Linguistic dimensions of crisis talk: Formalising structures in a controlled language

Linguistic dimensions of crisis talk: Formalising structures in a controlled language. By Claudia Sassen. (Pragmatics & beyond new series 136.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005. Pp. ix, 230. ISBN 9789027253798. $132 (Hb).

Reviewed by Charlotte Brammer, Samford University

In Linguistic dimensions of crisis talk, Claudia Sassen presents a complex method for describing and analyzing crisis talk within the specific realm of aviation parlance and posits the method’s applicability to other types of crisis talk. Her goal seems two-fold: to illuminate possible communicative opportunities to avoid future crises and to propose a methodology that ‘promises to lead to extensions for a comprehensive modeling of discourse that is both theoretically well founded and empirically testable’ (175).

In Ch. 1, S uses her previous work (2003) to carefully define ‘crisis talk’ as ‘a dialogue genre that occurs in threatening situations of unpredictable outcome, with no obvious way out, and requiring spontaneous decision, unconventional strategies and unrehearsed actions’ (1). In Ch. 2, she justifies her use of head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG) as a ‘reductionist’ tool for operationalizing illocutionary force, as derived primarily from Austin 1962, Searle 1969, and Searle & Vanderveken 1985, among others.

Seventy-seven transcript files and five audio files make up the corpus of air traffic control and cockpit voice recordings (ATC/CVR) used for this project. As a condition for inclusion in the corpus, the files are available on the internet. Additionally, all of the transcripts are in English, even though English may not have been the first language for all speakers. Chs. 3 and 4 contain extensive detail of S’s use of KWIC-concordance and XML-markup, and provide as well a list of steps for creating the XML tags (115). In Ch. 4, S finds that intra-cockpit conversation is ‘leaky’ at times, meaning nonprofessional or off-task, and that normal conversation patterns are disrupted (131). One possible explanation for this behavior, according to S, is because ‘the participants, in particular the crew hopes to receive help from the tower’ (sic, 132).

In Ch. 5, S selects three transcripts for closer analysis and makes several observations about crisis talk in comparison to noncrisis talk in aviation. First, she finds that crisis talk exhibits more patterns, defined in terms of illocutionary force (e.g. command, ask, response). She also finds that elaboration occurs only in the noncrisis talk examples, presumably because ‘to elaborate on one’s preceding clarification is probably too time-consuming for a situation that requires quick action’ (155). Not surprisingly, perhaps, she also finds that expressives (curses and warnings) are relatively frequent in crisis talk, but not in noncrisis conversation; similarly, ‘the number of politeness formulae like thank and greet decreases in crisis talk’ (155). In sum, S develops a speech act/HPSG model in order ‘to detect leaky and thus dangerous points in communication … to minimise escalations during flights and to make aviation safer’ (173). Her model appears substantive and should be tested in other types of crisis talk.