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Bilateral and unilateral requests: The use of imperatives and Mi X? interrogatives in Italian


Rossi,  Giovanni
Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
International Max Planck Research School for Language Sciences, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Multimodal Interaction, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Interactional Foundations of Language, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Rossi, G. (2011). Bilateral and unilateral requests: The use of imperatives and Mi X? interrogatives in Italian. Talk presented at the 12th International Pragmatics Conference [IPrA 2011]. University of Manchester, UK. 2011-07-03 - 2011-07-08.

When making requests, speakers need to select a form from a range of alternatives available to them. In a corpus of video-recorded naturally-occurring Italian interaction, the two most common formats chosen are imperatives (e.g., Passami il piatto "Pass me the plate") and an interrogative construction that includes a turn-initial dative pronoun mi "to/for me", which I refer to as the Mi X? format (e.g. Mi passi il piatto? "You pass me a plate?"). In principle, these two forms appear to be used for requesting similar kinds of actions in similar circumstances. In everyday informal interaction between intimates, these are typically low-cost actions that are relevant to a here-and-now purpose or need (e.g., "taking", "putting", "holding"), or transfers of objects which are not owned by the recipient (free goods). The aim of this paper is to show that, although the kinds of actions requested are just as immediate and undemanding, and although the social relations involved are often analogous, the sequences in which imperatives and Mi X? interrogatives occur differ in important interactional aspects, and that this is reflected in the way in which the request is formatted. The core finding is the following. The imperative format is selected to request an action that is integral to an already established joint project between requester and recipient (such as a game, or the distribution of food at the start of a meal, or an offer sequence). On the other hand, the Mi X? format indicates that the requested course of action is a new, self-contained project originating from the wants of an individual. Moreover, the occurrence of these two forms of requesting in distinctive sequential and interactional environments is also reflected in other aspects of their design. Imperative and Mi X? requests generally differ in the degree of common ground assumed in their construction (pronominalization and ellipsis versus full noun phrases), and in the way the beneficiary of the requested action is encoded in the request turn or explicitly oriented to in the immediately subsequent talk. Finally, in the last part of this paper I examine the dimensions identified as relevant to the selection between imperative and Mi X? interrogative in relation to the linguistic properties of the forms themselves. That is, I discuss how these two resources of the Italian grammar fit with the interactional environments in which they are adopted: joint versus individual projects.