Cognitive serialization principles in spontaneous speech: Micro- and Macrogrammar

Alexander Haselow (University of Rostock, Allemagne)

For a long time and in the wake of structuralism, syntactic configurations (e.g. clauses) were conceptualized as coherent and “complete” units in which all elements are integrated into mutual morphosyntactic dependency relationships. However, syntactic analysis based on a priori categories like the ‘clause’ and morphosyntactic dependency relations alone cannot adequately deal with structures produced in spontaneous speech, such as the one in (1). Such units appear to be an incoherent sequence of seemingly disintegrated lexical (I mean, you know, so) and syntactic (rather unnaturally) units with no morphosyntactic dependency relations between them.

(1)       B:    and I mean she is terribly nice to Dick and you know as soon as he appeared (.)

                  I mean rather (.) unnaturally so

[International Corpus of English – Great Britain: S1A-031, 151]

In order to tackle this problem, I will present an approach to linguistic analysis that distinguishes two cognitive serialization principles according to which speakers build up a unit of talk in real-time speech production, microgrammar and macrogrammar, and thus two different “category pools” from which speakers choose constituents. These two concepts have been inspired by the notions of microsyntax and macrosyntax developed in the works of Alain Berrendonner, Claire Blanche-Benveniste, and their colleagues. However, the model presented here is strictly based on cognitive aspects of speech production and centers around the notion of linearity of speech (Auer 2009): while creating structure, speakers do not possess a “bird’s eye view” on an utterance, as traditional grammatical terms like “left”, “right”, “dislocation” or “position” suggest, but are forced into the temporal emergence of speech in the linear flow of time, creating structure on a moment-by-moment basis by a process of incrementation (Hopper 2011). Microgrammar is a serialization principle that refers to the formal means employed by speakers to structure a unit of talk based on internal hierarchization, embedding, constituency, and dependency relations. Macrogrammar is based on serialization principles that rest upon aspects such as speech planning, processibility, and contextualization. Both interact in complex ways, as B’s utterance in (1) illustrates.

Based on empirical data of spontaneous spoken English, it will be argued that  macrogrammar serves different cognitive tasks that arise at particular points in the linear production of an utterance, such as getting the addressee’s attention or modifying illocutionary force. The distribution of macrogrammatical units is not thus random, but tends to be patterned as many of these occur in particular temporal slots or “fields”, depending on the moment at which the function they fulfil becomes relevant in the real-time creation of a structural unit, e.g. at utterance-beginning (the “initial field”, e.g. response tokens and cohesion markers, such as discourse markers and interjections) or its end (the “final field”, e.g. question tags, general extenders, final connectors like then and though). After a general outline of the basic principles of micro-/macrogrammar, this talk will focus on one particular manifestation of macrogrammar that is amenable to linguistic study, namely to structural units in the utterance-final field in English, based on an empirical study of their use in the British section of the International Corpus of English.


Auer, Peter. 2009. On-line syntax. Thoughts on the temporality of spoken language. Language Sciences 31(1), 1–13.

Hopper, Paul. 2011. Emergent grammar and temporality in Interactional Linguistics. In: Peter Auer & Stefan Pfänder (eds.), Constructions: Emerging and emergent. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 22–44.

Alexander Haselow (University of Rostock, Allemagne): Alexander Haselow enseigne au sein de l’Institut des Etudes Anglophones de l’Université de Rostock. Il s’intéresse notamment à la structuration du discours oral, aux marqueurs de discours ainsi qu’à la grammaticalisation à l’oral. Dans le cadre du colloque, il traitera plus particulièrement du discours oral spontané, en tentant de rendre compte des spécificités de configurations syntaxiques au regard de deux principes de sérialisation cognitif, à savoir microgrammar et macrogrammar.