Are you talking up your car or spilling your guts to a plant? Pseudo-dialogue is a common form of dialogue

Almost everybody practises pseudo-dialogue, of which researches have identified several varieties.

“Everyone knows that some people talk to themselves or to an object that does not take part in the dialogue at all. Research indicates that the phenomenon is much more common than earlier thought.”

At least, as reported by linguist, Professor Emeritus Arto Mustajoki. His claim is based on data collected in St Petersburg, where research subjects carried a microphone around their necks for a day, recording all of their utterances. Around one hundred individuals of varying ages took part in the data acquisition.

This dataset is now used by a group of Petersburgian researchers to analyse, among other things, situations in which people produce dialogue-like speech even without a listener present or with a recipient not participating in the dialogue for one reason or another. Researchers call this type of speech pseudo-dialogue.

“Traditionally, linguistics considers dialogue the result of interaction between two active participants: the speaker and the recipient. Such a notion is extremely restricted. If anything, dialogue is a continuum encompassing situations where all the parties are very active at one extreme, as well as situations where the recipient is completely passive, for example a comatose person, at the other. In between, there are, for example, babies,” explains Ulla Tuomarla, university lecturer in French language.

“The Russian data shows that pseudo-dialogue is practised by everyone, and to a great degree. It’s a very ordinary and commonplace phenomenon. The key is that the speaker knows and accepts that the listener does not or cannot take part in the dialogue,” Mustajoki adds.

Mustajoki and Tuomarla have together with Tatiana Sherstinova, a Russian scholar, authored Types and functions of pseudo-dialogues,” a collection with a very broad scope focusing not only on the Russian corpus, but also on studies concerning pseudo-dialogue, classifying the phenomenon into several varieties.

Talking to plants, clothes and TV personalities

Many recognise a familiar situation among couples where one person is talking, well aware that the other is altogether tuned out. It is also common that people talk to an absent spouse or shout warnings from behind a window to a passer-by in danger on the street. But, what does it mean when people talk to non-human beings, such as animals, or even inanimate objects, such as cars?

“Talking to living beings that lack language skills, for example babies or dogs, results in interaction that may, at best, be rewarding: the baby starts to smile or the dog begins to wag its tail,” Tuomarla says. 

“Objects and even plants are also talked to as if they understand speech, which means that we are humanising them. The most common reason for such speech may be psychological, a kind of need to fill an empty space, to create an illusion of being present and to analyse personal actions through speech. This, however, has not been studied,” she adds.

Extensive studies have been conducted on talking to animals, and the English language even has a name for speech targeted at dogs, ‘doggerel’. Talking to animals differs from talking to babies in that the latter teaches babies to speak, but even though dogs may learn to understand human speech to some extent, they will not learn to produce it themselves.

Then again, talking to plants or, say, clothes does not stir any kind of reaction in the recipient.

“And yet, people keep talking to them. In the Russian dataset, there is a lady who talks non-stop for ten minutes to her plants,” says Mustajoki.

Computers and other technical devices are very common recipients of speech, most often due to frustration or anger directed at their functionality. Sometimes people may also praise their equipment. For example, someone may applaud their car when it starts up in cold weather.

Spontaneous reactions to events taking place on television are one form of pseudo-dialogue.

“Viewers are unable to interact with TV personalities, yet various comments to characters appearing in TV shows are very commonplace. However, there are often other viewers present, making them at least partial recipients. This is evidenced, among others, by the popular reality show Gogglebox. But people do also talk to their television when alone,” Mustajoki points out.

Cultural differences?

Among the types of pseudo-dialogue identified by the researchers is speech without any other recipient in addition to the speaker. Everyone occasionally swears by themselves, for example when hitting a toe against a table leg, or just mutters trivialities by oneself. However, not everyone talks to their car or clothes.

“There are probably differences of both culture and personality at play here. It may be that in Russian or, for example, French culture pseudo-dialogue is more prevalent than in Finland, but there is no research data on this,” Tuomarla says.

“Extroverts must practise this more often than introverts, and there may be differences between genders as well. That would be an interesting topic for research,” adds Mustajoki.