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Discourse Readjustment(s) in Contemporary English

Discourse Readjustment(s) in Contemporary English

von: Blandine Pennec

Wiley-ISTE, 2018

ISBN: 9781119522508 , 378 Seiten

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Discourse Readjustment(s) in Contemporary English


General Introduction: Communication at Risk

Mismatches, approximations, mistakes and misunderstandings: the common group of evils likely to impede on communication; without counting blurred meanings, vagueness, or ambiguity. Communication, particularly oral, in theory would require several repetitions and tests in advance to reach a real level of correctness – or, at least, a harmony between what enunciators say and mean. However, situations where a locutor can erase the first formulation of his or her thought and substitute it with a more developed version are rare. This type of vertical re-elaboration (relative to the paradigmatic axis, we could say) is specific to writers, or speakers of different backgrounds (journalists, politicians, teachers, to cite but a few), who prepare speech before its actual enunciation. They benefit from a kind of preparation “laboratory”. Correlatively, in these precise cases, there is a delay between the time taken to develop the speech and the actual moment of enunciation. The situation of communication is therefore artificial and relatively unidirectional because there is no interaction, so to speak, with an interlocutor: only a “receiver” is targeted. But an ordinary locutor, in concrete situations of everyday life, generally does not have this possibility to prepare in advance his or her words, particularly when expressing him or herself orally. What we could describe as the “constraints of direct speech” is particularly relevant as we rarely speak alone: the interaction with an interlocutor does not allow for vertical re-elaboration, and only horizontal “readjustments”, that is to say only variations, revisions and adaptations are possible. These readjustments are necessary due to the frequent difficulties of putting our thoughts into words in a satisfactory way. The readjustments in question seem especially necessary as interlocutors rarely share the same mental representations. And this goes for words themselves, which are far from always being understood or receiving the same connotations.

Failure in communication is, for that matter, a favored theme in the world of certain writers. Pinter’s theatre (Night School1, or Betrayal2) in particular approaches the subject. It is also the case in Kundera’s novels: in The Unbearable Lightness of Being3, for example, the author illustrates this irrevocable “incommunicability” through his “dictionary of misunderstood words”. Here, he approaches the question of the difference that separates individuals in their perception of words and things. More precisely, he presents these gaps as a set of dictionary entries, with completely distinct definitions according to the characters. To resume the message of the work, Kundera adopts the following wording, touching on the misunderstandings that he ties together in his characters’ dialogues: “although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words they exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them.”4 In the novel, this divide in perceptions creates a wedge between the characters, a void where misunderstanding makes a nest for itself. Such is, precisely, the risk that we run when we look to interact with others, even more so when we know little about our interlocutor, his or her perceptions and lexical universe. Indeed, sharing the same language and culture is not enough to rule out misunderstandings.

It seems, nonetheless, that we are not condemned to accepting (or at least, not completely) these problems of misunderstanding, and that languages themselves do offer locutors ways of trying to fill these voids and overcome communication failures. And so, if understanding is often put into peril, it is not necessarily a failure either. Communication dead ends would not, then, be a fatality. It is at least possible to reduce the effects of this on-going difficulty to communicate accurately. By observing languages, we realize that they offer the possibility to break away momentarily from discursive linearity5 and make way for reflexivity, to come back to our own words to amend and sharpen them, to overturn them, and make changes to the wording or enunciative perspective. All these reworkings, following an already uttered segment, are what we call discourse readjustments.

The term “readjustment” (or its french equivalent) is occasionally employed by Gilbert [GIL 89, p. 40]6, or Lapaire and Rotgé [LAP 98, p. 319]7. It is also mentioned by Ranger [RAN 12, p. 39]. In the true sense of the term, as in the metalinguistic sense8 used in this study, readjustment is a means of adaptation: it is a question of making an element conform with a value taken as a target. The term readjustment of course resonates with the term adjustment, which is at the center of the Theory of Enunciative Operations, and we will specify why it is useful to distinguish the two concepts. The two terms have, in any case, the common factor that they presuppose a lack of harmony, or leeway, or play (meaning lack of juncture, leaving a gap or hole, as Culioli points out [CUL 99a, p. 98]) between two elements. With regard to readjustment, this gap is manifested between an actual formulation and a targeted formulation. Bridging this gap is part of a dynamic where various markers or constructions intervene, which this study aims to examine. We will focus on oral as well as written communication. The latter is not characterized by the constraints linked to spontaneity that we previously mentioned with regard to oral communication. Yet, we will see that readjustments are also frequent here, and not only in cases where writing retranscribes or mimics orality: this frequency can first of all be explained by the fact that certain forms of writing remain quite spontaneous and are not worked on to the point of being able to evoke referents in one single description perfectly. Moreover, even in cases of perfected writing, referents often need to be characterized by successive reworkings so as to be evoked faithfully, in keeping with their complexity. Sometimes, in writing, readjustment also becomes a stylistic element, and seeks to reproduce and expose the stream of thought underlying the utterance. But the latter is far from being direct and linear in the majority of cases.

In terms of structure, in Part 1 this study will aim to define more accurately the notion of readjustment, understood here at the discursive level as reworkings on the basis of a first formulation. We will set up this notion in contrast to adjustment, employed (regarding a work on notions) in Culioli’s Theory of Enunciative Operations (henceforth TEO)9. We will then move onto a wider framework, mixing enunciation and pragmatics, given that our subject will be made up of discursive sequences. Still in Part 1, we will examine the reasons underlying the use of such readjustment processes in speech, as well as the modalities that characterize them. The sections that follow will aim to clarify the concrete manifestations of discourse readjustments. They will group together linguistic phenomena according to the types of speech acts that they allow. They will also go on to analyze in detail the introducers linked to these phenomena. Part 2 will examine the case of reformulation, whether paraphrastic or non-paraphrastic. We will move back and forth between the questions around accuracy in nomination and self-correction. Part 3 will focus on the phenomena of re-examination in the form of recentering, upgrading and downgrading processes, to show the extent to which the point of view itself can be reworked. The enunciative stance is, for that matter, sometimes modified to such a point that a change in enunciative perspective ensues, as is the case in distancing processes, which we will explore in Part 4. We will then leave these phenomena that reflect the existence of play in language to analyze, throughout Part 5, those that bear witness to this play on language. The use of segments that we will call “inserts”, that is to say, metalinguistic expressions, parenthenticals or even added-in structures with dialogical characteristics, will highlight these possibilities at the heart of language and revealed in speech. The last part of this work will concentrate on phenomena that interest us on a microdiscursive as well as macrostructural level, as we will examine readjustments that are characteristic of oral speech, and that allow speech to be (re)structured depending on the co-enunciators.

This work does not claim to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, it seeks to give a global view of these phenomena, which we can group under the label “discourse readjustments”. Whilst the starting point is onomasiological (based on the very notion of readjustment), the essential bulk of the work will then be more semasiological (meaning, that it will concentrate on the linguistic forms and discursive devices associated with that notion, which will then shed light on the notion itself), so that the reader may come to an idea of the diversity of the processes concerned.

Relatively few works have adopted such an approach. We can, however, identify two categories of connected works. On the one hand, we can find studies of the notion of adjustment (that we will contrast with the notion of readjustment) but these are still limited in number. Beyond the first references to adjustment found in Culioli (in a very specific form, since it deals with intersubjective adjustment), one major publication has approached the question...