What are the distinctive features of informal talk that can be gleaned from the conversation between Pip and Phyllis, a married couple from southeast England in Audiocassette 3, Band 5? How do these features compare with those of formal talk elsewhere in Block 3?
‘Conversation is without doubt the foundation stone of the social world – human beings learn to talk in it, find a mate with it, are socialised through it, rise in social hierarchy as a result of it, and, it is suggested, may even develop mental illness because of it.’ (Beattie, 1983)
In this essay, we are to highlight the distinctive features of informal talk with regards to the conversation between Pip and Phyllis and how do these features compare with those of formal talk.
Before we proceed any further, let us understand what is meant by informal and formal talk. It has everything to do in what we do in everyday conversation. ‘Conversation’ is defined by some linguists as informal talk between two persons, but as in the above quotation from Geoffrey Beattie (1983) the term is used more loosely and draws on a wide range of examples from different contexts to try and give some sense of the diversity of ways in which English is used in everyday talk.
Informal talk is viewed as rather disorderly, pointing out its inexplicit use of language, random subject matter, general lack of planning and high proportion of ‘errors’. Due to its informal nature, we often hear lots of bantering in between dialogue. Members addressed each other on a first name basis and there is bound to be slang terms used and sometimes even expletives especially when there is shared interest like in football, and when there is a certain degree of accommodation among friends. One very prominent feature in informal talk is the frequent interruptions or simultaneous or overlapping utterances throughout despite the presence of turn-taking. Because informal talk is largely unplanned, it usually arises spontaneously out of fluid and changing everyday activities and relationships.
As for formal talk, it is usually orderly and often managed by a particular leader. Unlike informal talk, jokes are formal in nature and mostly at the beginning only. In addressing group members, no familiar forms of addresses or first name basis are used. Usually, the language used is elevated form especially by the one in a superior position or the chairman, and the discussion or stories are often generalised. Formal talk usually occurs in office situations like meetings, official topical discussions or a question and answer session following a speech delivery. In the paragraphs that follow, we will attempt to highlight the various distinctive features found in formal and informal talk and make a comparison and contrast where applicable.
First let us take a closer examination of the informal conversation between Pip and Phyllis (see Transcript 1 or T1). After listening to the conversation and briefly knowing their background, we can assuredly state that the elderly couple has a good command of English albeit may not be that smooth flowing at certain points, common in any informal talk. Being married for 46 years meant they could be in the late 60s/early 70s age range, and yet both sounded to be mentally alert and in control of their speaking faculty though there were some stammering or swallowing of words at times that made some parts inaudible like in (T1) lines 7, 22 and 25.
On two occasions when they realised that they had grammatically used the wrong word, they immediately did a self-correction as in line 18 when Pip quickly changed “flights” to “the flight” almost in the same breath. Similarly, Phyllis in (T1) line 58 self-corrected the word “we” to “she” (the tour agent) when she realised it was a mistake.
Like in any informal conversation between equals, there is bound to be interruptions/cutting in or overlapping of each other’s talking, sometimes leaving phrases unfinished like in (T1) lines 44-45 (…you had to well…) and 62 (…a leaflet like the one that er…). At times Pip cut-in Phyllis as in lines 11-12: …the 27th of//Right//April but instead of stopping Phyllis in her track, both collaborated to finish the phrase or what linguists called duetting (T1 lines 13-14). Another case of duetting occurs again in (T1) lines 39-40.
In contrast, in the dialogue between members of the interview panel (see Transcript 2 or T2), we noticed that there was a proper and orderly way in which the discussion was conducted. This is quite typical of a formal conversation in an office environment. Within this collaborative process, turn-taking was very evident possibly through the management of a range of linguistic and social cues and signals moderated by the leader or speaker. There was hardly one moment when there was an interruption in the office talk among the interview panel.
It was observed that throughout the conversation between Pip and Phyllis’ minimal responses like ‘yes’, ‘mm’ and ‘yeah’ was heard at relevant points (T1 lines 5, 13, 24, 35, 37, 48, 53 & 60). In linguistic understanding, the meanings to such responses vary. The ‘mm’ expressed in (T1) line 5 was interpreted as Phyllis trying to gather her thoughts before Pip cut-in to complete the sentence. As for the rest of the minimal responses, it is quite clear that they were meant to be expressions of agreement with each other or what is known as back-channel support. Apart from the very minor disagreement between Pip and Phyllis regarding the hotel room (T1 lines 32-35), there was hardly any argument between the two, and we can conclude that there was support for each other’s views throughout. Similarly, it was noted in the formal talk there was evidence of back-channel support representing agreement with the speaker (T2 lines 3, 7, 8, 17, 24, 26).
In any conversation between two or more persons and where both genders are present, it is usually the men who take control of the dialogue. In the case of Pip and Phyllis, on first hearing we could detect that Pip was more in control as we sensed that he was the one writing on the evaluation questionnaire, and therefore asking the questions.
It was also observed that Pip sets the structure of the conversation at the beginning and regularly brings the conversation back on track in answering the questions on the form. But this does not necessarily mean that he was in total control. We noticed that Phyllis did fully participate in the discussion and more often than not takes the lead in suggesting further information (T1 lines 46 ; 57), interrupts and insist on her valuation for the hotel room being the one written down (T1 lines 34-35).
Contrary to the traditional understanding that the man usually takes charge in a group dialogue, in the formal talk, the fairer sex (Lady A) appears to be the moderator. From the onset, she kicked-off the discussion and from her comments and questioning (T2 line 26), she sounded to be more in control in gathering the views of the group together.
In a conversation, speakers often unconsciously used their grammatical knowledge to respond at the end rather than in the middle of a sentence. According to Sacks et al. (1974), a transition relevance place is where the speaker may pause for a response, or other speakers come in, sometimes overlapping the previous speaker. This feature was particularly prominent in the formal dialogue among members of the interview panel where the next speaker knew when to come in after the previous speaker had finished speaking.
Meanwhile, the overlapping was noted in (T1) lines 16-17 of Pip and Phyllis’ informal talk and in (T2) lines 21-22 in the interview panel’s discussion. However, breaking in before a transition relevance point counts in as interruption. As mentioned in the earlier paragraphs, there were frequent interruptions in Pip and Phyllis’ conversation but that did not seem to bother them. Perhaps, they knew each other so well that both anticipated what the other was going to say.
Another feature detected is the tag question as in “…wasn’t it? (T1 line 42). According to sociolinguist, Janet Holmes, a tag question is often used by woman to express uncertainty of a proposition and often requiring a confirmation. Phyllis wanted a confirmation on her comment about the booking of tours being dodgy. No tag questions were noticed in the formal dialogue.
A tinge of humour was detected when antonymy was used to describe the receptionists at the hotel. In giving a ‘Very Good’ grading, Phyllis described the receptionists as “terribly helpful” (T1 line 28). Antonymy is a paradigmatic relationship of opposites as being a pair of words at opposite ends of a continuum.
Overall, we noted the collaboration between Pip and Phyllis and noticed their understanding of the imprecise or inexplicit reference in relying on their shared memories of their previous trip to Paris (T1 lines 43-52) and this latest trip (T1 lines 57-65). They gave support to each other, changing views with regard to the British Airways flight (T1 lines 17-22) and negotiating answers for the questionnaire as in the valuation for the hotel room. After all, they have been married for 46 years and have had plenty of practice in conversation with each other, thus explaining the lack of disturbance caused by the frequent interruptions.
From the views and comments of the panel of interviewers we assessed that all four are senior executives in the company and all are well versed in IT and human resource matters. There were implicit references of their shared experience in their field of work when they were discussing the merits of each candidate. We can confidently state that all are rather impressed with the lady candidate named Kitty although both candidates were deemed appointable.
The traits that impressed them most was Kitty’s leadership qualities (T2 lines 20-21) and her experience in operating at the strategic level (T2 line 17). In other words Kitty is considered one with the “helicopter view”. By the end of the discussion though it was not mentioned in clear terms as to who they would be choosing, we can conclude that they would likely zero down their choice to Kitty (T2 lines 32-33) to staff the regional appointment (T2 lines 14-15).
When compared to Pip and Phyllis’ informal talk, the panel of interviewers formal talk contained some work-related jargon, words that are likely to be heard only in an office environment. Some examples are ‘IT networking’ (T2 line 13), ‘operating at this strategic level’ (T2 line 17), ‘internal communication’ (T2 line 23) and ‘job description profile’ (T2 line 32).
In conclusion, what have we learnt from this exercise in comparing and contrasting the two types of conversation? From the analyses, it is quite evident that there are more differences than similarities in the way informal and formal talks are managed.
In most cases where informal talk is concerned, there tend to be more disorder and interruptions present in the dialogue. However, in the case of Pip and Phyllis’ conversation, though it was informal in structure there was some form of order despite the interruptions. The smooth collaboration was basically due to the understanding both have of each other since they have been living together for 46 years! Another characteristic feature which runs contrary to informal talk was the grammar used by Pip and Phyllis. Both spoke good English and it painted a picture of the couple as wise and cultured people.
As for the formal talk involving the four professionals in the IT-related field, we observed how English was used at work and how occupational or professional interests are represented in the dynamic structure and content of the language. There was evidence to distinguish how English was used as a working language as in the concept of a discourse community. According to Swales (1990), the basic idea to this concept is that there are types of ‘community’ in which people do not necessarily live close together. Discourse here means the ways in which language spoken or written is used to pursue some common goals (in choosing the right candidate for the job) in ways that distinguish them from other groups as in the case of Pip and Phyllis.
In the final analysis, we like to state that whether it is formal or informal talk, English as a language has a dual function. According to Michael Halliday (1978), it communicates ideational meaning in terms of information and ideas expressed, and it also communicates interpersonal meaning, expressing the degree of friendliness, or status difference, between speakers.
In our local context, if we observed around carefully oftentimes we see codeswitching and sometimes styleswitching occurring in informal and formal talks. This is very particular to Singapore due to the multi-racial and common dual-language proficiency among Singaporeans.