A new method for analysing spatial points in casual conversation


Possemato et al. (2021 p. 327)


Referring to places is a fundamental activity in human interaction, one that pervades our daily activities. Although a familiar task, talking about place poses non-trivial questions surrounding the cognitive and sociocultural aspects involved in it. For example, how do speakers refer - verbally and otherwise - to places in space so that their interlocutors understand where they are talking about? How does the immediate and more distant space come into play when people talk about places? Is the way speakers think about space reflected in how they talk about it? What role does the knowledge of the surrounding space play when speakers refer to places? These are some of the questions that the CIARA team deals with in a series of cross-linguistic investigations into spatial language, place reference, and locational gestures.


In our latest publication, Possemato, F., Blythe, J., de Dear, C., Dahmen, J., Gardner, R., & Stirling, L. (2021). Using a geospatial approach to document and analyse locational points in face-to-face conversation. Language Documentation and Description 20. 313–351. London: EL Publishing., we present the geospatial approach that formed the methodological basis for the study of multimodal aspects of place reference. Using Google Earth, and following relatively simple and readily replicable procedures, we demonstrate the advantages of incorporating geographical information into linguistic and interactional analyses of place reference and spatial language. In particular, we show how satellite imagery and GPS data are used to determine the relative accuracy of the pointing gestures observed with regard to the intended target/s. Here’s an example of a remarkably accurate small index finger point used to refer to Lara, a town in Victoria, located more than 2,729 Km away from the recording location:

Possemato et al. (2021, p. 345)


By rotating the satellite imagery to align it with the bearing of the cameras used to videorecord the interaction, we are able to visualise the vector projected by the pointing gesture (the solid green arrow in the figure above), and superimpose it on the wider topographical space to appreciate the directionality of the gesture. The point can then be understood by reference to landmarks that are identifiable within the satellite imagery.


This geospatial approach was developed, tested, and extensively used in another soon to appear article:

de Dear, C., Blythe, J., Possemato, F., Gardner, R., Stirling, L., Mushin, I., & Kofod, F. (in press). Locational pointing in Murrinhpatha, Gija and English conversations. Gesture.

In this article we apply our geospatial methods to examine pointing behaviour - including its accuracy - in conversations conducted in three of the languages examined by CIARA. The paper in Gesture explores the relationship between spatial language, frames of reference, and the role of the knowledge of the surrounding topographical context in shaping pointing styles and ways to refers to entities in space.


The role of place knowledge in shaping place reference by English speakers residing in remote communities is also examined in another recently published article, Stirling, L., Gardner, R., Mushin, I., Blythe, J., & Possemato, F. (2022). On the road again: Displaying knowledge of place in multiparty conversations in the remote Australian outback. Journal of Pragmatics, 187, 90–114.


The CIARA team is currently working on an updated iteration of the geospatial approach to complement interactional analyses with geographically-enriched conversational data, stay tuned for the next update!