You are on page 1of 12

Human Studies 12: 351-;361.1989.

1989 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

Lecture Twelve^
Sequencing: Utterances, Jokes, and Questions

For the linguists, almost exciusiveiy the iargest unit of investigation, the
iargest unit they seek to describe, is a sentence. So grammar is directed to
providing rules for generating sentences, and every time you have a
different sentence, the grammar is to b)e reapplied. If we want to study
natural activities in tiieir naturai sequences, we have to deai with, for
exampie, the obvious fact that a sentence is not necessariiy a '(X)mpiete
utterance'. Thus, linguistics is not sufficient, at least so far as it's by and
large done. There is one major exception and it's extremely close to what
I'm trying to do. That is Fries' book The Structure of English, 1952.
We want to constmct some unit which wiU permit us to study actual
activities. Can we constmct 'the conversation' as such a unit? Can we in
the first place make of it 'a unit' - a naturai unit and an analytic unit at the
same time? The question then becomes, what do we need, to do that?
First we need some rules of sequencing, and then some objects that wiQ
be handled by the ruies of sequencing. Now, if we restrict our attention at
the beg^mang, to two-party conversations, then we can get sometiiing
extremeiy simpie though not triviai, I assure you. And tiiat is, that for two-
party conversations the basic sequencing format is A-B Reduplicated. It's
not trivial in that with tiiree-party conversations it's not the case that the
sequencing ruies are A-B-C Redupiicated. There's sometiiing else; what it
is, I don't know. So: A-B Reduplicated. One party talks, then the other
party taiks, then the first party taiks again, etcetera. I use the term 'two
party' so as to provide for the fact that tiiis does not necessarily mean two
persons. The 'two-party' conversation may be a basic format such that
conversations iiaving more than two persons present can take a two-party
form. That would invoive persons dividing themseives up into teams of a
sort, and aitemating according to team memi)ersiiip, where, then, one team
talks - a whole series of persons might talk for that team - then the other
team, etcetera.
Restricting our proper considerations to two-party conversation with the

[169]
352 [170]

sequencing rule A-B RedupUcated, wiiat we iiave to come up with as a


first object is sometiiing we can caU an 'adequate compiete utterance'.
And that wiU be something that a person can say, wiiich, upon its comple-
tion, provides for the relevance of the sequencing rules. That is, on its
compietion, the other taiks, properiy. A sentence may be complete, and
one couid teU that it's compiete, but that wouidn't teU you that the person
is finished speaking for now. But if tiiey use an 'adequate complete
utterance', then, by virtue of the fact that tiiat unit is compiete, the sequenc-
ing rules are relevant Again, a sentence is, in generai, not sufficient,
though some sentences may be as much as a person is going to say. Nor,
for exampie, is it genericaUy the case that a 'question' is sufficient though
questions may comprise, and frequentiy do comprise, compiete utterances.
That is to say, it is not enough to propose tiiat an item was 'a question', to
know that upon its completion the other was to have talked, or did taik.
We want to see if we can get sometiiing tiiat stands as an 'adequate
compiete utterance', such tiiat upon the use of one or severai of these, we
have minimaUy constituted something tiiat wiU be, recognizabiy, 'a
conversation'. This is not to say tiiat conversations are oniy buiit up out of
adequate complete utterances, because persons can have ways of detecting
that sometiiing is or is not compiete, apart from the fact tiiat the object is
standardized in such a way. Though insofar as they're using other things
than adequate compiete utterances to make up their taik, they iiave a
special task of detecting that tiie other is or is not finished, and periiaps
what they ought to do now.
Another way that we couid teU tiiat 'a conversation' iias taken place is
if there were some invariable part. We might then go about identifying the
fact that a conversation occurred byreferenceto the fact that the invariabie
part occurred. Only, as far as I can teU, there aren't any. However, there is
sometiiing pretty ciose to that Take sometiiing iike "HeUo", "HeUo".
Now, a 'greeting' is an 'adequate complete utterance'. It's standardized as
such. When you hear 'a greeting', tiien you can take it that when it's
complete, it's your chance to talk, if you're the one that's been greeted.
There are severai things we want to notice about greetings, apart from the
fact that tiiey are adequate compiete utterances. Greetings are paired. And
by that I mean simpiy that if A picks a member of one of tiiose things,
then a proper move for B wiien he has an oj^rtunity to speak - rigiit after
it - is to pick a meml)er also; the same, or another. So one party's use of a
greeting provides for that minimal exchange, "HeUo," "HeUo."
Now, it's tiie case tiiat if A-B RedupUcated is the format of conversa-
[171] 353

tions, then there is no specific length tiiat a conversation takes, to b>e 'a
conversation*. And there may be no generic way buUt into the ruies of
conversationai sequencing, that a conversation comes to a close. So, for
example, there can be enormous variance between two conversations as to
how much was said. Tiiat is, you don't iiave a situation where some
certain amount of talk is required before the conversation can, or o u ^ t to,
ciose. Or, for example, there can be an oiormous variance as to how mudi
one person has said, as compared to the other. It's not a situation where
persons iiave to monitor iiow much they've talked as compared to how
much the other has taiked, to find that the conversation can, or o u ^ t to,
ciose.
Thus - if two tilings were so wiiich are not so - we could say that we
have a 'minimai conversation', "HeUo," "HeUo." And we couid say that if
at ieast that took piace, then a conversation occurred. And we couid
describe how tiiat couid take piace, given tiiis A-B RedupUcated format,
given an 'adequate complete utterance', given the 'paired' ciiaracteristic,
pius a few minor things wiiich I'U point to later oa But the two tilings are
not so. One is, it's not invariabiy the case that things we wouid say are
'conversations' contain greetings. The second is, it's not invariably the
case tiiat 'greeting items', such as "HeUo", occur as 'greetings'.
Now those facts lead us to require the foUowing: We need to distin-
guish between a 'greeting item' and a 'greeting place'. Where, then,
something is a 'greeting' only if it's a 'greeting item' occurring in a
'greeting piace'. If a greeting item occurs elsewhere it's not a greeting,
and if some other item occurs in a greeting piace it's not a greeting -
though some items that are ciose to greetings might take on tiie character
of a greeting by occurring in a greeting piace. We need, then, to be able to
say that there's a 'greeting place', and tiiat any 'conversation' has it And I
take it we can say that there is a greeting place in any conversation, by
virtue of the foUowing kind of consideration.
First of aU, it does seem that there is no ruie of exciusion for greetings.
Peopie can know eadi other 35 years, talk to each other every day, and
nonetheless greet each other when they begin a conversation. But take a
whole range of other items, for example 'introductions' (teUing someone
your name, etcetera). About introductions it can be said that there are rules
for tiieir iiistoricai use. At some point in the history of persons' conversa-
tions, introductions are no longer relevant And if they're not relevant,
then, when tiiey don't occur, one can't say tiiey're not tiiere b>ecause
there's no reason to suppose tiiat they would be tiiere. Notice that what
354 [172]

we're trying to do is find some way of saying, non-triviaUy, that some-


thing is 'absent'. If tiiere were sometiiing tiiat was invariably present we
would have no trouble. We could say if that thing happens, then
'conversation' occurs. But we need to be able to say that we iiave a
conversation if that tiling is present, or if it's absent And to say that
sometiiing is 'absent' is a much harder task. The way we can go about
doing that is to find tiiat it's always relevant. If it's relevant then if it's not
present we can say non-triviaUy that it's not tiiere. And greetings have
that sort of reievance, in tiiat tiiere is no ruie of exciusion for them. So we
can say that greetings arereievantfor any conversation.
Secondiy, we can distinguish between the greeting item in the greeting
piace, and the greeting item eisewhere. That is, somebody can say "HeUo"
in the middle of atelephoneconversation, where what they're doing is not
'greeting', but checking out whether the other person is stiU on the phone,
and a variety of other things iike that Thus, the greeting item, to be 'a
greeting', iias to occur somewhere in particular, and we can say, then, that
there's 'a place'. And in that greetings are reievant for any conversation,
that piace in wiiich tiiey are recoganizabiy not sometiiing eise, but
'greetings', is present for any conversation, whether there is a greeting
item in it or not.
It's not, tiien, that we just need "HeUo," "HeUo" or meml)ers of that
class to have taken place, to have 'a conversation' and to warrant our
being abie to say that there is a natural anaiytic unit 'conversation'. But if
we can say about some piece of taik - either a greeting item or a greeting
substitute such as "How are you?" - tiiat it occurred in 'the greeting
piace', and that piece of taik, whatever it was, provided for the reievance
of the sequencing rules, then we could say that we have 'a conversation'.
And then we would be abie to warrant, at ieast in part, the fact that there is
a unit, 'conversation', which is naturai and anaiytic, and is genericaUy
usabie. Of course the desKiription of cases of it may be far more compii-
cated than tiiis, but it has to be noted in the first piace that such a warrant
iias never been made, and tiiat such a unit has not been estabUshed. And
it's for that reason, at ieast that it's of interest
Now, it does seem to be the case that "HeUo," "HeUo" is a 'minimai
conversation'. Persons take it that it's a minimai conversation. It's not
sub-minimal; you don't need more to iiave had 'a conversation'. And you
do need that or substitutes for it QiUdren ieam tius at a rather young age,
and you find tiiem producing perfectiy recognizable ways of indicating
that tiiey iiave engaged in the beginning of what may be oniy a minimai
[173] 355

conversation, and iiave rK)t i)een properiy treated. That is to say, one ofthe
ways that one shows tiiat one has done sometiiing wiiich is an adequate
complete utterance - tiiat is, wiiich is appropriate for the use of the
sequencing ruies - is to repeat it So I have these reports where a child
says "Hi," there's no answer, and the ciiUd says again, "Hi!" And then
there's a "Hi" in retum, and the cbiUd wiU take that as having been
sufficient, and go about iiis business - wiiich he doesn't do when he says
"Hi" and there's no retum.
That use of repetition as a way of indicating in the first piace that an
item was adequate for whatever it is that's supposed to come next, is
obviously tiie simpiest way of doing that task. In the ciiiid's use of it,
however, we get sometiiing that's wortiiy of some brief mention. And that
is the way that adults come to see that the ciiUd knows sometiiing of
ianguage. The way adults know that the ciiild is now 'speaking' and not
babbling, invoives the fact that the minimaUyrecognizabieunits of infant
speech - and tiiis is essentiaUy cross-cuituraUy vaUd - are combinations of
"p" or "t" or "d" foUowed by a vowei like "a". And those combinations
seem by and large to be used witiiout respect to what the ianguage is; tiiat
is, without respect to however the adult language may be constructed. And
the way, apparentiy, that one teUs that the ciiUd is now speaking is by
virtue of the fact that it doesn't simpiy produce a series of syUabies, but it
repeats a syUable. In tiiis cuiture, then, prototypicaUy the first word that a
ciiUd speaks is the word for 'father', "da da".^ The interest of tiiis
phenomenon Ues in the fact that if you get tiiat kind of stabiUty, across
fantasticaUy different ianguages, then tiie social sciences and bioiogicai
sciences come to some ciose relationsiiip.
So, in the first place, tiiis dupUcation business is a non-triviai fact, and
it's pretty much as simple a way as you can have of indicating a range of
tilings - in tiiis case, tiiat sometiiing iiad b)een done, and was adequate for
the relevance of the sequencing rules. And you can notice the way that
parents point out to ciiiidren their vioiations on the matter. Suppose
somebody comes to the house and says "Hi" to the ciiiid and the ciiiid
doesn't respond. One tiling the parents wiU say is, "Didn't you hear them
say 'lii' to you?" Where they take it tiiat they don't have to restate the
sequencing rules, but simpiy point out that the ruies liave been adequately
invoked.
I take it we can say, then, that the unit 'conversation' is warranted by
the fact tiiat we iiave at ieast a minimai tiling tiiat's recognizabie as 'a
conversation'. For it the sequencing ruies are reievant We can talk about
356 [174]

places in it or a place in it anyway, and by virtue of tiiis we can also see


tiiat - at least for the disdpiine of socioiogy if not for any lay interest in it
- these tilings, 'greetings', are of some central theoretical importance,
though "HeUo," "HeUo" looks like notiiing that one would want to attend
to very much. Their consideration does an enormous amount of work for
us. And once we're deaUng with the fact that we've got sequencing here,
and it's regulated, we're no longer in a position wiiere linguistic investiga-
tions are usabie. Because grammars don't differentiate tiiis way.
With "HeUo", "HeUo" and tilings iike it - members of a ciass of paired
activities such tiiat if A uses one, B's proper move is to use one also -
we're examining the sequentiai buUding biocks of conversation wiiich are
SpeciaUy reievant in terms of their sequentiai ciiaracter. Now, in that Ught,
we can consider jokes. The foUowing comes from a group therapy session;
the members are teenagers. ^
A: Hey wait I've got I've got a joke. What's black and wiiite and
iiides in caves?
B: Alright I give up. What's black and white and iiides in caves?
C: A newspaper
A: No. Pregriant nuns.
siience
B: Whyn't you run across the street and get me some more coffee?
A: Why don't you drop dead?
D: Whyn't you just run across-?
A: What's black and wiiite thump biack and wiiite tiiump biack and
white thump? mm roUing down stairs.
D: You know what a cute one is. You want to hear what a cute one
is? What's purpie and goes bam bam bam bam A four door pium.
A: Terrific
D: I tiiink it's much l)etter than about a biack and wiiite nun going
downstairs
A: No. that's the new fad. Instead of having eiepiiant jokes, now it's
nun jokes.
B: Notiiing. A nurL
D: iimmmmm
A: hehhhhh
C: What's biack wiiite and grey? Sister Mary eiephant.
A: hehhhhh
B: Say whata nunsreaUydo? they must iiave some function?
C: rNothing
A: "^They travel in pairs.
B: Notiiing notiiing heiiiih
A: They travei in pairs. Or^ nun makes sure the otiier nun don't get
none.
B: You know wiiat's a baU. Whistie at em whistle at em when they
walk down the street
[175] 357
D: You know they usuaUy ah pray.
A: Yeah.
D: That's about aU.
B: But the rest of the church does. Or tiiey pray harder.
A: They're women who have devoted their Uves-
D: They marry God.
A: -to God
A: No. they're women who have devoted their Uves-
B: They're women who've had a bad love Ufe and become nuns.
A: -their Uves their iives to uiim the devotion of the church.
B: J .C. and the bx)ys.
D: We're on an awfuUy bad God kick.
A: OK let's ciiange the subject
The first tiling that's important about jokes is that to use one is some-
thing like buying a drink among a bunch of people: They come in rounds.
And if some i^rson teils a joke then every other person present has the
right to teU a joke. So we can say about a joke when it's used, that it's a
'first joke' and that it wiU provide the occasion for each other person
present to have a chance to talk, and to have a particular kind of chance to
talk; that is, a chance to teU a joke.
So what? So there are a variety of cases where you get more tiian two
persons present where exactiy wiiat the ri^ts to talk are of the various
persons present may be quite obscure. For example, there may be large
status differences or a variety of things Uke that and how one goes aix)ut
providing that each person can taik under such circumstances may be,
then, a real question. For someone to use ajoke on tiiat occasion is then to
give each other a set place to talk, and also to give iiim something to say.
And in tiiis group therapy setting, those facts are quite non-trivial. The
persons are tiiere for two hours, and tiiat they keep talldng is absolutely
cmcial, for the occasions of silence are extremely dangerous to aU persons
concemed. What happens when they're sUent is that various persons in the
piace now begin to iook for a face that's noticeabie among themselves,
and then pose for tiiat person the probiem of giving an account of why he
is silent Or, for example, if any given person is sUent for any length of
time, then their sUence is a noticeabie fact; something about wiiich they
can be questioned. Now, if tiiey want to raise their personai problems
they're quite free to do so, but if they don't want to, and given tiiat siience
is sometiiing noticeabie, then it's important to have some sorts of things
that wiU permit everylx)dy to talk, where they can talk witiiout saying
anything that can be 'used against them'. It also seems to b)e the case tiiat
any given body of taUc, starting at any given place, wiU, if aUowed to go
on, end up dangerous. Tiiat is, it wiU end up on some topic wiiich is
358 [176]

perhaps too important to be talked about except under real feelings of


relaxation. Things Uke God, death, sex, for example, wiiich always come
out, whatever topic is started. And persons are - and the people in tiiis
therapy group are - much given to watciiing when it is that a topic iooks
iike it's about to shift into sometiiing that from tiie group's point of view
is to be avoided - thougji any given person can taik alx)ut it 'themseives'.
What seems invoived, thai, is the deveiopment of things wiiich permit
talk to go on, and to go on in an 'unaffiUated' marmer. Notice abx)ut jokes,
that when jokes are toid tiiey're tilings tiiat are 'going around'; they're
quotes. So they're unaffiUated remarks, and in tiiat sense it's iiard to say
alx)ut somelx)dy that tlie fact that they told some particular joke iias some
speciai significance. They just heard it and now they're repeating it.
Persons can then monitor the conversation, watciiing either for silence
or for the ajproach of sometiiing dangerous, and start a block of talk by
fiicking in a joke, thereby giving each otiier person their chance to taik,
and to talk 'safely'.
r u just note here that there are otiier things wiiich have the
'unaffiUated' character of jokes - that is, the speaker does not disciose his
position by using it - but wiiich don't iiave that sequentiai character of
going in rounds, wiiich seem to get used in simUar circumstances. At ieast
tiiese kids use them, and untU I noticed that they were being used in
simiiar circumstances to the jokes, I found them puzzling. What they do is,
at points in the conversation when either nobody is taUdng or they iiaven't
taiked for awhUe, insert slogans. They'U just come out with a piece of an
advertisement fiom the radio, or a jingie, or obvious quotations sarcasti-
caUy said. Again, then, it seems tliat they go about monitoring when they
ought to be talldng or when sUence seems to be present and flick out tiiese
tilings wiiich, again, have this unaffiliated character.
Let me tum now to another sort of sequencing issue. I said about
"HeUo," "HeUo" that it's a paired phenomenon, and that when the second
one comes out, it may weU be that the conversation is compiete. And we
can note that either one, or both, can be deUvered in such a way as to
provide for the size of the conversation. For example, by not slowing
down at aU as you pass somebody. You say "HeUo", the other says
"HeUo", and there's no indication by either party that there's going to be
any more to it tiian that
Now, some of the ways tiiat conversations can b)egin, provide at least a
slightiy different set of sequentiai ciiaracteristics, although there are ways
in wiiich they're reiated to paired beginnings. Periiaps the best way to
[177] 359

introduce it is by just reporting what I did the iast time I was trying to
introduce tiiis same material, so as to indicate right off that it wasn't as
triviai as it iooks. Before I presented the phenomenon, I'd asked people in
the ciass to write down the first iines of wiiat they took to be 'pickups'. I
got 60 first Unes, of wbiich just under 60 were questions.
What I had wanted to be saying to them, and wiiich they couid see once
they iiad tiiose coUections, was that a person who asks a question has a
right to talk again after the question has b)een answered. So, with a
question byeginning, the conversation goes at ieast sometiiing like A-B-A.
It can go on from there, or it can end Uke that And that may be without
regard to what the question consists of or wiiat the answer consists of.
Now, one way that the conversation can go on from there is that the
person who asks the question can use iiis initiai right to talk again, to ask
another question, and the same right hoids. So you can get indefiniteiy
long chains, running Q-A, Q-A, Q-A, eteetera. EventuaUy I'U go over the
special relevance for certain conversations, of the 'chain' possibility. It
tums out to be extremely important Whenever it iiappens to occur in a
conversation - and it doesn't necessariiy have to occur in the beginning -
but that point where somebody starts questioning, then the 'chaining'
possibiiity can be quite cmciai to the way that the conversation goes."*
Now, of the sorts of questions that occur in first conversations, iet's
begin by iooking at those wiiich iiave a ciose reiationsiiip to "HeUo,"
"HeUo". Note that the use of "HeUo" is areguiatedmatter. It is the sort of
thing wiiich can be used to b)egin a conversation where two persons have
some initial right to talk to each other, such that the fact that they happen
to by physicaUy copresent provides the occasion for the conversation. But,
especiaUy for tilings iike pickups, the fact that the two persons are physi-
caUy copresent is not sufficient grounds for them to begin taUdng, and
"HeUo" may be inappropriate. You can get conversations wbiich go:

A: HeUo
B: (No answer)
A: Don't yourememberme?
Where that invoives proposing that there had l)een an initial right to use
"HeUo".
In the absence of some obvious warrant for the conversation to take
piace by virtue of two persons being copresent and notiiing else, you get
that sort of question wiiich provides tiiat aithough it doesn't seem to be the
case, there is indeed a warrant. There's a whoie range of tilings wiiich tend
360 [178]

to formulate a first conversation as a version of an NtiL Things like "Don't


I know you from somewhere?" "Didn't I see you at such-and-such a
place?" "Didn't you go to such-and-such a sciiool?" "Aren't you So-and-
So?", eteetera. AU of these provide for the fact tiiat it may be tiie case tiiat
we know each otiier, and if we do, then this conversation can take piace as
'a further conversation'. In those cases, tiien, and more generaUy, we have
a class of questions wiiich provide an accoimt for a conversation deveiop-
ing; that is, tiiat tliis is not an initial conversation.
There are a variety of other accounts wiiich focus on different matters.
For exampie, very firequentiy the first question wiU be a request And the
request wiU be such a tiling as can be asked when any two persons are
physicaUy avaiiable to each other, you're standing in a crowd watching for
a piane to arrive and someone asks, "When is the piane expected?" A
variety of such informationai matters can be offered. Note that for any one
of these, to whatever the first answer is, anotiier question can be con-
structed:
A: When does the piane arrive?
B: 7:15.
A: Are you going to San Francisco aiso?
It's also to be noted that such standardized questions as "When does the
piane arrive?" "What time is it?" etcetera, by virtue of the fact that they
are standardized, provide for the relevance of the sequencing ruies such
that one knows when one of those questions is compiete. Further, one
knows what an answer to such a question iooks Uke, so tiiat the one who
asked the question can know when tiie tiling that stands as an answer wiU
have finished, and thus provide that the other can talk agairL This stands in
contrast to discursive taik, where it may not be ciear in that fasiiion, when
it is that somebody has finished. For persons who don't know the dis-
course pattems of somebody they're dealing with, the use of standardized
objects to build the beginning of a conversation may be quite important.
First of aU, that you don't wait too long after the otiier has stopped, where
waiting too iong might provide for their withdrawai aitogetiier. Secondiy,
that you don't interrupt, where of course one doesn't want to be 'rude' to
someone with whom one is making an effort to get acquainted.

((Thereafter is a discussion ofthe question "Do you have a light?" See


Lecture Seven, page 285.))
[179] 361

Notes

1. Ttie nine "Winter 1965" iectures (aU of them owed to 'transaiber unknown')
pretty much recapitulate the considerations of "FaU 1964", sometimes in a
more developed, formal way. Most of them have been incorporated into
those earUer lectures: Lecture (1) - the parentheses indicate that the originai
transcripts were unnumbered, the current numbering likely but not
guaranteed - has hoca absori)ed into Lecture One, Lecture (4) and (5) into
Lecture Six, Lecture (6) into Lecture Nine, mucii of Lecture (7) into Lecture
Three, leaving Lectures (2), (3), (8) and (9). (2) and (3) comprise this Lecture
Twelve, (8) and (9) Lecture Thirteen.
2. Sacks cites the paper in which "this is aU discussed", but the title wasn't
caught by tiie transaiber, and I can't identify it.
3. The fragment is taken from Sacks' research notes and is sUghUy different
from, and closer to the actual data tiian, the one in the transcribed lecture.
4. This, and the foUowing materials, constitute a next run at some of the
phenomena considered in Lecture Seven. I chose not to incorporate them into
the earlier lecture, although I have done so with most of the "Winter 1965"
materials, i)ecause it would introduce an anachronism. SpecificaUy, in this
second run we see the first reference to "the 'chaining' possibiiity", which
iater crystaiiized as 'the ciiaining ruie'. It makes for some repetition and
creates a bit of awkwardness by addressing the fu:t that materiais I've put
together as a more or less continuous flow actuaUy comprise separate units,
but the genesis of the term 'chain' seemed worth preserving.