Decoding Human Interaction: Transcription Conventions for Conversation Analysis

Presenter(s): Alexa Hepburn


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How do people effortlessly exchange information, emotions, and ideas through talk and bodily conduct? Conversation analysis (CA) is a field of research that seeks to unravel the elements of human interaction that are hiding in plain sight. In this resource, we will explore how some of the fundamental insights of conversation analysis have shaped the transcription conventions that serve as the key to unlocking the hidden dynamics of talk-in-interaction.

The Essence of Conversation Analysis

At the heart of CA lies a fundamental insight: conversations are not merely exchanges of words; they are intricate processes shaped by how those words are delivered and how individuals respond to each other's actions. In the 1960s, Gail Jefferson devised a system of conventions aimed at capturing the profound richness of conversations. These conventions are instrumental in helping researchers uncover the ordered patterns of social action within interactions. 



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Transcription Conventions: The Building Blocks of Mutual Understanding

The following summary provides an overview of the transcription conventions employed by conversation analysts to portray vocal conduct in the context of talk-in-interaction. These conventions have been designed to be intuitive, drawing inspiration from familiar literary notations such as underlining for emphasis and capital letters for volume. They can be categorized into five key areas.

  1. Transcript Layout: CA adheres to a standardized layout that identifies speakers, numbers lines, portrays talk exactly as it is produced, and utilizes a fixed-width font to align overlapping talk and visible behaviours.
  2. Temporal and Sequential Relationships: One vital contribution of conversation analysis is the meticulous examination of timing and sequencing in communication. Researchers discovered that interlocutors coordinate their talk with remarkable precision. Overlapping talk, represented with square brackets, reveals much about how speakers manage turn-taking. Latching (=) signifies a lack of discernible silence between turns, potentially indicating a swift continuation. Gaps between turns, and pauses within turns are important distinctions, with silences measured precisely and placed in parentheses. This meticulous timing is crucial for understanding the relationship between turn-taking and sequence organizational rules, and issues such as affiliation, cross-cultural variability, and how speakers anticipate when it is their turn to speak.
  3. Speech Delivery and Intonation: CA places a profound emphasis on unit-final intonation, emphasis, volume, and pitch changes. These elements are therefore transcribed to capture their interactional significance.
    Unit-final intonation holds critical information about a speaker's stance and significantly influences the dynamics of turn-taking. Emphasis is denoted by underlining, volume by capitalization, and pitch by a combination of underlined elements and arrows. 
  4. Speed/Tempo of Speech: Special symbols like > and < are employed to indicate compressed or hurried speech, while the reverse symbols < > signal slower or more deliberate talk. Colons are used to indicate stretching, and hyphens signify cut-offs.
  5. Voice Quality: Beyond pitch, CA meticulously transcribes other features of vocal delivery, including smiley voice (£), creaky voice (#), and tremulous voice (~). These elements provide valuable insights into the emotional undercurrents and nuances of interactions.


Transcriber's Comments and Uncertain Hearings

Within CA transcripts, double parentheses (( )) serve as markers for the transcriber's descriptions of events, differentiating them from direct representations of the interactions. In instances where the transcriber is uncertain about what was heard, single parentheses () are employed to signify a potential hearing.


Features Accompanying Talk

Beyond speech itself, researchers also transcribe any interactionally relevant accompanying features like aspiration, laughter, and crying. Aspiration is represented by the letter 'h,' with the number of 'h's indicating the duration of the aspiration. Laughter, a complex vocal phenomenon, is typically comprised of tokens such as huh, hah, heh, and hih, with different voiced vowels within aspiration. Crying, on the other hand, manifests through reduced volume, sniffs, embodied actions like touching the face or wiping the eyes, moments of silence, heightened pitch, and increased aspiration.

 

This resource provides an overall summary of conventions. These conventions play a significant role in advancing our understanding of human interaction by providing researchers with specialized tools to scrutinize and decode the multifaceted dynamics of conversations. Mondada's conventions have become the standard in the field, introducing additional layers of detail and nuance, tailored to capture specific, interactionally relevant, aspects of embodied interaction. 

 

> Download worksheet, with links to audio recordings, and answers.

 


Conclusion

Conversation analysis and its transcription conventions offer an important lens through which we can peer into the intricate world of human interaction. By meticulously scrutinizing not just the content of speech but also its delivery, CA researchers unveil the concealed patterns and subtleties of everyday conversations. These conventions provide a standardized framework for representing these interactions, facilitating the sharing of findings, conducting data sessions, and nurturing the continued growth of this important field. As CA adapts to new forms of data and continues to evolve, it remains an indispensable tool for unravelling the profound intricacies of human communication.




About the author

Alexa Hepburn is a Research Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, and Honorary Professor in the School of Social Science and Humanities at Loughborough University. She has published widely regarding methodological, practical, theoretical, and meta-theoretical frameworks in the social sciences, and on the use and development of conversation analytic methods. She has delivered over 40 invited seminars, plenaries, and keynotes, and over 30 specialist workshops on interaction analysis in 12 different countries around the world. 

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