17.1058, Review: Discourse/Corpus Ling: Sassen (2005)

Sat Apr 8 19:09:59 UTC 2006

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Subject: 17.1058, Review: Discourse/Corpus Ling: Sassen (2005)

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Date: 04-Apr-2006
From: Sally Hinrich < s.hinrich at okstate.edu >
Subject: Linguistic Dimensions of Crisis Talk 

-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Sat, 08 Apr 2006 15:07:15
From: Sally Hinrich < s.hinrich at okstate.edu >
Subject: Linguistic Dimensions of Crisis Talk 

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2938.html 

AUTHOR: Sassen, Claudia
TITLE: Linguistic Dimensions of Crisis Talk
SUBTITLE: Formalising structures in a controlled language 
SERIES: Pragmatics and Beyond New Series, Volume 136
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing 
YEAR: 2005

Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich, Department of English, Oklahoma State 


Using a computer-based modeling system, the author proposes Head-
driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) -based discourse grammar 
for a restricted language that allows the identification of well-formed 
discourse patterns.  The modeling system is designed to analyze and 
identify discourse used to coordinate actions that might result in 
avoiding a potential disaster. A corpus for analysis was drawn from 
aviation accident transcripts between cockpit crews and between flight 
crews and controllers during an emerging crisis situation. 


Chapter 1: Towards an analysis of crisis talk.
Using the domain of aviation communication, the author defines 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.'' Sassen's primary objective is to establish a framework that 
examines the viability of incorporating a speech-act methodology in 
order to categorize the linguistic structures occurring in aviation 
disasters. The corpus used for analysis is drawn from air traffic control 
and cockpit voice recorder transcripts available on the internet from 
independent sites. 

The analysis focuses on the functions found in the linguistic 
sequences of the interactions rather than on individual lexical items 
within utterances. In order to accomplish the analysis, extensible 
markup language (XML) is combined with an extended form of HPSG-
based attribute value matrices. Through this extension of the formal 
HPSG annotation system, Sassen argues that both utterance-level 
and discourse-level communication can be modeled using a single 
HPSG-based sign.

Sassen predicts the following results from the analysis:
1.  Crisis talk is different from non-crisis talk with respect to 
interactional patterns; 
2.  In order to disambiguate speech acts, the model of Searle & 
Vanderveken's illocutionary logic requires more precision with regard 
to the propositional content that is presupposed. This extension can 
be achieved by an HPSG-based formalism;
3.  An extended HPSG-formalism is an adequate model for the 
representation, description and explanation of the disambiguation of 
illocutionary acts;
4.  It is possible to extend HPSG-based structures and principles from 
the interactive sentence level to the utterance level. An extension of 
the HPSG-based inventory from the utterance level to the discourse 
level is also possible: speech act sequences may be modeled by one 
HPSG-based sign;
5.  XML uses an attribute value archiving and retrieval formalism, and 
is potentially flexible enough to fulfill the requirements of crisis talk 

The final section of Chapter 1 describes relevant regulations for 
language used in aviation, more commonly called ''air traffic 
communication.'' As part of the background on sources of error in 
communication, Sassen notes that ''among the factors unequivocally 
attributable to language, ambiguity figures as a main error source'' as 
a result of errors in lexical choice and in grammatical structure. It is 
this ambiguity that is targeted by the methodology discussed in the 
following chapters. The final section in this chapter describes the 
function of Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs) for analysis of aviation-
related accidents. The transcripts created from recovered CVRs are 
the basis of the data to be used in this study.

Chapter 2: Discourse-related approaches
In explaining the rationale of choosing illocutionary logic as the 
foundation for the study, Sassen argues that illocutionary logic is an 
adaptable, adjustable theory and the parts of the theory which do not 
apply need to be discarded. Building on this argument, a discussion 
showing Austin's (1962) work on illocutionary verbs, is followed by a 
section describing Searle's elaboration of  simple vs complex 
illocutionary acts, semantic rules, and input-output conditions as ''a 
pre-requisite for every kind of speech act which pertains to 'intelligible 
speaking' and 'understanding''' (Searle, 1969; Searle & Vanderveken, 
1985). Because Searle & Vanderveken offer no syntactic system to 
identify illocutionary force indicating devices (IFIDs), nor do they 
describe a suitable grammar, Sassen states that their illocutionary 
logic system ''must be extended'' in order to adequately frame a theory 
of discourse. Additional theories of discourse are outlined that could 
serve to extend the illocutionary logic framework, including the 
advantages and disadvantages of incorporating features from 
conversational and discourse analysis.

Chapter 3:  Linguistic and corpus methodology
Opening with a discussion of inductive and deductive methods, 
Sassen observes that conversational analysis, as an inductive 
method, ''has to be precluded'' because the analytical framework must 
be established before applying that framework to empirical data. 
Sassen then examines a methodology to formalize Searle's theory in 
order ''to make his results and extensions to his research efficiently 

The analysis of the aviation accident transcripts draws from the 
domain of linguistics incorporating two theories: speech act theory 
which relates to illocutionary components of utterances that is 
combined with syntactic theory which addresses sentence-level 
components. Both theories are then joined through the illocutionary 
force indicating devices. Reiterating her goal of ''providing 
foundational research for the remote goal to (semi-) automatically 
identify speech acts through an annotation system that identifies 
specific meanings to a sequence of linguistic structures,'' she then 
proposes the validity of transforming grammatical units into attribute-
value structures. This transformation is necessary because it allows 
for a wide range of potential structures while it also represents the 
pragmatic features of sentences. Sassen discusses how this 
transformation is accomplished through head-driven phrase structure 
grammar (HPSG) which is ''enriched by certain attributes that are not 
as yet common to HPSG grammars,'' but which will provide a means to 
examine how well the approach yields significant results. Sassen then 
explains how HPSG-formalism allows a detailed description of the 
syntactic structure of sentences and also their semantic treatment, 
including various pragmatic and background features. 

In the next section describing the creation of the research corpus, 
(composed of two of the 77 aviation accident transcript files), Sassen 
outlines the transcription conversions necessary to accommodate 
analysis of the raw transcript data. In addition, ''[a] crisis talk markup 
system clearly needs...detailed syntactic, semantic and pragmatic 
features'' which can be more accurately described by an extensive 
markup language (XML), which allows data to be structured into two 
fields: ''object language/concrete data'' and ''abstract units/meta 
language.'' XML was chosen primarily because it allows both 
hierarchical and sequential ordering of elements. Several approaches 
to annotating the linguistic structures are presented, including 
diagrams, based on a system developed by Bird & Liberman (1999).

Chapter 4: Analysis of general dialogue properties
The criteria for marking the transcripts are based on guidelines 
developed by the Expert Advisory Group on Language Engineering 
Standards (EAGLES; Gibbons, Mertins & Moore, 2000). Examples of 
this process of converting the ATC/CVR transcripts to the transcription 
criteria are presented in combination with references to the EAGLES 
guidelines. One advantage to this annotation system is the ability to 
identify and document overlapping transmissions as an ongoing 
relationship to the developing dialogue (rather than as sequentially 
listed lines of dialogue/events typically used in the aviation 
transcripts). Most of the aviation accident transcripts used sentence-
level, or complete word forms in transcription, which ''...has the 
advantage that annotation and retrieval tools may be applied relatively 
unproblematically to speech as well as to writing.'' Sassen also notes 
that the EAGLES guidelines support using standard (''dictionary'') 
spelling ''...[which] has the advantage of improving readability for the 
human user and of increasing processibility for taggers and parsers.''

Following the conversion of the transcripts, perl-scripts are used to 
generate data as a text base and XML-markup. Sassen notes that no 
typical development of phases that lead to a crisis can be observed in 
the transcripts, so she assigned three broad phases and supports her 
choices with examples from the research data: ''non-crisis,'' ''before 
the crisis'' and ''crisis.'' These broad phases of aviation communication 
each include subdivisions of ''conversational phases'' (opening, medial 
and terminal).  A separate categorization includes discourse-control 
processes that consist of three potentially overlapping functions: topic 
processes (goal-oriented sequences of information exchange), uptake 
processes (error-control strategies in support of the topics) and 
framing processes (orientation points within the discourse).  Discourse-
control processes are then examined using examples of both 
professional (related to the aviation situation) and non-professional 
(not related to aviation situation) communication. 

Chapter 5: Analysis of particular dialogue properties
In the introduction to this chapter, Sassen states that ''For an analysis 
of crisis talk, not every ATC/CFR-transcript is appropriate. To fulfill the 
criterion of empirical soundness, the transcript is required to show 
both threads of crisis talk and threads that do not apply to a crisis 
situation... [these threads are] essential for contrastive analyses of 
crisis and non-crisis talk features. The other essential requirement is 
the criterion of empirical completeness of the dialogue...the present 
analysis stresses the development of a method that allows 
investigation of crisis talk from a *functional* point of view, i.e. the 
analysis of language use....there is a need for syntactic analysis, too, 
as it is a foundation of an automatic analysis.''  A discussion of the 
types of regularities in the two transcripts includes the decomposition 
of both the dialogue and separate speech acts. Problems in 
automating the transcripts are explained, including coding choices 
made to represent speech sounds as well as other non-vocal sounds 
and for minimal sequencing (such as command-response) and how 
certain omissions in the original transcripts were coded. There is 
discussion of the system of annotation and graphic representation of 
the transcript speech as well as a general description of how 
sequencing of voice and sounds could be noted. 

The following section outlines the criteria for choosing the two 
transcripts that were analyzed with the system.  This section describes 
how an utterance sequence (from a transcript) is assigned the HPSG-
based notations, how the representations were achieved; then moves 
on to the implementation of XML as a denotational semantics for 
HPSG-based signs. In addition to a careful explanation of the coding 
system, a graphic model of a generic HPSG-based sign 
representation model and an example of HPSG-based structure for 
the phrase ''disconnect the autopilot'' demonstrate the multiple levels 
of annotation. The analysis section ends with a brief explanation of 
how HPSG-based signs are mapped into XML. 

Conclusion (included in Chapter 5)
An extended form of HPSG provides the means to account for 
linguistic principles and rules that determine the well-formedness of 
linguistic expressions while XML provides the framework to 
incorporate the aviation transcripts which are ''real-life'' situations. 
Sassen observes that ''Ideally, this analysis can be used to minimize 
escalations during flights and to make aviation safer.'' This section 
ends with suggestions for refining a theory of discourse structure 
which goes beyond modeling a controlled language such as aviation 

The overall quality of the publication is excellent. The appendices 
include: glossary of aviation terms; abbreviations used for the matrix 
of HPSG-based sign; atomic (abbreviated) representation of speech 
act types; minimal sequences (of the coding system) and their 
modifications; two sample transcripts; and background information 
related to the transcripts. There is a useful subject index and an 
extensive reference list. A bit of confusion may occur when consulting 
the reference list as two pages of references are out of alphabetic 


Several times, Sassen alludes to the problems which prevented her 
access to the original accident audio recordings for a more complete 
analysis. However, she provides well-documented information related 
to the transcribed dialogues for the sources she uses in the analysis. 
Due to increased security measures in the United States, access to 
several sources of aviation discourse has become more challenging, 
often requiring lengthy approval procedures.

Sassen's linguistic theory draws from both European and American 
sources. For scholars interested in developing a richer background in 
discourse-related analysis from several points of view, there may be 
some non-aviation-related references which could prove useful in 
future linguistic research. 

Once past the original assignment of speech acts to the lines of 
dialogue, it appears there is still an enormous amount of work that 
must be done to make the transcript data useful for machine-based 
analysis. Sassen argues that this analytic system ultimately 
provides ''knowledge of possible defects'' of language used in crisis 
situations. This approach is relies on restricting aviation 
communication to the rules of aviation phraseology. Yet, as many of 
the discarded transcripts show, much of the ''crisis'' discourse is, in 
fact, not particularly well-formed, but it also is not 
necessarily ''defective'' just because it is not grammatically accurate. In 
daily communications between tower and plane (available via the 
internet), there are frequent instances where pilots and air traffic 
controllers do not use just the approved phraseology, yet the planes 
arrive safely at their destination.    

Since cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders operate a 
continuous tape loop lasting for only 30 minutes, the final minutes of a 
tape may contain only non-linguistic sounds (such as mechanical 
failure, coughing related to heavy smoke, etc.), thus minimizing the 
amount of discourse available for this type of analysis. In order for any 
transcripts to be accepted into the corpus, Sassen argues that the 
transcript dialogue must have ''empirical completeness.'' Readers with 
conversational or discourse analysis backgrounds may question the 
requirement that all utterances must be ''well-formed'' or ''complete'' in 
order to provide valid linguistic evidence of a developing or ongoing 
crisis. These ''incomplete'' dialogues may, to some degree, contain 
verbal information that suggests the participant(s) not only recognize 
but are attending to emerging problems or impending danger (Goguen 
& Linde, 1983). 

While ambiguity may be a common source of language error, as 
discussed in Chapter 1, Sassen does not address the means by which 
American and international formal aviation phraseology attends to and 
minimizes these ambiguities (Sanne, 1999). Further, only two of 77 
transcripts (available on the web) met the requirements for the 
analytic system used by the author. There was no mention as to how 
the author would propose to evaluate the remaining 75 transcripts. It 
seems problematic that this many transcripts of authentic ''crisis'' 
language should be discarded if the research objective is to improve 
aviation safety by looking at the discourse of accidents.  

In conclusion, Sassen's methodology may prove valuable to 
researchers working in machine-based linguistic analysis, whether or 
not they are involved in examining a ''controlled language.'' Sassen's 
innovative methodology and research adds to an increasing body of 
research that investigates the discourse properties of the language of 
aviation while it addresses the critical issue of improving safety in 

Note: For those unfamiliar with HPSG, I recommend reviewing this 
website prior to reading chapters 3-5:  


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon 

Bird, S., & Liberman, M. (1999). A formal framework for linguistic 
annotation. (Technical Report). Department of Computer and 
Information Science, University of Pennsylvania (ms-cis-99-01).

Gibbon, D., Mertins, L., & Moore, R. (2000). Handbook of audiovisual, 
multimodal and spoken dialogue and systems resources and 
terminology for development and product evauation. Doordrecht, New 
York: Kluwer. (Final Report of LE EAGLES Phase II project (LE3-4244 
10484/0) for the European Commission).

Goguen, J., & Linde, C. (1983). Linguistic methodology for the 
analysis of aviation accidents. (No. NASA Contractor Report 3741. 
[NTIS No. N84-15135]). Moffett Field, CA: NASA Ames Research 

Sanne, J. (1999). Creating safety in air traffic control. Linkoping, 
Sweden: Arkiv Forlag.

Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J., & Vanderveken, D. (1985). Foundations in illocutionary 
logic. Cambridge University Press. 


Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich is a doctoral candidate in TESL/Linguistics 
at Oklahoma State University. Her dissertation investigates the use of 
questioning in international pilot and air traffic controller 
communication. Her other research interests include English for 
Specific Purposes and World Englishes.


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Blackwell Publishing 
Cambridge University Press 
Cascadilla Press 
Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd 
Edinburgh University Press 
European Language Resources Association 
Georgetown University Press 
Hodder Arnold 
John Benjamins 
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 
Lincom GmbH 
MIT Press 
Mouton de Gruyter 
Multilingual Matters 
Oxford University Press 
Palgrave Macmillan 
Routledge (Taylor and Francis) 

Anthropological Linguistics 
CSLI Publications 
Graduate Linguistic Students' Assoc.   Umass 
International Pragmatics Assoc. 
Kingston Press Ltd 
Linguistic Assoc. of Finland 
MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 
Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke 
Pacific Linguistics 
SIL International 
St. Jerome Publishing Ltd. 
Utrecht institute of Linguistics 



Aptima, Inc. 
Arizona State University 
Bilkent University 
Birkbeck, University of London 
Bucknell University 
CACI International Inc. 
City University of Hong Kong 
Concordia University 
Dublin City University 
EML Research gGmbH 
European Academy Bozen/Bolzano 
European Bioinformatics Institute 
European Science Foundation ESF 
Franklin Electronic Publishers, Inc. 
Gallaudet University 
Georgetown University 
H5 Technologies 
Harvard University Institute of English Language 
International Linguistic Association 
Janya Inc. 
Language Analysis Systems, Inc. 
Lund University 
McGill University 
Michigan State University 
Microsoft Corporation 
National Security Agency 
National Tsing Hua University 
North-West University 
Northeastern Illinois University 
Northwestern University 
OFAI - Austrian Research Inst. for AI 
Priberam Informática 
Simon Fraser University 
Stanford University 
Swarthmore College 
SYSTRAN Software Inc. 
Szanca Solutions, Inc. 
Thomson Legal & Regulatory 
Tufts University 
Universitaet Konstanz 
Universitaet Leipzig 
University of Alberta 
University of British Columbia 
University of Calgary 
University of Cambridge 
University of Chicago 
University of Cincinnati 
University of Cyprus 
University of Edinburgh 
University of Florida 
University of Fribourg, Suisse 
University of Geneva - ETI 
University of Goettingen 
University of Hamburg 
University of Heidelberg 
University of Helsinki 
University of Illinois 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) 
University of Konstanz 
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 
University of Leipzig 
University of Maryland 
University of Maryland, College Park 
University of Melbourne 
University of Michigan 
University of Oregon 
University of Oslo 
University of Pittsburgh 
University of Potsdam 
University of Reading 
University of Rochester 
University of Southampton 
University of Southern Denmark 
University of Stuttgart 
University of Texas at Austin 
University of Victoria 
Universität Tübingen 
Université de Neuchâtel 
Université du Québec à Montréal 
Voice Signal Technologies 
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

LINGUIST List: Vol-17-1058	


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