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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;
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. (2013). Indirect requests in everyday interaction. Talk presented at the 13th International Pragmatics Conference (IPrA 2013). Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India. 2013-09-08 - 2013-09-13.

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 such as 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 that they make the act of requesting transparent to co-participants, by specifying both what the target activity is and who is to do it. In contrast to this, the present study focuses on utterances that do not signal a request action in their surface form. More specifically, it looks at declarative utterances that describe a certain state of affairs or event in the immediate environment, such as the lack of something (e.g., Manca sale ‘There isn't enough salt’) or the reaching of a stage in a process (e.g. L'acqua bolle 'The water is boiling'). 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 use of indirect forms of requesting 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.