JoLIE 14:1/2021


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Silvia Emilia Plăcintar

Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania






This paper explores the similarities between ordinary conversation and intimate letters, with focus on the devices used in the epistolary form to imitate the primary genre of conversational interaction. The comparison is based on a speech-based model that draws on Bakhtin’s pragmatic theory of the utterance and of speech genres and on the Conversation Analysis perspective, according to which conversational discourse emerges through the turn system and the sequential relationships within the turn-taking activity. The study concludes that epistolary form is an endeavour by the correspondents to compensate for the absence of shared time and space through such means as negotiation of meaning through internal reading, writing to the moment, mapping the writer’s coordinates, the I-You reversibility, and the achievement of such joint projects as adjacency pairs or longer series of turn exchanges. All these devices are illustrated based on a selection of letters from the renowned courtship correspondence between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (1845-1846).[1]


Keywords: Conversation Analysis; Epistolary genre; Utterance; Turn taking; Sequential relationships.





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How to cite this article: Plăcintar, S.E. (2021). A conversation analysis approach to intimate letters. Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education – JoLIE, 14(1), 101-112. doi:



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[1] The correspondence between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett is one of the longest, fullest, and most-contained correspondences in English literary history. The corpus of letters selected for the purpose of this study is from the edition by Adam Roberts (1997), which includes 573 extant letters, in chronological order and extensively annotated. The author of this article was fortunate to read the entire courtship correspondence and have access to all the related documentation during her one-month fellowship with the Armstrong Browning Library, at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. This library is consecrated mainly to Robert Browning’s life and poetry, but it also hosts valuable collections of books, manuscripts, and research materials relating to the Victorian culture.