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Indirect requests in everyday interaction


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;
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. (2013). Indirect requests in everyday interaction. Talk presented at the 19th Annual Conference on Language, Interaction, and Social Organization (LISO 2013). University of California, Santa Barbara, CA. 2013-05-11 - 2013-05-12.

Cite as:
Human social life relies on the production of mutually-recognisable actions. This study is part of a project investigating the linguistic resources used by speakers of Italian to make requests. In a corpus of naturally-occurring informal interaction, a large number of requests are implemented through recurrent lexico-syntactic forms. These include imperatives (e.g., Passami il piatto ‘Pass me the plate’), second person interrogatives (e.g., Mi passi il piatto? ‘Will you pass me the plate?’), and modal declaratives (e.g., Dovresti passarmi il piatto ‘You should pass me the plate’). A common property of these forms is the relative explicitness or transparency with which they make the act of requesting recognisable to a co-participant. In contrast to this, the present study focuses on utterances that do not signal a request action in their surface form. These usually come in the form of ‘noticings’ (e.g., Non c’è più pane ‘We ran out of bread’), that is, statements about states of affairs, without any deontic stance encoded in them. More specifically, these utterances can be mostly classified as either statements of a lack (e.g., Manca sale al sugo ‘There isn’t enough salt in the sauce’) or announcements that a particular stage has been reached in a process (e.g., L’acqua bolle ‘The water is boiling’). Although some of these utterances may include reference to an object involved in the action to be performed (e.g., the salt), none of them specifies what should be done with it, nor who should do it. Linguistic forms of this kind functioning as requests have been traditionally called indirect requests. Indirect requests have attracted much attention by philosophers, linguists, and psychologists, who have been especially interested in the inferential processes underlying their comprehension (Grice, 1975; Searle, 1975; Gordon & Lakoff, 1975; Clark & Lucy, 1975; Ervin-Tripp, 1981; Gibbs 1981; among many others). In this paper, I investigate the production and comprehension of indirect requests as it can be observed in video recordings of naturally-occurring interaction. First, I analyse the interactional import of utterances like ‘There isn’t enough salt’ or ‘The water is boiling’ aside from their request function, that is, as statements that present co-participants with new information, and that allow for different kinds of uptake in next position. Second, I focus on co-participants’ responses to these statements that display an understanding of the social relevance of the new information, resulting in their engagement in an appropriate practical task. Third, I examine speakers’ and co-participants’ relative roles in the current activity, and other situational asymmetries between them (e.g., being closer to the salt), as factors that define the rights and obligations to act on the matter in question. By bringing to the fore the social distribution of agency, this analysis offers a new perspective on processes of ‘indirect speech’ comprehension that have been so far primarily considered in their cognitive and individual aspects. Finally, I discuss the affordances and social pay-offs of ‘indirect’ forms of requesting relative to ‘direct’ ones.