How We Talk by N. J. Enfield

How We Talk by N. J. Enfield

Author:N. J. Enfield
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: 2017-11-01T04:00:00+00:00

Figure 6.1 A simplified and stylized transcript of the most basic vocal and nonvocal behaviors produced during the latter stages of the organizing sequence and the entirety of the 120 siamang “great call sequences” analyzed by Elliot H. Haimoff in 1981. Source: Haimoff 1981: 141.

Figure 6.2 Three-phase sequence in which the infant bonobo Fimi uses the “wrist bent” gesture, directed to her mother, Yasa, as a request to be picked up. Source: Rossano 2013: 167.

If a required move in a siamang duet is missing, the interaction is simply aborted. This shows that these lesser apes are far from doing turn-taking as it is known in human conversation. When misfires happen, such as a failure to produce an appropriate vocalization at the expected moment, the wheels just come off. But in human conversation, things are kept on track in two key ways. First, people show a constant willingness to hold others accountable if they contravene the rules of interaction. Second, as we shall see in the next chapter, if something is unclear or needs repeating, then a dedicated system of repair is used. We can point out to each other when something is missing, we can sanction inappropriate moves, and we can pursue the responses that we were expecting or hoping for.

The closest primate species to ourselves—the great ape species, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—do not display vocal turn-taking at all, not even of the kinds seen in marmosets and siamangs. However, they do have sophisticated forms of interaction that show clear contingency between moves in a behavioral sequence, and in which individuals may pursue the responses they are expecting. These forms of interaction seem much closer to our form of interaction in that they are sequentially organized and each move is a meaningful response to the prior one.

Cognitive scientist Federico Rossano studied interactions among bonobo mothers and their infants, focusing on the ways in which infants get their mothers to pick them up.2 Figure 6.2 is an illustration of one of these interactions, between an infant, Fimi, and her mother, Yasa.

The figure shows three simple phases. First, Fimi looks to her mother (Figure 6.2a) and waits until the mother is looking at her. Second, once the mother is looking, Fimi then makes the “wrist bent” gesture (Figure 6.2b), a conventional gesture that bonobo infants use for requesting that their mothers pick them up. Finally, the mother responds by picking up Fimi and carrying her (Figure 6.2c).

Rossano argues that these sequences are organized in ways that are similar to human conversation. A key to his argument is that if bonobo mothers do not respond in the desired way—i.e., by picking the infant up—then infants will continue to pursue the response they were seeking, for example by repositioning and trying again. Compare this to the siamang case, where a missing or unexpected move simply puts an end to the entire sequence.

Also note the timing properties of the bonobo interactions. The time that passed between Fimi making the bent wrist gesture and Yasa moving to pick her up was brief.


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