The scientific relevance of films as data of transcriptions and the applicability of the GAT 2 system on movie scenes

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents



Transcription of films


Applicability of GAT 2




Since the very beginning of mankind, humans try to depict reality. Not only to broaden their horizon by learning from it, but also to convey their achievements into future generations. You can see a clear development from the Stone Age, where simple cave-paintings were only able to depict actions that could be imitated, to the ancient advanced civilization, who tried to preserve spoken conversations, because oral discourse became the main but volatile transmitter of information.

One prime example and also a possible starting point for the idea of transcriptions can be seen in the ancient Greek society, “when the ideal of eloquence was central, [and] writing was viewed as a record of the spoken language” (Edwards 2001: 338). The great thinker Socrates for instance, was transcribed by his student Plato. It was the urge Plato’s to save the spoken words of Socrates for posterity. His transcriptions or re-narrations of whole dialogues are now considered as the foundation for western philosophy. Of course this transcript was a rudimentary and corrected transcription because of its only purpose to spread ideas. During the ages, writing developed from an illustration of conversation to an own part of cultural expression. According to that progress, the term transcription also gained a differentiating and refined significance. The main purpose is not to transmit content anymore but to be able to do an empirical research and analysis of communication itself. Although these analyses are constantly endeavored to be as objective and precise as possible, it is “simply impossible to hold in mind the transient, highly multidimensional, and often overlapping events of an interaction as they unfold in real time” (Edwards 2001: 321).

Although it is evident, that encoding spoken words into another semiotic sign- system can never be objective, transcriptions are useful sources in empirical science. In some case, subjectiveness can even be an advantage, as long as the results of research are reflected on. Knowing that “interpretative categories are necessary because the goal of discourse research is to capture aspects of interaction as they are perceived by human participants” (Edwards 2001: 322), my main focus of this term paper lays on the suitability of movie scenes for transcriptions and if they could have a unique relevance in scientific conversational researches. For this purpose I transcribe two scenes from the film Fight Club by David Fincher with the conventions of the “discourse and conversation-analytic transcription system” called GAT and by that, test the applicability of this system to the branch of discourses in the medium of film.


“Generally, there are innumerable phenomena in any given stretch of talk which could be transcribed to varying levels of detail” (Hutchby & Wooffitt 2008: 71) This characteristic of spoken language is one major reason for the subjectivity of transcription. Because there is no system that is practicable for every case there is a first problem to solve. Which transcription system fits best for the collected data?

The GAT2 system, developed by a group of German linguists to unify several approaches of transcription and by that simplify the data interchange, is one of the most commonly used system recently (cf. Dittmar 2009: 130-31). For the purpose of research of this term paper, GAT2 has a good fit because it is “a transcription system for notating, first and foremost, the wording and prosody of natural every-day talk-in- interaction“ (Selting 2011: 2). Of course, in the genre of film, the talk interaction is not natural and seems to be more of a designed conversational discourse, but this problem will be explained later on. The main argument for choosing GAT2 is the focus on wording and prosody. Since dialogues in a film are mostly only performances and illustrations of reality, they tend to be more exaggerated to transmit a certain content. These exaggerations, mostly exerted by pauses, intonations or accents, can be perfectly documented and analyzed by the prosodic aspects of the GAT2 system.

This, most popular German guideline for transcriptions has three levels of differentiation. The simplest one is the minimal transcript, which includes the most important and basic definitions for occurring phenomena in conversations. “In the minimal transcript, the wording of the participants' contributions and their segmentation into intonation phrases are notated. The minimal transcript also includes an indication of overlaps, hesitation markers, pausing, inbreaths and outbreaths, laughter and non-linguistic actions and events as well as stretches of speech which are unintelligible“ (Selting 2011: 7).

The basis transcript is an expansion of the minimal transcript, which introduces prosodic features. In detail, it examines “the notions of intonation phrase, focus accent and pitch movement at the segment ending. In addition, notation conventions for these phenomena are presented. Moreover, conventions for other phenomena such as latching, lengthening, glottal closure and interpretive comments are introduced” (Selting 2011: 18). This aspect becomes especially relevant in the transcription of films. And finally, the most expanded and detailed transcript is called the fine transcript. Which “apart from a more precise indication of the placement and the strength of ac-cents, (...) includes a record of pitch movements on and after accented syllables, of noticeable pitch jumps at the beginning or in the course of intonation phrases, of shifts in pitch register as well as in loudness and tempo“ (Selting 2011: 25).

These term paper uses the basic transcript of the GAT 2 conventions to show of significant incidents during the conversation.

Transcription of films

To use talk-in-interactions in movie scenes as “data source may seem strange at first, since the interactions recorded in such a way are generally considered to be rather artificial” (Have 2007: 81). There are several problems with the data of movies. The proper data for linguistic transcriptions is collected of everyday-talk. But since the conversations in films are all written by an author and just performed by actors, the occurring talk may seem like everyday-talk but the speakers are not really related to what they say. They just enacting a role in which their speak could be a naturally occurring conversation. The naturalness of interaction seems to be another problem of data collection. What should be transcribed are “activities which are recorded and situated as far as possible in the ordinary unfolding of people´s lives, as opposed to being prearranged, set up in laboratories, or otherwise experimentally designed” (Hutchby & Wooffitt 2008: 12). But a film is edited and designed in several ways. The locutions can be cut or exchanged in different ways to create a whole new illocutive meaning. Also the goal and importance of the conversation is not only known by one, but by all speakers. This means, that the way of achieving this goal happens not due to natural behavior but just by actors playing their role. Another fact that conversations in films can not be natural is the fact that the actors have scripts.

Natural speak actions have a certain pressure of time. This means a hearer is under pressure to answer the heard things immediately. So speaking always underlies the pressure of time, whereas enacted speak actions have a lack of pressure. Because of the possibility to cut or repeat, speakers can formulate and rethink their articulation and by that put more emphasis on their talk. Also bad ideas or pronunciation can be deleted and will have no negative impact on the conversation (cf. Dittmar 2009: 32). Sometimes speakers do not even have to talk to one another in a conversation. Their acting skills are so highly developed, that they could even imagine to talk to another person, without having a real face to face conversation with them. Those are all things the audience does not know, and analysts have to kee in mind when analyzing films.

So why can a film still deliver good data? The most obvious argument is of course that films provide seemingly endless sources for conversation analysis. “At a nominal cost, one can have access to professionally recorded interactions occurring in a wide range of situations and in all major languages” (Have 2007: 81). This statement by Paul ten Have includes some major arguments for film data. The first advantage is that it is professionally recorded. By that the conversation is usually not interrupted or interfered by background noises or technical problems, or if they are, such things are intended have a specific meaning within the film. The second advantage is the variety of occurring situations. Naturally talk-in-interactions are mostly limited to everyday-talk. It is very unlikely to record strong emotions like conflicts, love or passion. Maybe because participants of recording try to restrain such feelings when they know they are recorded, in fear of feeling vulnerable or weak. And even if they did not know that they were recorded, they still have to give their permission that their actions will be analyzed in great detail. This permission is often refused by the fear of being 'caught' of guard or exposed. (cf. Have 2007: 79). Whereas in films these strong feelings are often essential and are shown explicitly in order to make them visible for the audience. By that it is possible for example to use fights or disputes for analytic researches of conversations. The fact that the dialogues are all written, even when strong emotions are involved, ensures that the conversation underlies a certain rational order, whereas natural conversations can be irrational and by that more difficult to analyze. Of course, one should be aware that these feelings are also only played, “but at least for exercise materials, this should not be too much of a problem” (Have 2007: 81).

So film scenes can be used to exercise an analysis of certain situations as explained above. But there other aspects to consider when evaluating the applicability of film for transcription. One thing is that speech in films has various requirements to meet. It has to be authentic but also comprehensive for the audience. The message that shall be transmitted not only within a conversation of actors but mainly implicitly to the observer. It must be well structured and pointed out clearly. Not like in everyday-talk, the listener (in this case the viewer of the film) has only the information the film provides him. So conversations in films seem to be more of a prototype of talk interaction. They transmit their message clearly, they are arranged to a climax and the stream of conscience is somehow ordered to be comprehensive. It stands to reason that such a ideal of conversation is just perfect to be analyzed. Especially the comparison of natural occurring talk and scripted talk-in- interaction could be a highly interesting basis of research.

The last strong argument to emphasize the applicability of film scenes to transcriptions is maybe not the most obvious one, but it is developed on a indisputable empirical foundation. Humans only learn talking by doing. They are active learners by listening to talk and reproduce them. The field of learning to speak is very complex. Because it is not mainly about vocabulary or syntax. It is about to develop the ability to interact with other people, to enforce one´s will, to be sociable and many other aspects. Learning to interact is an ongoing process, with innumerable varieties of possibilities. By briefly describing Hoffman´s definition on the human control of behavior, the theory will explain how people learn to interact not only with their environment but also socially.

When talking to one another, humans are set under a certain pressure. The pressure is that conversations are always examined under certain expectations. To fulfill this expectation is the goal of a conversation. To reach this goal is only possible by certain knowledge the dialogue partners got to have. The knowledge, based on experience, simply is: which behavior under certain situations causes which consequences.


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The scientific relevance of films as data of transcriptions and the applicability of the GAT 2 system on movie scenes
University of Würzburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Sprachwissenschaft, Transcription, Fight Club, GAT 2
Quote paper
Marcus Wenzel (Author), 2012, The scientific relevance of films as data of transcriptions and the applicability of the GAT 2 system on movie scenes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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