Project "Constitution of meaning in social interaction (interactional semantics)"

Definitions in interaction

Interactants use definitions to negotiate the meaning of terms, expressions and concepts or to introduce and explain new terms and concepts, e.g. in expert-novice interactions. Usually, these definitions are not abstract and context-free. Instead, they are often linked to the local context that is relevant for interactants in the ongoing as well as in subsequent interactions (cf. line 07 in the example). Definitions are also used to make clear what a particular term does not mean – this can be done either implicitly or sometimes explicitly, for example by using negations (cf. line 06 in the example).   When choosing and formulating definitions, speakers orient to the other interactants' previous knowledge and to their individual interactional histories. Practices of giving definitions that are relevant for theoretical comprehension (e.g. in school) differ from those with a practical relevance (e.g. in driving school practice lessons). In practical contexts, definitions serve to convey basic skills and processes (e.g. how to start a car or park it), rather than to explain unknown terms. Driving teachers sometimes use terms to break down complex procedures. They choose technical ('biting point'), procedural ('bay parking'), or indexical terms ('driving foresighted'), introduce these with different defining practices, and re-use them in subsequent interactions in order to bring rehearsed skills to pupils' minds.  Publications and talks:
  • Deppermann, Arnulf (2016): La définition comme action multimodale pour des enjeux pratiques : définir pour instruire à l'auto-école. In: Langage 204(4), pp. 83-101.
  • 30.07.2015: Arnulf Deppermann / Henrike Helmer: Definitions for all practical purposes of learning. Definitions in driving school lessons. 14th International Pragmatics Conference (IPrA), Antwerp (Belgium).
  • (accepted:) May 2017: Henrike Helmer, Helsinki (Finnland): German x heißt y ('x means/is y'): Strengthening intersubjectivity by definitions. Conference "Intersubjectivity in action", Centre of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity in Interaction.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Arnulf Deppermann, deppermann(at); Dr. Henrike Helmer, helmer(at)