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ANU-CoEDL ZOOM Seminar: TAME, engagement and all that, Stef Spronck, 7 May

Australian National University, Outreach

Date: 22 April 2021

Seminar: TAME, engagement and all that: a proposal to reframe (and un-frame) ‘social grammar’ 

Speaker: Stef Spronck (University of Helsinki) 

When: 7 May 2021, 3pm-4.30pm (AEST)

Where: via zoom (please email for zoom link invitation)


This talk reports on a short book project (Spronck in preparation) in which I outline an updated functionalist perspective on grammatical categories and on the relation between grammar and communication. Drawing on fundamental insights from, especially, Mikhail Bakhtin, Erving Goffman, Roman Jakobson and Valentin Vološinov, I sketch an approach to grammar that characterises and classifies grammatical categories as abstract representations of dialogue. 

I start with two premises: first, the idea that linguists generally tend to classify grammatical categories and unit types into common and more peripheral units/categories (or more and less ‘marked’), which I’ll call the ‘grammatical discrimination premise.’ I suggest that, while this premise is commonly held in linguistics it has very few principled explanations. 

The second premise that, I would suggest, is fundamental to contemporary linguistics, is the idea that language does not equal communication (the ‘language ≠ communication premise’). While the boundaries between language (= grammar?) and communication are actively debated, few linguists would deny that a meaningful distinction can be made between the two (although this position is not as uncontroversial and unproblematic as it once was). 

After introducing and contextualising these two premises, I turn to a topic in the cross-section of debates around them, which I will refer to as ‘social grammar.’ This, admittedly rather heterogeneous, collection of grammatical categories and units includes difficult-to-characterise word classes like interjections, mimetic expressions, and ‘expressives’; epistemic grammatical categories like egophoricity/engagement (Evans et al. 2018a; 2018b), epistemic modality and evidentiality, but also (in)definiteness, various types of expression of speaker perspective, prominence distinctions and information structuring devices. 

Elements of ‘social grammar’ have two properties: their semantics are somehow ‘incomplete’ in the sense that they require understanding of some pragmatic context for their proper interpretation and their syntactic status, i.e. the way in which they integrate with other units in an expression, is rather indeterminate. In addition, they also often raise profound descriptive problems for pinning down their language-specific meaning on the basis of corpus studies or in conversation with language consultants in the field. 

I propose that there are three reasons for why social grammar raises so many issues: first, these elements are afterthoughts in the grammatical models that we work with, which, even if we do not adhere to a specific theory of grammar, still have shaped the terminology and descriptive variables that we can use. Second, they require a view of grammar that is more diverse than the symbolic definition of grammar most of us work with. And third: we have no principled model for connecting ‘core’ grammatical description to the sociality of the speech situation, which makes it impossible to describe categories that can only be properly understood in context. 

Perhaps somewhat provocatively, I also suggest that if we take dialogue as the primary state of language, ‘social grammar’ is actually exactly the type of grammar that we would expect; more puzzling questions, in fact, concern ‘core’ grammar, like transitivity, case, aspect etc. 

The second half of the talk introduces a model that, I claim, can account for both ‘core’ and ‘social’ grammar in an integrated way. Central to this model is the notion of ‘grammatical participation,’ the idea that the semantic variables of grammatical categories are abstract representations of entities and relations in dialogue. Reported speech, as a grammatical phenomenon that exists in the twilight area between ad-hoc communication and syntactic convention, straddling grammar and social interaction (Spronck & Nikitina 2019a; 2019b) will serve as illustration for various aspects of the model. 

Evans, Nicholas & Bergqvist, Henrik & San Roque, Lila. 2018a. The grammar of engagement I: Framework and initial exemplification. Language and Cognition 110–140. (doi:10.1017/langcog.2017.21

Evans, Nicholas & Bergqvist, Henrik & San Roque, Lila. 2018b. The grammar of engagement II: Typology and diachrony. Language and Cognition 141–170. (doi:10.1017/langcog.2017.22

Spronck, Stef. In preparation. Grammatical participation: A proposal for deriving linguistic conventions from dialogue (Conceptual Foundations of Language Science). Berlin: Language Science Press. 

Spronck, Stef & Nikitina, Tatiana. 2019a. Reported speech forms a dedicated syntactic domain. Linguistic Typology 23(1). 119–159. 

Spronck, Stef & Nikitina, Tatiana. 2019b. M and R as elements of a syntactic unit: Where would the relation between M and R come from, if not from syntax? Linguistic Typology. Walter de Gruyter GmbH 23(1). 245–254. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2019-0014

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