#inprogress Indirectness and obfuscation in talk

My discussion in this post relates to language use specifically.  Indirectness is the broadest of the two terms.  It can be narrowly applied to describe indirect speech acts, such as the distinction between between ‘Pass the salt’ (direct) and ‘This soup needs salt’ (indirect) to request the salt from Maria who’s also sitting with me at the table.  But we can also speak of indirectness in a broader sense, and apply it to talk about indirect speech behavior or even indirect communication.  Think, for example, of telling Martin, who’s sitting closer to me, to tell Maria, who’s sitting closer to the salt shaker, to pass it to me.  In this case, we are using Martin as a mediator in our communication and request to Maria (see Lempert 2012 for a distinction between ‘indirect performativity’ and ‘indirect addressivity’ that relates to this).

Now, in my view, obfuscation describes a kind of indirect way to talk that affects word selection, formulations of people, things, and events, i.e., descriptions and the way we represent the world.  We can analytically distinguish between representing and acting as two sides of the talk-in-interaction coin.  “Pass the salt please” then contrasts with “Pass it please” where “it” refers to the salt shaker at the end of the table. “It,” as a first mention (Schegloff 1996), is an instance of obfuscated talk, a unspecific lexical choice, if I only rely on it to denote the salt shaker. This, of course, can be problematic and will most certainly have my addressee looking for contextual information to be made sense of “it”.  In the interactional context of the encounter in which “it” is deployed, then he/she might will need to look at my finger pointing to the salt shaker in order to make sense of what is being requested.  I would then expect that repair operations that follow obfuscated talk deal with denotation/reference most commonly instead of the kind of action being performed with the turn they inhabit.


Lempert, Michael. 2012. “Indirectness.” Pp. 180–204 in The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication, edited by B. Paulston, S. F. Kiesling, and E. S. Rangel. London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Schegloff, Emanuel. 1996. “Some Practices for Referring to Persons in Talk-in-Interaction: A Partial Sketch of a Systematics.” Pp. 437–85 in Studies in anaphora. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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