Construction Grammar and the Description of Situated Spoken Interaction

Project Team

Principal Investigator: Kerstin Fischer
PhD:  Heidi Fredsgaard, Helena Larsen
PostDoc: Maria Alm
Assistant: Janina Schendel
Web content: Sascha Steinhoff

This project is funded by the Danish VELUX foundation.

About the project

Construction Grammar is a relatively young theoretical approach to language, which has its roots in the cognitive linguistic tradition and which is spreading rather rapidly as a comprehensive theory of language principally capable of combining research in syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonology in a unified framework.
Our aim is to extend research in construction grammar by developing a theoretical approach integrating research from grammatical theory and interaction analysis in a single theoretical framework. We are extending construction grammar to the description of modal particles, which anchor the current utterance to the situational background that is taken to be shared by the discourse participants. They thus bridge grammatical and interactional perspectives on linguistic phenomena. The approach we take is both contrastive (covering English, German, Danish and Swedish) and applied, providing a construction grammar based description of Danish modal particles as a resource for teaching Danish as a second language.

Integration of interactional aspects of language structure into a grammatical framework

The theoretical challenge we face is to develop a grammatical approach to interaction that does justice to the concerns of both grammatical theory as well as those of interaction analysis. Grammatical theories typically exclude interactional aspects of language from their field of description. However, interactional phenomena need to be included for reasons of realistic coverage, and interaction has been demonstrated to shape grammatical structure in various ways by interactional as well as by psycholinguistic studies. Construction Grammar is principally well suited to integrate interactional aspects of language structure into a theoretical framework, and the notion of construction has proven useful to characterize the usage conditions of interactional phenomena, which has been acknowledged from several different perspectives.

Our challenge – developing a unifying framework

There are both theoretical and practical issues that so far hinder a successful integration of construction grammar and interactionalist approaches.
Grammarians’ reluctance to deal with talk-in-interaction originates in difficulties how to handle the categories used to describe interactional aspects of language.
Many mechanisms of grammar formalization and grammatical theory rely on notions like sentencehood, well-formedness and acceptability – none of which play an important role in spontaneous interaction, as spoken interaction is always firmly situated, and the utterances have to be adjusted to the contingencies of the situation.
On the other hand, the situated and social aspects of interaction which are so troublesome for grammatical theory are considered as defining features of talk-in-interaction by interactional approaches, which are hence rather hesitant to formalize their findings in a grammatical framework.
Our project aims to develop a unifying framework that addresses the concerns of both grammarians and interactionalists on the basis of a detailed case study of a linguistic phenomenon.

Bridging the gap between grammar and interaction by taking the example of modal particles

Modal particles are typical of spoken language interaction and are rather rare in written texts, and they generally anchor an utterance both in its situational and in its argumentative context. At the same time, modal particles have peculiar prosodic, information structural and syntactic properties which need to be accounted in a grammatical description. This includes central issues at the interface between grammar and interaction: regularities in interaction that are best described in grammatical terms; methods to account for the situatedness of language in interaction; and a description of the interrelationships between information structure, sentence type and prosodic realization in modal particles.
All of these concerns will feed not only into the theoretical discussion, but also into an approach to the concrete use of construction grammar for language pedagogy. In particular, a practical result of our project consists in a pedagogical description of Danish modal particles for second language learners.

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