The use of markers of spontaneous oral speech to create mimetic movie experiences

How discourse markers, dysfluencies, and co. influence the 'real-life effect' of movie conversation

Term Paper, 2011

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Lehramt Latein / Englisch

The use of markers of spontaneous oral
speech to create mimetic movie experiences

How discourse markers, dysfluencies, and co.
influence the 'real-life effect' of movie conversation.

Text and Discourse Linguistics: Discourse and Grammar

As the poet said, 'Only God can make a tree'

- probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.

Woody Allen[1]

1. Introduction:

Movies have multiple ways of communicating their meanings and intentions to the audience, e.g. with light, camera angle, and editing. However, besides these visual aspects, auditory means are substantial, too, in order to create a proper movie experience. And be that as it may, dialogue and conversation in general are the most crucial of these means of transportation in a film. For Aristotle's principle of mimesis can only apply on a movie, when it incorporates the most common way of communication between people as exactly as possible and as realistic as possible. Nevertheless, a film is a constructed piece of work, which starts off with a script that includes the dialogues and provides further information about, for instance the mood of the character speaking. In addition to the screenwriter's instructions on acting a scene, the director and, eventually, the actor himself have their own thoughts of how to play a certain scene and of how to utter a certain sentence. This constructiveness of utterances gives a film the impression of being unrealistic, thus violating the mimetic effect it intends to create. Oliver Schütte says about dialogue in movies that "obwohl der Dialog in einem guten Film lebensecht wirkt, ist er doch komprimiert, d.h. er kommt in dieser Form im wirklichen Leben kaum vor."[2] It is, therefore, necessary to produce realistic dialogues for a movie that are not immediately recognized as planned speech, but rather perceived as unplanned or spontaneous speech.

In this paper I will discuss the possibilities of making a movie dialogue more realistic through the use of markers of unplanned oral speech. Therefore I chose to approach the subject on two ways parallel. The first way is to very narrowly transcribe[3] two consecutive scenes from Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona" (2008; henceforth referred to as VCB) with a total of eight minutes and systematically search it for discourse markers, dysfluencies, and backchannels. On the basis of two excerpts a selection of these markers shall be explored in detail. The second way consists of a comparison of a transcript of the complete film with a transcript of a film that is akin to this one, namely Ken Kwapis' "He's Just Not That Into You" (2008; henceforth referred to as HNY). The assumption is that in VCB more appearances of certain markers of oral and unplanned, respectively spontaneous conversation appear, and thus the film manages to produce a more accurate and truthful experience of reality than a film with less appearances is bound to produce.

2. The data:

Both movies are examples of the genres of romance and drama, thus they are "concerned with similar social, moral, and interpersonal issues"[4]. However, they differ in some basic properties, which need to be taken into consideration when discussing the results of the comparison. VCB, with a running time of 96 minutes, follows two interacting storylines of three woman and two men in Barcelona of whom two are non-native English speakers, doing most of their direct conversations in Spanish. The close transcript contains a total of 1.669 words, whereas the transcript of the entire movie consists of a total of 11.032 words.[5] HNY has a running time of 124 minutes and follows five women and four men through three interacting storylines in an American metropolis. Its transcript covers 13.969 words. The choice for VCN is based on the generally recognized fact that the films of Woody Allen are marked especially by their realistic dialogues, which often contain such features as repetitions, reparanda, stutter, and conversation overlap.[6] His productions are also known for their dependence on dialogue rather than action or special effects and for a setting in a realistic alternative reality, as opposed to a space setting in science fiction movies for example. HNY perfectly fits these criteria and therefore shall be used as our comparative value in this examination.

3. Analysis of VCB:

3.1. Excerpt from the first scene

A full spectrum of linguistic devices to mark the spontaneous character of the conversations in VCB is already expressed within the first five turns of the first scene.

1. Judy Do you like 'em?
2. Vicky I do. Thank you so much for taking us.
3. Judy Oh, you know, we buy from this gallery. Mark .. has commissioned this - this artist to do this series of pictures [ .. ]
4. Vicky [Mm-hm] nods during J's talking
5. Judy For his office walls. [Yeah, I think #]

Sentence 1 makes use of a form of ellipsis, omitting the th in the word them, thus producing the reduced form 'em. This is an expression only in spoken discourse (and written texts imitating this discourse, but they shall not be much of our concern in this paper), yet it is not a sign of unplanned speech, but of phonological blur between uttered words. In sentence 2 a second account of ellipsis comes up: I doл is a direct response to the question Do you like 'em? It elides the rest of the clause following the operator do, which would have to be *like [th]'em. Biber calls this a final (post-operator) ellipsis[7] and explains it purpose a "way of simplifying grammar through omission".

A great variety of markers is then found in 3, starting with the interjection Oh in initial position, which functions of conveying a certain degree of surprise or emotion. Succeeding the particle, the discourse marker you know is next. It does not add any additional information to the sentence and has a somehow empty meaning. Yet, these particles do not fall under the category of dysfluencies, as they are not used by the speaker to rethink or repair his speech. Rather, they may take on a more demanding character. This means that backchannels can be provoked by discourse marker like you know if the recipient feels a need for reassurance on the speaker's side and therefore you know may also be treated as a response getter in some instances. Further meaning is explained by Gloria Cappelli during her lectures when she says that "you know is sometimes employed as an utterance-final generalizer, allowing the speaker to extend their specific examples to a more general observation."[8] In summary, it can be said that he semantic roles and differentiations of discourse markers is not always clear and that their boundaries are rather fuzzy.

That the boundaries are fuzzy and most often depend on the placement of the marker within the sentence can be explored in sentence 5; therefore let us take a closer look at the function of the word yeah. Is it an example for response forms like yes and uh-huh, because yeah can often be regarded colloquial version of yes? Cappelli says that "yeah sometimes serves as a direct response to a question only if the question needs a response, not merely querying feedback."[9] But this is definitely not the case in sentence 5, so yeah is not a response-getter in this case. According to Cetkovic, who on her part cites Starkey Duncan, yeah belongs to the group of backchannels along with other "'readily identified, verbalized signals' such as mhm, [...], that's right, etc."[10] So are we dealing with a case of backchannels here then? Let us take a look at her definition of backchannels, which she defines as:

spontaneous reactions from the hearer to the speaker's message, in the form of vocal (utterances, sounds) and visual signals (gestures, gazes). [...] They are an important act of politeness as they give ritual support to the speaker and help sustain a smooth flow of interaction.[11]

The speaker Judy could only backchannel to a previous backchannel to her or to her own utterance. Since this seems very unlikely and improbable, we can rightfully say that she does not backchannel in sentence 5. Conclusively, this function can definitely be excluded from the list of possibilities, too. The answer to the question is that yeah is used as a discourse marker with the function of right, indicating that the decision mentioned above, to commission the artist with a job regarding some office walls, is accepted by the speaker. As an explanation Biber explains that "right is often used at the beginning of a turn, indication that some decision is required or accepted."[12] In this example it was one word with a variety of three possible functions that are mostly based on semantics, but also depend on the syntactic usage of the utterance. Because these nuances are hardly ever considered prior to a speech act by the speaker, they are a significant evidence for realistic speaking.

By going back to sentence 3, the second clause shows another example of realistic speaking. The stutter of the word this - this is highly untypical for written forms of text, to which film scripts belong to, and is part of the category of dysfluencies. "Speakers are under pressure in conversation to produce language quickly. There is little time for planning and no time for editing, in contrast to writing."[13] Incorporating dysfluencies into speech allows actors to get closer to the verisimilitude they intend to conduct and eventually approach the mimetic effect of the movie. Yet, the occurrence of this in the sentence, before artist and series, is an example for an introductory definite article and its very informal use gives the conversation additional facileness. Regular use of working with inarticulate or hesitant rhetorical devices is very often made by naturalistic actors[14] who follow Stanislavsky's school of method acting. Its attitude towards cinema acting is that it "is at its best when the illusion of naturalness, simplicity and truth is strongest."[15] This can be achieved through dialogue, gestures and to a certain degree through the story, too. For even the most realistic dialogue would not create a movie close to reality that considers itself belonging to a genre known for its portrait of the unreality, e.g. action, fantasy, science fiction.

Sentence 4 gives now two examples for backchannels. In general, they are words or other minimal responses that are used us utterances in order to show the listener's continuing attention[16] Mm-hm functions as verbal backchannels for the listener Vicky to the speaker Judy's speech, whereas her nodding is a form of non-verbal backchannels. These responses, however, do not affect a change of the speaker-listener-relations and do not demand a switch of roles. There is proof for this assumption, for the speaker Judy does continue her speech without interruption in sentence 5. Both utterances can therefore be regarded as one longer utterance 3/5 with an interjection of backchannels from the listener in 4. The brief pause the speaker takes between the two parts of utterance 3/5 is instantly seized by the listener for the assurance of her understanding and attention to the speaker.


[1] „The Quotations Page." 18 April 2011: <>

[2] Schütte, Oliver. Die Kunst des Drehbuchlesens. Bergisch-Gladbach: Bastei Lübbe, 1999, p 117.

[3] The transcription was done according to Du Bois, John W. et al. Unicode Characters for Discourse Transcription (Selected). Unpublished in University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006.

[4] Cetkovic, Tatjana. "Film dialogue and everyday conversation." In Variations: Literaturzeitschrift der Universität Zürich - Filmsprache. Ed. Thomas Hunkeler. Bern et al.: Lang, 2000, p 65.

[5] Complete transcripts of the films have both been taken from

[6] Schütte, Oliver. Schau mir in die Augen, Kleines: Die Kunst der Dialoggestaltung. Bergisch-Gladbach: Bastei Lübbe, 2002, p 29.

[7] Biber, Douglas et al. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman, 2008, p 442.

[8] Cappelli, Gloria. Filler (Discourse Markers & co.) and Backchannels. Lecture unpublished in University of Pisa, 2009, p 6.

[9] Cappelli, 2009, p 8.

[10] Cetkovic, 2000, p 66 citing Starkey Duncan. „On the Structure of Speaker-auditor Interaction During Speaking Terms". Language and Society 2, 1974, p 166.

[11] Cetkovic, 2000, p 66.

[12] Biber, 2008, p 451.

[13] Biber, 2008, p 434

[14] Naturalistic actors "speak softly and rapidly, repeat words, slur or throw away lines, sometimes ask "Huh?" or let the dialogue overlap. To achieve the effect of spontaneity, they preface speeches with meaningless intensifiers of qualifiers [...] such as "look," "now," or "well." Naturalistic actors also cultivate a halting, somewhat groping style of speech: instead of saying "I am very distressed," the actor will say "I am dis - ... very distressed". Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988, p34.

[15] Cetkovic, 2000, p 59.

[16] Biber, 2008, p 455.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The use of markers of spontaneous oral speech to create mimetic movie experiences
How discourse markers, dysfluencies, and co. influence the 'real-life effect' of movie conversation
Discourse & Grammar
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2475 KB
It was graded with 1.3 due to minor flaws in formating of the text. These have been corrected before publication
Movie, film, vicky christina barcelona, hes's just not that into you, discourse markers, hesitators, backchannels, discourse, dialogue
Quote paper
Konstantin Herzog (Author), 2011, The use of markers of spontaneous oral speech to create mimetic movie experiences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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