SPOKEN DISCOURSE: How Do We Know What They Mean?

Welcome back and a happy, healthy New Year to all!

Knowing what people actually mean is one of the most fascinating quandaries in verbal communication, and one that has preoccupied linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and cultural theorists the world over. Decoding information accurately is essential for proper understanding, so it is no wonder that we now have a plethora of frameworks for analysis and models of interpretation at our disposal.

The Psychology of communication

For Marshall Rosenberg, in his Nonviolent Communication, most criticisms are in fact veiled requests for behavioral change, and as such, they need to be surfaced and expressed clearly, starting from our observations, feelings, and needs. Eric Berne, in his Transactional Analysis, looks at the type of (power) relationships that develop between the speakers as they transact (i.e. communicate): do these carry the markers of an equal matching (Adult-Adult relationship, focused on rationality and problem-solving) or those of a Parent-Child relationship (nurturing or normative)? Friedemann Schulz von Thun mentions the four ears with which to listen for the four main functions (or purposes) of communication, which I will summarize as: Information, Interaction (or relationship-building), Intimacy (or self-revelation), and Influence (or persuasive appeal).

Even H.P. Grice’s model of cooperative conversation, with its 4 Maxims (quality, quantity, relevance, and manner) can be used to interpret spoken discourse, especially when one considers the presence or absence of hedges. (Hint: their absence is typical of a high-power, competitive approach!)

Body language, eye contact and non-verbal communication are also essential in accurately decoding messages. Studies have shown that rapport building without face-to-face interaction is extremely difficult, as we rely heavily on para-verbal and non-verbal cues to “get a sense” of what people are like, what motivates them, whether we trust them at all, and how to interpret their utterances. Think about it: How do you know what your dog means? Well, since it can’t talk, you do so by observing patterns of behavior. Right? Take the time to notice body language in communication, and please know that it is harder to fake than words.


Intercultural competence is also crucial, given that most meanings are culturally contingent. Certain interpretations might feel natural, “common sense” and automatic to you, but they are not universal, nor are they stable over time. Cultural theorists look at dominant narratives, myths and representations, dialectical tensions in a culture, and the episteme of a given epoch for clues on how to interpret discourse.


Of great interest for translators, especially interpreters and subtitlers, is the work of three American linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists – namely Harvey Sacks, with his Conversational Analysis model (turn-taking, transition relevance place, adjacent pair structure), Dell Hymes, with his Ethnography of S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G, and Joseph Gumperz, with his take on Interactional Sociolinguistics.

To accurately interpret spoken discourse, the context is crucial. It is a lot easier to make sense of situated discourse. Communicative competence means more than the mere mastery of vocabulary and language rules. It also includes knowledge about the social and cultural rules for language use in a variety of situations. Dell Hymes’ S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G model looks, therefore, at 8 different dimensions of context, to obtain valuable clues for situating and interpreting spoken discourse. These are: Situation (setting, scene) – Participants (speakers, addressees, audience) – End (goal or purpose of communication) – Act sequence (what is said, how, and in what order) – Key (the manner or spirit in which it is being said – is it serious, humorous, mocking?) – Instrumentalities (the language variety, code, medium, and channel used for communication) – Norms (applicable norms of interaction) – Genres (type of speech event – i.e. is it a lecture, a dialogue, a sermon?). Goffman, a Canadian sociologist, also sees “interaction as performance” and linguists need to be equipped with the right apparatus to analyze that performance.

Hymes’ model is very nicely complemented by J. Gumperz’s take on interactional sociolinguistics. He adds something called “contextualization cues” to the mix. Unless we are truly familiar with a culture, how can we accurately situate a conversation and identify whether its key is polite or ironic, serious or humorous, polite or patronizing, for instance? Gumperz advises us to focus on the little things speakers are usually unaware of, the things they do without even realizing, such as minimal responses (“mhm”, “right”), discourse markers (“oh well”, “ok, now”, “you know”), intonation, sighs, and other paraverbal or nonverbal cues. They are usually present for a reason and can indicate how we should interpret the utterance. His work on the conflict between customers (British) and catering staff (Asian) at Heathrow Airport is famous: it turns out that the former group’s interpretation of “rudeness” hinged not on what was said, but how! The Brits were bothered by the Asians’… intonation. A falling intonation when making an offer was not what the British airport employees eating there would expect, and they interpreted it as indifferent or condescending. However, as it turns out, for the Asian staff working there that was the normal way of asking questions. Think about different regions or ethnicities in your own country: do they use different intonations or gestures? How does that make you feel?

That being said, differences in cultural backgrounds (whether they be national cultures, organizational cultures, or gender differences) remain, and with them the potential for serious miscommunication. It is always advisable to reflect before flaming.

I hope this has been useful. For more in-depth information, discourse analysis, communication audits, translation, copy-editing, or cultural mediation, feel free to reach out, YourTranscreator is happy to help.

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