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OKAY across languages: An interactional perspective on an imported particle

Date: Friday February 28, 2020

Time: 11:30 am to 1:00 pm

Location: ABB 166

Guest Speaker: Dr. Emma Betz

Bio: Emma Betz is Associate Professor in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research uses Conversation Analysis as a framework for uncovering the orderly ways in which humans use language to participate in and jointly construct the social worlds that they inhabit. Her work focuses on the role of ‘little words’ (response particles, turn-initial particles, address and person reference forms) in building responses to requests or informings, managing understanding, and  organizing larger activities. In a current projects involving 13 languages, she documents the range of interactional uses of OKAY.

Abstract: Okay is a single, simple word. It is possibly the most successful linguistic export from American English to the rest of the world (Metcalf, 2010; Read, 1963a; Read, 1963b). Despite its global spread, research on the everyday use of the particle has so far focused on English and only a small number of other Germanic languages. Here, I report on an ongoing, large-scale project documenting the use of okay in spoken interaction in a variety of typologically different languages: English, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, and Swedish.

The seeming simplicity of okay belies considerable interactional complexity: Okay has developed language-specific lexical variants (e.g., Finnish okra, French oké) and a wide variety of differentiated meanings and functions, some of which are associated with specific prosodic patterns. Some uses, such as agreeing to a proposal or signalling intention to comply with a request (Merritt, 1984), seem straightforward and intuitive. Other uses, such as transitioning between activities and topics (Beach, 1993) or acknowledging information without accepting or endorsing it (Lindström, 2018) are complex and can only be captured through detailed sequential analysis.

Using Conversation Analysis (Sidnell, 2010) and Interactional Linguistics (Couper-Kuhlen and Selting, 2018) as its theoretical and methodological foundation, our project documents the wide range of uses speakers have developed across languages. In this talk, I focus on our findings regarding responsive okay (Sorjonen, 2001; Thompson et al., 2015). Using recordings and detailed transcriptions, I show how the particle indexes sufficient understanding. In certain contexts, however, it marks a prior turn as incomplete or insufficient: With rising-intoned okay, a speaker can show that just-received information departs from her prior knowledge or expectations, thus in effect communicating that something is or was not “okay.”

Our findings underscore the central role that particles play in building responses and thus in shaping the social and organizational architecture of human interaction. Our work on okay also lays the foundation for further comparative analysis.

Beach, W. A. (1993). Transitional regularities for ‘casual’ ‘Okay’ usages. Journal of Pragmatics, 19, 325-352.

Couper-Kuhlen, E., & Selting, M. (2017). Interactional linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Lindström, A. (2018). Calibrating an agnostic epistemic stance in Swedish conversation: The case of okej-prefacing in calls to the Swedish Board for Study Support. In J. Heritage & M.-L. Sorjonen (Eds.), Between turn and sequence: Turn-initial particles across languages (pp. 339-370). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Merritt, M. (1980). On the uses of OK in service encounters. In R. W. Shuy & A. Shnukal, Language use and the uses of language (pp. 162-172). Washington: Georgetown UP.

Metcalf, A. (2010). OK. The improbable story of America’s greatest word. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Read, A. W. (1963a). The first stage in the history of ‘O.K.’. American Speech, 38(1), 5-27.

Read, A. W. (1963b). The second stage in the history of ‘O.K.’. American Speech 38(2), 83-102.

Sidnell, J. (2010). Conversation analysis: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sorjonen, M.-L. (2001). Responding in conversation: A study of response particles in Finnish. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Thompson, S., Fox, B., & Couper-Kuhlen, E. (2015). Grammar and everyday talk: Building responsive actions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Preparatory materials

on OKAY and on response particles more generally:

A excellent short video on the origin of okay: https://tinyurl.com/OKAY-History

Betz, E., & Deppermann, A. (2018). Indexing priority of position: eben as response particle in German. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 51(2), 171-193.

Betz, E., & Golato, A. (2008). Remembering relevant information and withholding relevant next actions: The German token ‘ach ja’. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 41(1), 55-98.