Leading phonetician, Klaus J. Kohler, invites you to discuss Communicative Functions and Linguistic Forms in Speech Interaction

Dear Reader of this Blog,

Cambridge University Press has published the linguistic monograph

Kohler, K. J. (2017). Communicative Functions and Linguistic Forms in Speech Interaction (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 156). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In this Blog I, the author, introduce it to you and draw your attention to its new scientific message for spoken-language research.


Let us begin with a couple of questions.

Are you interested in how speech communication works in human interaction?

Do you study speech forms as anchored in communicative functions?

If you are a phonetician or a linguist or a psychologist in speech recognition and understanding or a sociologist in speech communication and conversation analysis or a communications engineer your answer to both Polarity Questions should be positive, and I would express this expectation by combining these syntactic interrogatives with falling intonation in the spoken medium.

As a psychologist or a sociologist you are bound to give a positive answer to the first question, but your answer to the second may be negative, because you may focus, in a behaviourist paradigm, on speech forms, such as signal differentiation in speech recognition, or interactive phrasal sequencing in conversation analysis. In both cases, semantic interpretation follows formal differentiation, i.e. function is anchored in form, rather than the reverse.

Many experimental phoneticians and lab phonologists may give negative answers to both questions, because they limit their investigation to phonetic measurement for phonological forms. This is the focus on form par excellence. For many linguists, the answers may be negative as well, because their main goal is to provide (parts of) grammars for undocumented, even endangered languages, for which a lexicon needs to be compiled, and the formal phonological, morphological and syntactic systems have to be set up before the use of these forms in interactional functions can be investigated. However, this no longer applies to formally well described languages such as English, German, the other Germanic languages, the Romance languages, the Slavonic languages, Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese. There, linguistic study will benefit immensely by placing speech communication in interaction at the centre and by relating the language-specific formal patterns to communicative functions, which are either linked universally to homo loquens or are culturally conditioned. This is the stance of Communicative Functions and Linguistic Forms in Speech Interaction. Therefore, if, against my assumption, your answers are negative, although you are working on well-described languages, I will retort with the Confirmation Questions

You aren’t interested?

You don’t study form in function?

in declarative syntactic structure, combined, when spoken, either with falling intonation in high register, or with a falling + high rising intonation contour. Both patterns pick up the negative answers to my preceding questions, expressing surprise at the negative answers and asking to reconsider them. The falling-rising pattern adds incredulity to surprise.

The above question interactions between author and blog reader illustrate two of quite an elaborate set of Question functions, which beside Request and Command are sub-functions of the Sender’s Appeal to the Receiver in communicative interaction. The formal exponents of the different Question functions are combinations of syntactic structures and intonation patterns in the spoken medium. The different intonation patterns in the two types of Confirmation Question are also exponents of the sender’s Expression function.

The book presents a partial framework of universally postulated communicative functions, on the basis of Karl Bühler’s Organon Model, which relates the linguistic sign to the Sender (Expression), the Receiver (Appeal) and to Objects and Factual Relations in space and time (Representation). Within Expression, Appeal and Representation sub-functions are set up; among others a fine-grained system of Question Appeals is developed. Then the discussion relates linguistic form to these functions, taking all relevant exponents into account – sounds, words, syntax, prosody. The function-form systems are presented in parallel for English and German, illustrated with rich documentation of descriptive data and experimental measurements in tables and figures, as well as audio files downloadable from the Resources site of the book on the CUP website. In spite of differences in formal detail, the two systems show great similarities, even in the prosodic forms associated with the Appeal and Expression functions.

The same functional Question Appeal framework has also been applied to the quite different syntactic and prosodic forms of Mandarin Chinese, providing an insightful contrastive comparison with the English and German systems. Thus, this book is sending out the message to the language and speech world to reconsider their standard form approach and ask instead what are the basic categories of meaning that speakers want to transmit to listeners, and what formal means do they use to achieve it?

Hopefully, I may have roused your interest to browse through the book, and perhaps even to apply the paradigm to other languages. I would be delighted to enter into discussion with you by email.


Klaus J. Kohler

[email protected].



Interested in reading more? Enjoy free access to Chapter 1. Speech Communication in Human Interaction until 31 December 2018.

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