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ICOS 2008 Conference Abstract

Proper Names in Social Encounters: A Theoretical and Methodological Introduction

T Ainiala
E De Stefani
University of Berne, Switzerland

A Theoretical and Methodological Introduction

Proper Names in Social Encounters: Analyzing Spoken Language
Terhi Ainiala, Research Institute for the Languages of Finland and University of Helsinki, Finland
Elwys De Stefani, Universities of Berne and Neuchâtel, Switzerland

In the onomastic tradition, proper names are most often analyzed from a diachronic perspective, allowing precise description of their original motivations and their various linguistic developments. The historical approach has thus stimulated our understanding of the way proper names were used in the societies in which they were created, in contrast, the study of the present day uses of proper names has not interested many onomasticians. The pragmatic functions of proper names have mainly been discussed by scholars working in the field of language philosophy (cf. Searle 1958, Kripke 1972, Van Langendonck 2007): their considerations draw almost exclusively from introspective reflections and often fail to take into account the way speakers actually use proper names in their daily activities. One possibility of conducting comprehensive research into the way proper names are employed in human interaction consists in the analysis of empirical date, collected through audio and/or video recordings of social encounters.
This shift of perspective has far-ranging theoretical and methodological consequences.
-The concept “proper name” can be analyzed beyond the language philosophical discussion of the meaning and reference of proper names, thus questioning the usual differentiation between proper names and common nouns.
- the collection of proper names and with the context of their occurrences can lead to context-sensitive description: if speakers use, e.g., diverse forms of a toponym or even different place names to refer to the same place, these variations may not be free but related to the interactional activities in which they occur;
- proper names can be seen to accomplish discursive and interactional tasks: in spontaneous interaction, the participants’ personal names may be used, for instance, to display agreeing or disagreeing stances;
- the accomplishment of reference (which is what proper names supposedly do best) is seen as a dynamic activity, which encompasses the constitution of the extra linguistic referent through a variety of devices (proper names, descriptions, deixis, etc.). It also includes a social dimension: questions about the speakers’ social and cultural identities can be studied on the grounds of empirical data.

This panel discusses the use of proper names in spoken language. The basic assumption is that proper names are not only employed as simple reference devices, but that they are used to accomplish a variety of socially and interactionally relevant tasks. Two fields of research have recently focused strongly on proper names: In sociolinguistics, variation between names and name forms in diverse social contexts has been studied (McClure 1981, Naumann 1989, Walther & Schultheis 1989, Debus 1995). It has been shown, e.g., that the very same people may talk about the same place using different toponyms or forms of a toponym in various settings, depending on the formalness of the situation (Ainiala, forthcoming). The second field is conversation analysis, where studies on the referential uses of person names have been carried out until very recently (Sacks & Schegloff 1979, Auer 1983, Downing 1996, Schegloff 1996, 2007, Enfield & Stivers 2007, Lerner & Kitzinger 2007, Oh 2007). Sacks & Schegloff 1079 have observed, for instance, that speakers generally prefer minimal referential devices (like names and proforms) over more complex descriptions and that referential expressions are designed for the recipients. Although interest in place names and descriptions has been less febrile in the conversation analytic field (cf. Schegloff 1972, Auer 1979, Mondada 200, Myers 2006), it has been able to show that the use of place names is sensitive to situational, contextual and interactional contingencies. The location of the speakers has proved to be relevant to place name selection (as Schegloff 1972: 86 points out, an American planning a trip to France would very likely speak of a trip to “Europe”). Place name selection is also contingent with the mutual categorization of the participants: speakers may also select the place names they are using according to the way they categorize their interlocutor (e.g. as a “resident” or as a “tourist”).
A first set of questions to be addressed in the panel is the following: What social and interactional activities are (also) accomplished through the use of proper names? How can the discussion of identity/categorization be grounded on empirical documentation of the use of proper names? How are proper names linked to the contextual and interactional contingencies of the ongoing social encounter?
The second set of questions relates to the impact that the work on spoken language can have on the conceptualization of proper names: will it still be possible to maintain a clear-cut distinction between common nouns and proper names? Is the traditional onomastic typology – which distinguishes place names from person names – helpful for the description of social realities or are there ambiguous cases (in Alpine societies, for instance, family nicknames can relate to places as well as to persons)? What about the semantic content of proper names? What about reference? The central question her is the following: do proper names have a special status a priori, or are they construed through discursive practices, as Hopper1990 suggests?
Papers focusing on one of the above mentioned topics and analyzing recorded spoken data are welcome. Participants to the panel are invited to reflect on how traditional notions such as “proper name”, “reference”, “identity”, “category”, etc can be defined, operationalized, and described systematically from a perspective that sees them as inextricably linked to social practices.


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