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Projecting the End of a Speaker's Turn: A Cognitive Cornerstone of Conversation

From: Language
Volume 82, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 515-535 | 10.1353/lan.2006.0130


A key mechanism in the organization of turns at talk in conversation is the ability to anticipate or PROJECT the moment of completion of a current speaker's turn. Some authors suggest that this is achieved via lexicosyntactic cues, while others argue that projection is based on intonational contours. We tested these hypotheses in an on-line experiment, manipulating the presence of symbolic (lexicosyntactic) content and intonational contour of utterances recorded in natural conversations. When hearing the original recordings, subjects can anticipate turn endings with the same degree of accuracy attested in real conversation. With intonational contour entirely removed (leaving intact words and syntax, with a completely flat pitch), there is no change in subjects' accuracy of end-of-turn projection. But in the opposite case (with original intonational contour intact, but with no recognizable words), subjects' performance deteriorates significantly. These results establish that the symbolic (i.e. lexicosyntactic) content of an utterance is necessary (and possibly sufficient) for projecting the moment of its completion, and thus for regulating conversational turn-taking. By contrast, and perhaps surprisingly, intonational contour is neither necessary nor sufficient for end-of-turn projection.