The complex nature of language and face-to-face interaction

Recently, language as used in interpersonal communication has been described as a complex adaptive system (CAS, cf. Beckner et al., 2009). Similar to other CASs, like fish schools or bird flocks, it involves multiple agents, is adaptive in that speakers base their behaviour in past interactions and characterized by dynamic patterns that emerge without any central control. After introducing the CAS framework and discussing its implication for linguistic research, the second part of the talk will discuss some of the ways in which scholars have pointed at basic principles of communication in humans. Some of these principles might underlie the dynamics of language, as well as those of other means of communication.

One of the premises that underlie the cognitive approach in linguistics is that studying language provides a window to the cognitive counterparts of linguistic forms. Language is one way (out of many others) in which humans communicate by enacting linguistic practices in social interaction. The prototypical (Levinson, 1983), most immediate and most frequent (Peräkylä, 2005) instantiation of human communication is face-to-face interaction. It makes thus sense to explore human communication in terms of the complex systems of signals involved in face-to-face interaction, as it predates other media of expression both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Some of the ways in which scholars have tried to isolate and explain underlying principles in human communication will be discussed in relation to the literature on conversation analysis (Ruusuvuori & Peräkylä, 2009). The reason behind this choice of literature will be the assumption that face-to-face interaction is a gateway to other meaning-making behaviors in humans (such as written text, dreams, or cinema).



Beckner, C., Blythe, R., Bybee, J., Christiansen, M. H., Croft, W., Ellis, N. C., … & Schoenemann, T. (2009). Language is a complex adaptive system: Position paper. Language learning, 59(s1), 1-26.

Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics (Cambridge textbooks in linguistics). Cambridge University Press.

Peräkylä, A. (2005). Analyzing talk and text. The Sage handbook of qualitative research, 3, 869-886.

Ruusuvuori, J., & Peräkylä, A. (2009). Facial and verbal expressions in assessing stories and topics. Research on Language and Social Interaction,42(4), 377-394.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s