Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universität Bonn
Hauptseminar: Electronic Discourse WS 00/01
Dozent: Prof. Dr. Schneider
Hausarbeit über das Thema
Von Barbara Lier,
Chatrooms have become one of the most popular forms of discourse in the digital age. For many people they have replaced the traditional social gatherings. They opened up new ways of communication not only between persons with the same special interest but also for general entertainment. Despite the fact that the conversation is written, chatroom conversation shares a lot of important characteristics with spoken discourse. The possibility of immediate action and reaction of conversation partners, the informality in style and the possibility of multiple interlocutors are the most important similiarities. As this field of research is relatively new, linguists have not yet come up with a clear classification of chatroom discourse. Some linguists believe that chatroom discourse is just an enhanced type of traditional written communication. Others argue that it is a new form of spoken communication conveyed through a different medium or constitutes a competely new type of communication.
For this reason it may be useful to compare chatroom discourse with spoken discourse in respect to certain linguistic phenomena. In this study we focus on the use of gambits in chatroom and spoken discourse. As gambits have a distinctive function in spoken discourse and typically do not occur in written conversation, a comparison might help to classify the status of chatroom conversation in linguistic terms.
The preliminary thesis of this paper is that there are less gambits to be found in chatroom discourse than in spoken discourse. There seem to be both social and technical reasons to support this assumption. First of all it takes much longer to type an expression than to speak it. For this reason participants in chatroom discourse usually try to be as brief as possible in their expressions. Therefore gambits are likely to be left out in chatroom discourse, as they do not contribute to the outcome of a conversation. Especially certain categories of gambits, namely Go-ons, Cajolers, Underscorers, Starters and Asides, are therefore not likely to be found in chatroom discourse.
In spoken conversation, people often use gambits to avoid speech pause because they feel uncomfortable when silence occurs. In chatroom discourse however, pauses within one turn of one speaker are not discernable. They cannot be avoided as interlocutors' utterances have to be typed before they can be seen. The possibility to type statements simultaneously in a chatroom makes the use of Starters pointless because they are only employed in spoken language to claim the floor.
In addition to that, the etiquette of face to face conversation seems to be considered less important in chatroom discourse. This might be due to the physical distance and the fact that most of the participants have never met face to face. One example for this is the Go-on which is used to show or at least pretend one's interest in someone's statements. In face to face communication, breaking off the conversation or simply leaving the room would be considered rude. However, showing a lack of interest in chatroom discourse does not have to lead to an embarrassing situation. In this environment, leaving a chatroom or ending a conversation happens quite frequently and is considered as normal.
That is why it can be assumed that gambits, which "are used as 'discourse lubricants' plugging any conversational gap that might hinder the smooth flow of an ongoing talk" (Edmondson/House 1981: 69), do not or at least not very often occur in chatroom discourse.
3. Gambits – an Overview
Gambits, unlike utterances, are no moves in an interactional structure, because they do not carry the conversation forward to an outcome (cf. 1981: 69). Mostly they are ritualised, idiomatic expressions, which are used to establish, maintain and end a conversation (Keller?).
Although expressions like “um”, “er”, “you know”, “I mean” look meaningless at first, they have an important function in a conversation as they are used to fill conversational gaps. Therefore, gambits can be considered as “discourse lubricants” used by speakers to maintain the smooth flow of an ongoing talk. Often they occur in connection with turn-taking, when the speaker needs time to formulate his/her thoughts and react to what the previous speaker has said (cf. 1981: 69). Gambits are also used as hearer-supportive devices. It is common for a hearer to say things like “really”, “indeed”, “oh!” while listening – thereby he clearly supports the speaker by showing an interest for and understanding of what he says, but does not contribute to the structure of the discourse (cf. 1981: 61). The non-use or inappropriate use of gambits can be regarded as non-supportive and might lead to a breakdown of communication altogether.
Gambits can either stand alone, as in the above example, or occur during a speaker’s turn. If several gambits are used within one turn they can be categorized according to the order in which they occur. “Uptakers (if they occur) always precede Clarifiers, and Clarifiers precede Appealers” (1981: 62). The Uptaker refers back to what the hearer has just said. While producing his/her own move he/she may then use accompanying Clarifiers and afterwards may append an Appealer, which points forward to the next move of the hearer.
Generally, gambits are more often used by the speaker when he/she is imposing something on the hearer - as in a Request or a Suggest - or when he/she is disagreeing with him/her (Contra/Counter to what the hearer just said). (cf. 1981: 69)
It is important to note that gambits are a distinctive feature of spoken discourse and occur less frequently in written language. This notion is important for the study of chatroom discourse in comparison to spoken discourse, as it can be argued that chatroom discourse shares characteristics of both written and spoken discourse.
There are different descriptive models for gambits, one by Keller and one by Edmondson/House. In contrast to Edmondson/House, Keller distinguishes between four different types of gambits: Opener, Links, Responders and Closers. This study will be based on the 1981 model by Edmondson/House and another slightly different older model by House (1980), because they offer a more detailed and precise classification of gambit categories.
The first main category of gambits introduced by Edmondson/House are Uptakers. An Uptaker serves as an acknowledgement of the preceding utterance made by the interlocutor and prefaces a speaker’s move. The first subcategory would be the neutral Receipt, which basically conveys the message “I have heard what you said.” The Receipt is most often realized by the token “yes” and ”yeah” with falling intonation. Other tokens are: “hmm”, “uhum”, “aha”, “uh” or “I see”, “right”, “okay”.
A: and when you have said that you will do something, you should stand by it
B: yes on the other hand I didn’t know about this other thing till this morning
There are also tokens that re-represent the original message, as in the example below. To House they constitute their own category of gambits: the Re-Represent (House 1980: 101):
A: How much maths did you do in your course
B: How much maths well we had two years of calculus
Receipts are used as a ritual affirmation of the hearer’s social standing, because they are often followed by a Contra to what has been said before. This might be called the “yes but”-phenomenon. (1981: 72)
In contrast to the Receipt there is also the non-neutral, emotive Exclaim. Using an Exclaim, a speaker shows his emotional state about what has been said before (1981: 72). Edmondson/House distinguish between four sets of tokens used as Exclaims:
Subset A includes tokens like “oh”, “ah”, “really”, “indeed” that express interest, surprise or disbelief, as in the example below:
A: John’s coming tomorrow after all
B: Yeah I thought he didn’t want to
Categories B and C include tokens that are used when the previous utterance contains information that is unwelcome or welcome to the speaker.
Typical tokens for category B are “oh dear”, “oh lord”, “god help us”, “what a nuisance” and for category C “super”, “great”, “terrific”, “good”.
A: The library’s closed this afternoon actually
B: Oh dear I’ll have to go tomorrow then
A: So I managed to do it on time after all
B: Good I bet that was a load off your mind
Tokens in set D reflect resignation or anger, for example “damn”, “Jesus Christ”, “not again”. It can be assumed that due to the anonymity in chatrooms even more explicit expressions might be used there.
A: John’s coming tomorrow after all
B: Oh bloody hell couldn’t you put him off the man bores me stiff
The third subcategory of Uptakers are the Go-ons. They are realized by the same tokens as Receipts and Exclaims but differ from them in their placing. They occur alone during an extended turn-at-talk by the interlocutor, but do not constitute an interruption. (1981: 73) With a Go-on, a speaker does not claim “the floor”. Go-ons usually have a rising intonation. (1980: 102)
A: So I went up to him and simply introduced myself
A: Yes I thought it can’t do any harm and anyway in fact he was very pleasant
B: Good God
A: Yes he was really and in fact he’s invited me out to lunch for next week
B: Well I’ll be damned
A: Incredible isn’t it
It will be interesting to see whether there are any go-ons in chatroom-conversations, because people only post complete utterances there. It is not the case that within one turn, other participants of a conversation can simultaneously make remarks. Therefore it is neither possible nor necessary for the hearer to use go-ons to support the speaker while he/she is in a “flow” of talking, like in the above example. Also, it is not possible in a chatroom to produce an utterance without claiming the floor, as it is the case with go-ons. Whenever a participant’s comment appears on the screen in a chatroom, he/she starts a new turn.
Go-ons are part of the “art of good listening”. According to Edmondson/House, they support the conversation. When they are totally absent, it might be that the speaker stops his talk altogether.
The use of a Go-on can be interpreted by the preceding speaker as a request for Confirmation or Repetition. Then the Go-on initiates a Corrective or Repair sequence and is no longer a gambit, because it now moves the conversation forward. (1981: 63). House introduces another category of Uptakers: “Checks”, which are precisely these requests for confirmation, repeat or clarification. Typical tokens are “Do you really think so?”, “Could you repeat that, please?”, “I didn’t get that”
Another category introduced by House is the “Agree”. It shows that the speaker accepts the preceding communicative act as right. The token is: “yes, you’re right” (1980: 102)
The second main category of gambits are the Clarifiers. Unlike the Uptakers, they do not refer to the previous utterance, but to the utterance that is uttered now. One of the two subcategories is the Cajoler. A Cajoler serves to establish or even restore harmony between the conversation partners. Its function is to make a communicative act more palatable to the hearer, it appeals for agreement or cooperation. Cajolers also have a “fumbling function” for the speaker because he suspects that what he/she is about to say might not be welcome to the hearer, he can “downplay” the impact of what he is saying (1981: 75). Edmondson/House have shown that Cajolers are the most frequently used gambit type in English (there are considerably less Cajolers used in German). “I mean” and “you know” are the most common tokens (1981: 75); the high frequency of these gambits clearly demonstrates their function to fill conversational gaps.
A: What did you think of my lecture
B: Well erm it was you know very interesting of course but to tell the truth I thought erm you know really you might have paid more attention to the audience
Other tokens include “you see”, “to be quite honest”, “actually”, “in fact”, “really”. They may occur either in pre-, mid- or post-position with respect to the move they qualify, as in the examples below (1981: 75).
Well you know John I am rather busy at the moment
Yeah er look John I am you know rather busy at the moment
Well I am rather busy you know John
Several Cajolers can occur in one sentence, as the example below shows
Well you see John in fact I am rather busy at the moment you know I’d love to really but erm quite honestly I really can’t at the moment you see.
The second subcategory is the Underscorer. In contrast to the hearer-oriented “Cajoler” it is more message-oriented. It serves to direct the hearer’s attention to a particular point the speaker is making. For that reason, Underscorers are often used in Argumentative discourse. There are a lot of different tokens for Underscorers. Some are placed in pre-position to the utterance underscored, like
“Look I’ll tell you what…“
“Well the thing is…”
“The basic problem is this…”
Or in post-position:
“this is the point”
“that’s the problem”
“this is what I’m getting at”
Some examples for the use of Underscorers:
A: He’s a fairy he’s a fairy all he can do is kick the ball up the field
B: Well look now come off it he’s I mean how come he’ss captain of the team
A: Well alright then listen we’ll go down to the pub and talk to him tonight
B: Okay but the thing is you know he may not be there tonight
The third major category of gambits is the Appealer. An Appealer is used to elicit a reaction to what has just been said by the speaker. The hearer is expected to react with an Uptaker. Usually the speaker seeks to elicit agreement to what has been said, therefore Appealers are quite similar to a request for confirmation. (1981: 77)
Appealers are commonly realized by tag-questions, such as “isn’t it”, tags on imperatives like “will you” and also by tokens like “okay”, “(all)right”, “remember”, “don’t you agree”, or “does he/she/they”. Non-linguistic signals like “eh”, “uh”, “mhm” also serve as Appealers.
A: John you couldn’t lend me five pounds could you
B: Erm well I’ve only got about three pounds on me actually
A: Hm even that would help
B: Okay well I’ll see what I can spare is that allright
A: Lovely day isn’t it
B: Yes it is
Except for the tag-questions, all tokens are used with rising intonation. Tag questions with falling intonation seek to elicit agreement, as in the example below:
A: Nice day isn’t it
B: Hmm lovely
Rising intonation may indicate uncertainty, especially when the utterance that is referred to seems to be in contrast with what the previous speaker has said:
A: Let’s take a taxi
B: Cost the earth wouldn’t it
As it is with all nuances of meaning conveyed by intonation, it remains to be seen how gambits such as the Appealer are employed in a chat-room discourse, as there is obviously no way to submit any intonation of words in a written discourse.
3.4 Other types
There are also gambits that do not fit into the three main categories, as they are mostly used to fill gaps and don’t refer backwards or forward or modify a move internally, the Starter and the Aside. The Starter usually appears at the beginning of a speakers turn-at-talk, but it is not to be confused with an Uptaker. It basically just constitutes a claim to the “floor”, indicates that somebody is about to say something. The only tokens are “well” and “now”, as for example in:
“Well I think myself…”
“Oh well if you say that of course…”
“Now you know it’s not easy…” (1981: 79)
To clarify the sequential order at the beginning of a turn-at-talk, it is important to note that a Starter appears after an Uptaker, but before a pre-posed Clarifier, like in:
I see well I mean are you sure (1981: 79)
Starters can also appear in mid-utterance, as Re-Starters, for example when the speaker wants to correct himself:
“One of us ought well probably I ought to tell him the truth”
Starters are likely to precede “non-cooperative” moves, such as Contras or Counters, in contrast to Satisfies where they usually don’t occur. (1981: 80)
A: Can you let me have a cigarette
B: Well erm I’m down to my last one actually
There is also the Aside, which occurs rarely but is quite useful to fill conversational gaps. They can occur anywhere in a turn-at-talk and they appear, as if the speaker was talking to himself. But they also have the function to show that the speaker is conversationally still present, although he is “engaged” with something else at the moment. (1981: 82)
Yes now when was that I know I’ve got it written down here somewhere won’t be a minute let me see now ah yes it was in October last year. (1981: 65)
They look like self-prompts and often stimulate the hearer to provide the prompt in order to assist the fumbling speaker. Tokens include:
“Erm oh let me see now”
“Yes what’s it called erm”
“Oh it’s erm it’s on the tip of my tongue”
4. Research material:
For the purpose of this study we chose a corpus of about 17,000 words, taken from various sources.
face to face conversation we decided to use the well established Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English. Since most of the chatrooms have several participants we chose the
conversations with the titles "Lambada" and
"Raging Bureaucracy” because they included more than two
participants. We took two chats, one chatroom is called "Parents R Us" from US-AOL,
and another from the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) with the title “Chat Office ". The first one
was logged on
order to achieve accurate results, it is important to compare only
conversations taking place between speakers of the same native tongue. The
participants of the conversations taken from the Santa
Barbara Corpus are all native speakers of American English. However, it is a
problem to determine the identity of participants in an internet-chatroom. People do not reveal their identity in chatrooms, they are only known by “nicknames”. Even when
people are willing to give information about their background, there is no way
to verify its accuracy. In order to minimize the probability that there are
utterances of non-native speakers in the research material, we chose one chatroom from US-AOL and also looked for indications that
the participants in the chat were Americans. Examples for these indications
would be the fact that people talk about their salaries in US-Dollars in “Chat Office”. Also, the people in “Chat Office” frequently state that they are at
work at the moment and the chat took place during normal business hours in the
There are basically two different kinds of chats: Chatrooms for participants who want to exchange experiences or thoughts about a specific topic and chatrooms where people talk just for "fun". We logged one of each category. The "Parents R Us" chat is visited by young parents who talk/type about problems and experiences with their children, which is why we thought that it might be comparable to the "Raging Bureaucracy" conversation. The other one includes such important topics such as "shlongs in oatmeal", “piercing” or “masturbating at work”. There may be more important topics as the ones mentioned before but those kind of topics occur very often in chats with an open topic.
Comparing the types of gambits and their frequency of occurrence in chatroom discourse and spoken discourse in the material chosen to evaluate, the following results were found:
In the “Parents R Us” chat there were 4 Receipts, 12 in “Chat Office”, as compared to 36 in the “Lambada”-conversation and 17 in “Raging Bureaucracy”. This makes a total of 16 Receipts in all chats as opposed to 53 in all spoken discourse.
27 Exclaims were found in the “Parents R Us”-chat, 37 in “Chat Office”. There were 31 Exclaims in “Lambada” and 24 in “Raging Bureaucracy”, making a total of 64 Exclaims in all chats and 55 in all spoken discourse.
There were 5 Go-ons in the “Parents R Us”-chat, 10 in “Chat Office” as compared to 44 in “Lambada” and 24 in “Raging Bureaucracy”, resulting in a total of 15 Go-ons in all chats and 68 in all spoken discourse.
No Cajolers were found in the “Parents R Us”-chat, and one was found in “Chat Office”. In contrast to that, there are 36 Cajolers in “Lambada” and 58 in “Raging Bureaucracy”. Therefore, one Cajoler occurs in all chats, while there is a total of 94 Cajolers in all spoken discourse.
No Underscorers occur in “Parents R Us”, 2 were found in “Chat Office”. There are 5 Underscorers in “Lambada” and 9 in “Raging Bureaucracy”, making up a total of 2 Underscorers in all chats and 14 in all spoken discourse.
There are 5 Appealers in “Parents R Us”, 3 were found in the “Chat Office”, and 7 and 11 in “Lambada” and “Raging Bureaucracy”, respectively. This makes up a total of 8 Appealers in all chats and 18 in all spoken discourse.
5.4 Other categories
There are 14 Starters in “Parents R Us”, and 11 in “Chat Office”, compared to 34 in “Lambada” and 24 in “Raging Bureaucracy”, making up a total of 25 Starters for all chats, and 58 in all spoken discourse.
There are 2 Asides in “Parents R Us” and no Starters at all in “Chat Office” and in both spoken conversations. This leads to a total of 2 Asides in all chats and 0 in all spoken discourse.
During the anlysis of the research material a high frequency of “lol”- and “lmao”-expressions (abbreviations for “laughing out loud” and “laughing my ass off”) in chatroom-discourse was observed. It appears that these “lol”s sometimes have the function of a Go-on, as they are often uttered between two turns of one speaker and clearly seem to take a hearer-supportive function. In some cases they also seem to fulfill the function of an Exclaim, as they present an emotional reference to the previous utterance and often occur at the beginning of a turn. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to include these “lol”s into this study. In order to present a comprehensive picture and due to the fact that “lol” could be meant to represent actual laughter, all occurances of laughter in spoken discourse are also listed here.
There are 65 “lol/lmao”s in “Parents R Us”, and 95 in “Chat Office”, while there are 127 “laughter”s in “Lambada” and 96 in “Raging Bureaucracy”. This makes up a total of 160 “lol/lmao”s in all chats and 223 “laughter”s in all spoken discourse.
An integral part of chatroom-discourse is the use of so-called “emoticons”, a sequence of symbols meant to represent various kinds of facial expressions or emotions, such as the well-known “smiley”: :-). It is, however, difficult to find an equivalent for these “emoticons” in spoken discourse. Smiling or other facial expressions or voice intonation could be considered to have a similar function. Nevertheless, these “emoticons” are a deliberate expression of somebody’s feelings while facial expressions like smiling are often made unconciously. During the research of several chat logs, it became obvious that the usage of emoticons differs greatly as can be seen in the two chats presented in this paper.
There are only two “emoticons” used in “Parents R Us”, while there are 70 in “Chat Office”.
There are many reasons that speak for an inclusion of laughters, “lol/lmao”s and emoticons in this comparison between chat and spoken discourse, as mentioned above. Nevertheless they seem to be too vague to justify a quantitive comparison of those features. The question whether a laughter that might be spontaneously uttered in spoken discourse has the same quality as a deliberatly typed “lmo” in a chatroom would require further research. The same applies to emoticons compared to “real” smiles, which would additionally require a video recording of the conversations to include facial expressions in this analysis. In addition to that, our study is based on Edmondson/House’s classification of gambits which does include neither laughters nor smiles as gambits. Therefore, those two groups are not included in our comparing figures 1, 2.1 and 2.2 of this paper.
The total of gambits in spoken discourse compared to the total of gambits found in chatroom discourse seems to confirm our preliminary thesis, that there significantly less gambits to be found in chatroom discourse. In Chart 1, it can be seen that the total of gambits in spoken conversation is more than two times greater than the total of gambits found in the chats.
However, there are great differences in the respective gambit categories. Although most gambit types occur less frequently in chatroom discourse (as can be seen in Figure 1), only the number of Cajolers, which was the most frequently used gambit type in spoken discourse, clearly met our expectations as it occurred only once in the chatrooms. This might be due to the fact, that a speaker’s turn in chatroom discourse has to be typed and is only visible to the other participants, when it is deliberatly sent to the chatroom. The extremely low number of Cajolers in chatroom discourse supports our assumption that the function of Cajolers, which are used to fill gaps within one turn, are unnecessary in this discourse environment. Also, speakers seem to feel less comitted to make a potential unwelcome utterance more palatable by using Cajolers. This might be due to the often anonymous environment in a chatroom.
The other categories - with the exception of Exclaims - followed the same pattern, although not to the same degree. The percentage of Underscorers in chatroom discourse compared to spoken discourse is slightly higher (2 vs. 14), and there are about a quarter to one half as many Receipts (16 vs. 53), Go-ons (15 vs. 68), Starters (25 vs. 58) and Appealers (8 vs. 18) in chatroom discourse as compared to spoken discourse.
It is, however, quite astonishing that 2 Asides were found in the “Parents R Us” chat, while no Asides were found in the spoken discourse. Asides are generally one of the rarest types of gambits and usually occur in a longer turn-at-talk of a speaker. Asides also don’t seem to be a distinct feature of chatroom-conversation, as there were only 2 Asides found in “Parents R Us” and none at all in “Chat Office”. Therefore, it can be assumed that the occurrence of Asides in the “Parents R Us” chat is well within the margin of error, respectively due to coincidence.
It has already been mentioned that the number of Exclaims in chatroom discourse exceeds the the number in spoken discourse (64 vs. 55). A closer look at these numbers seems necessary: There are 27 Exclaims in “Parents R Us”, a number right between the 31 in “Lambada” and the 24 in “Raging Bureaucracy”. However, there are 37 Exclaims in “Chat Office” which accounts for the high total of gambits in all chatroom conversations. Looking at the content of “Chat Office” it becomes obvious that the discussion that takes place is very emotional. The aim of the participants is not to exchange information but to clearly demonstrate their attitude towards different topis and also to draw attention to themselves. This could partly explain the high frequency of Exclaims in this particular chat.
Summarizing, the preliminary thesis has only partly been confirmed. In spite of the initial assumption that there were almost no gambits to be found in chatroom discourse, it has turned out that the frequency of gambits is quite significant. One possible explanation for this surprising fact could be that participants in a chatroom conversation envision themselves to be in a face to face conversation. That is why they are tempted to use gambits, although they are usually superfluous in chatroom conversations. People who regularly take part in chats might think that they are actually talking and not typing and therefore change their linguistic behavior accordingly. This might also be due to the higher degree of informality in chatrooms, as opposed to other written forms of communictation. It has, for example, already been determined that chatroom-conversation is similar to telephone conversation in several respects. It might be for this reason that people start to type almost exactly the way they would talk. This could be the explanation why there are so much more gambits in chats than we initially assumed. The results of the study seem to further support the thesis that chatroom discourse is positioned between spoken and written discourse. Although less gambits were found in chatroom than in spoken discourse, the substantial number of gambits pushes the position of chatroom discourse a little closer towards spoken discourse.
Edmondson, W./House, J. 1981: Let’s Talk and Talk about it. A Pedagogic Interactional Grammar of English. München u.a.: Urban & Schwarzenberg.
House, J. 1980: Gambits in deutschen und englischen Alltagsdialogen. In Kühlwein, W./Raasch, A. (eds.): Sprache und Verstehen. Kongressberichte der 10. Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft für Angewandte Linguistik, Mainz 1979. Vol. 2. Tübingen: Narr, 101-107.
Keller, E. 1979: Gambits: Conversational strategy signals. Journal of Pragmatics 3, 219-238. (Repr. in Coulmas (ed.) 1981, 93-113).
Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English - Part I. University of California Santa Barabara Department of Linguistics, 2000