Emma Betz, Kansas State University


  • What one piece of writing was most inspirational to you as an LSI researcher?

I remember as both challenging and inspirational an early (1981) article by Peter Auer, “Zur indexikalitätsmarkierenden Funktion der demonstrativen Artikelform in deutschen Konversationen” (“On the use of the demonstrative article as a marker of indexicality in German conversation”) – challenging, because I read it very early in my conversation analytic (CA) training; inspiring, because it offered a beautifully straightforward illustration of core concepts in CA (e.g., the importance of position, the concept of the sequence, the notion of context as constructed by participants).

When we refer to persons or objects in conversation, our choice of reference formulation always reflects for whom it is designed, that is, what we believe our recipient(s) to know. If a formulation is inappropriate or insufficient (e.g., if recognition fails), a recipient can show this by initiating repair. Auer’s analysis demonstrates that the task of pointing to a problematic formulation is not exclusively a recipient’s; a speaker may ‘flag’ her own reference as potentially insufficient before a recipient can initiate repair. In German, a particular grammatical format is available for this purpose: the forward-looking demonstrative article dies-/’this’ before a noun (incl. names). With dies-, a speaker indicates that she expects the recipient to know the referent, but simultaneously conveys insecurity about the success of the chosen reference formulation. By thus eliciting a recipient’s confirmation, dies- initiates a sequence in which participants explicitly negotiate intersubjectivity – and thus create context.

It is also interesting to note that in English, prosodic ‘try-marking’ (that is, rising intonation on a word) serves a function similar to dies- in German. This shows how common interactional problems may be solved differently in different languages.

Auer’s work has helped me understand the tenets of ethnomethodological work, and it has shaped my thinking about language use. Certainly not coincidentally, my own research explores the connection of lexicogrammar and social interaction, in particular the function of ‘little words’ (response tokens, modal particles, reference terms) in German. In my research, but also through my teaching, I recently rediscovered Auer’s article, and in my students’ discussions in an introductory CA course last semester, I was delighted to observe a reaction similar to my own.

  • What question you are currently trying to explore? How?

My current work explores the use of address and reference terms in German interaction and asks: “How can third-person reference terms carry functions beyond referencing? How can address terms do more than summoning and next speaker-selection?”

In trying to answer these questions, I have found that second-person pronouns used as turn-initial elements in German project the shape and type of an upcoming action, and that turn-initial and turn-final address terms are implicated in showing the larger sequential fit of an action. They thus carry crucial information about the relationship and interactional history of co-participants. My research also indicates that in German, choosing between different available grammatical forms of names for third-person reference (article+first name vs. bare first name) may not just be a matter of epistemics and sequential position, but also one of expressing affective stance toward a third party.

With this research, I hope to contribute to our general understanding of grammar (as practices that have evolved in and through conversation), but I also hope to offer findings that can be put to practical use, for example in the training of professionals in relationship and family counseling.