in technical terms, function as discourse markers, and express affective stances, whether positive or negative. However, the interpretation of the gasps relies on the multimodal gestalts in which they occur, together with for instance a widening of the eyes. Interestingly, in Yotam’s data, gasps occur frequently among women, thus possibly being indexical of socio-demographic function.  

After Yotam, it was my turn to present my work on depictions involving non-lexical vocalizations (vocal depictions) in the context of opera rehearsals. In the study I presented, I investigated how the director uses non-lexical vocalizations in her work with the performers, focusing on a pattern where the director first introduces a depiction with a non-lexical vocalization in a first turn, the performer then provides a formulation of that turn, and finally the director then modifies the formulation in a third turn, where she upgrades the depiction with non-lexical vocalization. The second depiction is reperformed in the sense that similar sounds and movements are used to perform it (in one case a fricative sound and a sweeping arm gesture), but they are more pronounced the second time around (the non-lexicals being longer, louder and produced with more audible sounds due to, for instance, higher pitch, and the gestures produced with more force and taking up more space). In repeating the non-lexicals and depictions, I argue that they become locally conventionalized. Interestingly, the question slot after my presentation opened up for a discussion on the distinction between lexical and non-lexical items. Some argued that although distinction is not a pure dichotomy, lexical items are essentially less context bound, whereas some of us rejected the terms non-lexical/lexical entirely, preferring the more neutral ‘liminal signs’.

After a quick break, it was time for Misao Okada to present her work on lexical repetitions during critical moments in the context of boxing. Okada showed how lexical self-repetitions of the boxing coach occur in two sequential environments: before the targeted action of the boxer or with a start before the targeted action and continuing until the action of the boxer was completed. The lexical self-repetitions of the boxer thus become a way to instruct the boxer to continue to do something. In terms of sound quality, the lexical repetitions became more and more pronounced (higher pitch, greater volume and longer formats) as they proceed throughout the boxer’s action, while phonological features of the repetition may reflect the movements of the boxer’s opponent.

Iris Nomikou presented her work, broadly examining the fascinating question of how children become competent members and speakers through social interaction. The presentation was on a study with German data of mothers changing the diapers of their infants and producing non-lexical vocalizations when collaboration between the mother and the infant is necessary (such as when lifting the child of the changing table). Nomikou’s work generated many questions from the crowd, particularly about the dramatizing aspects of the non-lexicals, which often seem to be reflecting a movement that is heavier than that of lifting a light-weight baby. This raised interesting questions about distinguishing when something is a depiction of an action, and when it is actually doing it. Again, the question of lexical versus non-lexical items came up in a question from the audience that targeted why the mother chose to perform non-lexical and not lexical items during these critical moments of nappy changing. One possible reply could be that they stick out more from the stream of talk, but also that they are sounds that the infants themselves would be capable of producing.

Thereafter it was Marina Cantarutti’s turn, with her presentation on the multimodal design and sequential environment of responsive animations in English interaction. The animations in Cantarutti’s work are gestalts of vocal and visual behavior, responding to descriptions, and can, for instance, do joint assessments of behavior of absent third parties, or index shareability of personal experiences. As such, they demonstrate understanding of, affiliate with, and endorse comments by the first speaker, and thus facilitate distributed agency between the speakers. Often, the animations come with a verbal gloss directly afterwards, something which has been described as a ‘lexical affiliate’ by Schegloff, 1984 (which was an interesting parallel to a talk given by Urbanik & Svennevig, during the conference but outside of the panel). Future work could target a potentially functional distinction between animations (depictions) that receive a lexical affiliate, and those that do not.

After the last presentation, there was a short time for a discussion and wrapping up of the panel. Overall, the presentations generated a lot of questions from the audience, and for a PhD in the non-lexical vocalizations project, I benefitted much from these discussions. There were interesting themes emerging from the different presentations in the panel and that unified them, such as indexing bodily preoccupations and sensory experiences of oneself or another with the voice, the relationship between words and non-lexical vocalizations as well as the relationship between non-lexical vocalizations and other simultaneously deployed resources, to mention only a few. Thank you to all the presenters and to the organizers again for providing such a neat opportunity for discussion and learning about this fascinating phenomenon!