Gail Jefferson – Pioneer of Conversation Analysis and the Jefferson Transcription System

Gail Jefferson is one of the three founders of conversation analysis and creator of The Jefferson Transcription System, the most well used and recognised form of conversation analysis (CA) used around the world today.

Here are some interesting facts about Gail, her life and her work.

Gail Jefferson
Gail Jefferson (1938-2008) founder of CA and the Jefferson Transcription System

Gail Jefferson was unsalaried and did not hold a university position for over 40 years

For the majority of her career, Gail Jefferson did not hold a paid position at a university.

Gail spent a lot of time in Europe

Despite being American and spending the majority of her life in the USA until the 1970s, Gail Jefferson worked at the University of York from 1984 via an honorary position and spent three years at the University of Manchester from 1978-1981. She also worked in Tilburg in the Netherlands from 1981-1983. Gail moved permanently to the Netherlands in 1987 and died there in 2008.

Gail Jefferson was a student of Harvey Sacks, one of three founders of CA

Harvey Sacks was one of the three sociologists who invented conversation analysis (CA) in the 1960s. He died in a car crash at the age of 40, but had already founded conversation analysis as a discipline at Berkeley, UCLA and Irvine in the US. Along with Gail Jefferson and Emanuel Schelgoff, Harvey had to overcome opposition from prominent linguists including Noam Chomsky, who believed that conversation was too disorganised and haphazard to be subjected to any in-depth structural analysis.

Harvey Sacks most well known work is ‘Lectures on Conversation’, a series of transcribed lectures (by Gail Jefferson) and runs to 1,200 pages.

Gail Jefferson’s First Degree was in Dance

Not exactly an obvious choice for an academic who later became world-famous for her study of conversation! Gail Jefferson completed a Bachelors of Arts degree in Dance at the UCLA in 1965. However she did go on to do a PhD in Social Sciences at UC Irvine.

Gail was a Typist at the UCLA

Part of the reason Gail became interested in conversation analysis was because she had been working as a typist at the Department of Public Health at UCLA whilst studying. She joined a class run by Harvey Sacks in 1965 in order to complete her Dance degree and undertook coursework which led her on to looking in detail at CA. She had been transcribing sensitivity training sessions with prison guards as part of her typist job, which appeared to lead her on to thinking about how people interact during conversation, as well as just the spoken word.

Gail Jefferson is also known for her work on ‘Turn Taking’

Turn Taking as a concept was also studied and considered by Jefferson, Sacks and Schelgoff. They created a simple systematic for the study of how turn taking is organised during conversation and undertook in depth academic research into this.

Gail Jefferson Transcribed the Watergate Tapes

Not only did Gail Jefferson transcribe the Watergate Tapes, she completed them using the Jefferson Transcription System and made them available online for everyone to access.

This is an extract of 30 lines from one of the tapes, which are all available to listen to and read at the link to TalkBank above.

100	*NIX:	pehhhhuhhhm101	*HAL:	B't I don't think he will now I think he understands.       ▶
102	*NIX:	∙klk ∙tchik ↓'T's right↓ ∙hehehhehe What ↑is the↓: mgh-hghm:hhh103	klk! ∙huhh One point↓thit I: fhh ez I s-urged terday is↓thet hzhu104		in Joh:n mghm ↓naw: dihmorruh afternoon ↓we °°hh°° oughta meet again       ▶
105		in hhhehhehhe106		(0.8)       ▶
107		hen: ∙tlkklktkreally loo(∙)k ụhhard it       ▶
108		what's comi:ng hend ↓uh::: yih know en wh lookit nhthe na:mes in so       ▶
109		forth in: ∙huhh (∙) ↓and uh:::↓: mhhh yih kno-:w↗       ▶
110		(0.2)       ▶
111	hahh huh::: °uut°       ▶
112		(0.4)       ▶
113		jis' be prepared for it mghm nI think too:       ▶
114		thet            ((⌊tchk)) uh ((various soft, clicking noises))       ▶
115	*NIX:	∙hyahhhh We gotta consider thè::hhehhuhhhahh116		(0.2)       ▶
117		the Dean thi:n⌈g?hmhhhhh118	*HAL:	              ⌊hh     ⌊M⌊m⌈hm,       ▶
119	*NIX:	                          ⌊∙p⌊(No other) plans       ▶
120	I don't know whether ∙hehhe somebọdy really       ▶
121		ought'n dih talk ↓to 'im.hh B'I don' know whether hhhI should b't122	*XXX:	°hehhehuhuh°       ▶
123	*NIX:	hI:ee uh he mus' think about tha:t as tuh whether       ▶
124		(1.3)       ▶
125		hwhether       ▶
126		it's worth doing er not.ụbecuz uh       ▶
127		°∙huhhuhhuhhuhhu°       ▶
128		He's obviously on the kick iv uhhhmhh ((swallow)) ∙tchk!       ▶
129	*XXX:	°∙he:h°       ▶
130		(0.3)       ▶

Although the Jefferson Transcription System came out of Sociological Studies, it is relevant to all Academic Disciplines

Jefferson Transcription was invented as part of larger studies into human interaction, but is used today in a wide range of academic disciplines including speech and language therapy, psychology and criminology.

Gail Jefferson also studied Laughter

In her later life, Gail was involved in detailed study into laughter and her final input in academics was to present a paper on the machinery of laughter at a conference in Sweden in 2007. Part of the study referred to her transcriptions of the Watergate Tapes.

Jefferson Transcription and Conversation Analysis

Not many transcription companies can assist with this work, but we specialise in it and work with academics and students around the world. Jefferson Transcription is so well known there are training courses in the use of the system. It is quite a legacy that Gail Jefferson left to the world of transcription.

For our example of Jefferson Transcription in use, please click here.

To read all the Watergate Tapes transcribed using conversation analysis (and to listen to them) please click here.