Tuesday 11 March 2014

‘I thought’ I knew you so well…

Language is such a crucial part of our lives that the way we use it can even reveal something about our relationships with other people. Michael Sean Smith* explains that people come to a conversation with both their own first-hand knowledge about themselves and also with the second hand knowledge they have of the other speaker.  Being able to show such knowledge in a conversation is crucial to demonstrate engagement, closeness and intimacy in the speakers’ relationship.

Life moves quickly and things can change in the time that elapses between two conversations.  This means that discrepancies may arise between the speakers’ first hand and second hand knowledge. The phrase I thought is one way that speakers indicate a mismatch between their knowledge and what is now being said. To find out exactly how I thought works, Smith studied 75 hours of data taken from online corpora (or ‘banks’) consisting of examples from face-to-face and telephone conversations.

As seen below, I thought is used to signal a misunderstanding between what has been said and what the speaker believed to be true.

Shirley:   you know Michael’s in the midst of moving this weekend
Geri:       I thought it was last weekend
Shirley:   no he had some complications but he’s gonna be all moved in
              on Monday
Geri:       uh huh

Here, Geri signals a problem in the conversation with the use of I thought, which Shirley is then able to correct. She provides an explanation, thus filling in the gaps in Geri’s knowledge.  So, I thought points to an unexpected discovery on the part of the person who says it, one that is not their fault but in fact indicates a gap in knowledge which it is their listener’s responsibility to provide.  This nearly always leads to the gap being filled and shared knowledge being happily resumed.

However, Smith found that sometimes I thought doesn’t signal a gap in knowledge.  Instead the speaker might use past shared knowledge to their advantage.  This can be seen in the following telephone conversation:

Zoe:   what you watching
Dad:   football home improvement and now you’ve got me watching that
         crazy fresh prince
Zoe:   I thought you didn’t like it ha ha
Dad:   well I didn’t until you got me watching it ha ha it’s kinda funny

It is clear here that, although Zoe is correct with her I thought, she is well aware that there is no gap in their mutual understanding.  Her I thought reinforces her relationship with her father and demonstrates their shared knowledge as she teases him about his new taste in TV viewing.  Therefore it shows recognition and appreciation on Zoe’s part of the fact that a change has occurred since they last spoke.

In both of the above examples, the listener accepts the discrepancy and explains or corrects it.  However, Smith found another less common function of I thought, witnessed in the following conversation between Julie and her housemate, Karen.

Julie:     did you see my patio I’m putting in look how much is done now
Karen:   oh it’s a patio?  I thought you were gonna grass it?
Julie:      nooo!
Karen:   you told me you were gonna grass it
Julie:     I told you I’m gonna do a flagstone patio that’s why I took all
             these rocks over here
Karen:   well, I never know what you’re gonna do from week to week

In this case, the recipient of the I thought comment, Julie, completely denies responsibility for Geri’s misunderstanding and feels no necessity to explain herself or correct the situation at all.  This leads to a much more assertive and argumentative conversation.

The most interesting thing about this little phrase I thought is how it can convey so much information about the speakers’ relationship.  The gaps in knowledge that it signals only arise in long-term relationships where two people continuously learn about each other over time as well as in their current conversation.  This knowledge is carried from conversation to conversation.  Nevertheless, each speaker also has their own independent life and what was reported in previous conversations may change by a later conversation. 

So, in a way, I thought is like a verbal traffic light calling a stop to the talk so that a gap in knowledge can be fixed.  But I thought I’d told you that already………..

Smith, Michael Sean (2013). “ I thought” initiated turns: Addressing discrepancies in first-hand and second-hand knowledge. Journal of Pragmatics 57: 318-330.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle.

*Michael Sean Smith is a researcher in the Department of Applied Linguistics, University of California, USA

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