Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Sociolinguistics of Smalltalk



I always enjoy linguistic niceties in novels. Some of you may recall my excitement when I started reading Sherlock Holmes and found that second-language errors were used to identify the nationality of a writer.

The following is from the book I'm reading at the moment, Shadow's Edge (Night Angel #2) by Brent Weeks.

Why was it she could master the eighty-four variations of the Symbeline weave with perfect timing, structure, and intonation, but not make conversation? Surely small talk should be reducible to perhaps a few hundred typical questions, delineated into conversation trees according to the conversant's responses, how well one knew the conversant, what the current events were, and one's position relative to the conversant.

Timing of the questions and the length of one's responses would have to be studied as well, but many weaves required exact timing, too, and Ariel's rhythm was perfect. One might have to take into account the physical setting: one would speak differently in the Speaker's office than in a tavern. Topics of study could include how to deal with distractions, appropriate degrees of eye contact or physical touch, taking into account cultural variations, and of course the differences in speaking with men and women, subdivided by whether one were oneself a man or a woman. Ariel supposed she might have to include children in the study as well, and it would be important to include how to speak with those toward whom you had varying degrees of friendship or interest, romantic or otherwise. Or should it? Should one make small talk differently with a woman whom you thought you might like to befriend than with a woman you had no interest in? Were there socially appropriate ways to curtail dull conversations?

That made Ariel smile. In her book, curtailing dull conversations would be a huge plus.

Still, the project as a whole had little to do with magic. Perhaps nothing. Indeed, she decided that the study, while worthy, would be a poor use of her own gifts.


The setting may be fantastical, but this is actually quite a good manifesto for the study of relationships in conversational analysis; it's sociolinguistics at its finest. I rather wish Ariel had decided otherwise - not many books feature the scientific study of language and lingistics!

12 comments:

Red-haired hiker said...

Oooh! Oooh! That sounds really interesting. It might also be immensely helpful to those out there on the autism spectrum, since socially appropriate small talk is one of the hardest things to get right. If, you know, it was an actual study and not a fictional idea...

colourfulcoach said...

I bet there is an actual study about it somewhere, there's probably even been an edition of Horizon about it!

rosaria said...

Well, Rachel, it's all up to you to incorporate all your skills in your next novel.

As an aside, since there are many of us second/third/fourth language issues, the British attitude of superiority might just be a bit too much for the modern reader who will smile and be polite while secretly check off this novel from those he'd reccomend to his friends. Just saying!

Chris said...

and I thought you mean Smalltalk the programming language...

Ginny said...

O.K., all I know is I like to talk!!! And I don't need to think about it that much, probably to the dismay of many! Maybe that book would do me some good, Rachel! It's fun having a friend as smart as you!!

Jess @ Frugal with a Flourish said...

That would be really interesting to research! Hmmmm... perhaps that can also go on your things to do list!

purplume said...

Dialogue is one of my favorite things in a book.

Fly Girl said...

Hmmm socially appropriate ways to curtail dull conversations... I think I can come up with a few!Changing the subject is my fave.

Rachel said...

You know what would be really intriguing? Tracking linguistic changes in expatriates. I've an English friend who's lived in Germany for twenty years and now has a slightly German accent in both written and spoken English, so I know it happens!

Kazzy said...

Conversational analysis... yes, my husband and I do a bit of that every time we have had dinner guests and then they leave. Good conversationalists get a repeat invite.

Kim-Stuff could be worse said...

I did not know this about the language! Thanks for sharing

becky said...

Haha...too much thinking going on here!!!

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