Common Discourse Particles in English Conversation
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Common Discourse Particles in English Conversation

Lawrence C. Schourup

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eBook - ePub

Common Discourse Particles in English Conversation

Lawrence C. Schourup

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About This Book

First published in 1985, this book studies several common items in English conversation known variously as 'discourse particles', 'interjections', 'discourse markers', and, more informally, 'hesitations' or 'fillers'. While the analysis primarily focuses on 'like', 'well' and 'you know', the larger concern is the entire set of items of which these are members and as such 'I mean', 'now', 'oh', 'hey', and 'aha' are also examined. These discourse particles are analysed at length and then a framework is proposed in which their use individually makes sense and allows revealing comparisons to be made between them. This book will be of interest to students of linguistics

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Chapter One

1.1 General Remarks

This is a study of several common items in English conversation known variously as 'discourse particles', 'interjections', 'discourse markers', and less respect fully as 'hesitations' or 'fillers'. Attention will be directed primarily to analyses of like, well and you know, but the larger concern of this study is the entire set of items of which these are members, and some attention will therefore also be given to related items, including I mean, now, oh, hey and aha. The term discourse particles will be used throughout the study to refer to the words and expressions under discussion. The term is intended as a neutral label for these items that avoids a priori judgments on their function or grammatical classification but does indicate that they are primarily discourse phenomena. The general program of the study is to examine the discourse functions of particles at length and then propose a framework in which their uses individually make sense and in which revealing comparisons can be made between them. A correct understanding of discourse particles, it will be claimed, requires a widening of the usual purview of conversation studies.
The need for work on discourse particles is apparent on examining almost any transcript of spontaneous English conversation. The repertoire of favored forms may differ from speaker to speaker, but in general instances of like, well, you know and similar items abound in conversation. Despite their great frequency of occurrence, however, until recently only crude attempts had been made to characterize the role of these items in conversation. By many researchers they were dismissed as meaningless and presumed to lack interesting distributional features; others offered tentative analyses applicable only to a narrow range of the items' occurrence; and in the popular view such items have tended to be stigmatized as verbal 'crutches' used by those deficient in speaking ability. Reviews of these early treatments are found in James (1974) and Goldberg (1980).
The former neglect of these items seems to have been due largely to the fact that their appearance is for the most part limited to conversation, a use of language itself neglected until recent years (despite the widespread availability of tape recorders since the 1950's). But the difficulties discourse particles can present when examined by introspection have no doubt also been an obstacle to research. Questions to informants concerning the use or meaning of well, for example, are apt to elicit only puzzlement or a list of examples. It will be suggested below that there may be a deeper reason for these introspective difficulties than the commonly noted tendency for such items to be spoken more or less unconsciously.
During the last decade, which has seen a sudden flourishing of interest in studies of conversation, the sheer frequency of these items in talk and the lack of an adequate account of their function have led to several exploratory investigations. All of this recent work begins from the now no longer disputed observation that such items differ from each other in distribution and use and so cannot be simply regarded as 'fillers'. The studies now available fall into two broad categories, according to the type of data used. Studies of the first type are based almost entirely on intuitive evidential statements (e.g., James 1972, 1973, 1974, 1978; Lakoff 1973; Hines 1977; Murray 1979). The most ambitious work of this kind is James (1972) which specifies semantic and distributional properties of such items as oh, ah and say (designating them as 'interjections' - the traditional categorization for forms that resist inclusion in the 'sentential' word classes). Another group of studies attempts to isolate the conventional functions of discourse particles by examining their use in tapes and transcripts of natural conversation. Important studies of this kind have been carried out by Crystal and Davy (1975), Goldberg (1980), svartvik (1980), and Schiffrin (1981b). Each of the studies mentioned above will be discussed, as relevant, in later chapters.
The present study will use both recorded conversations and introspective data in attempting to identify a core use for each of several discourse particles. It will be shown that when the basic use of each item has been correctly isolated, an understanding of the variety of discourse functions that item is capable of serving proceeds directly from considering how its core use is interpretable in particular conversational contexts. In addition the general function of discourse particles will be characterized by showing how they constitute the range of conventionalized responses in English to what will be called the problem of disclosure. Briefly, the disclosure problem is that unexpressed thinking engaged in by conversants concurrent with their participation in a conversation may be communicatively relevant to their- displayed verbal and other actions. It will be claimed that each discourse particle considered mediates in a specific way between the current undisclosed thinking of conversants and what they are currently doing in the way of talk and other behavior.
Although the position to be developed in the present work refers to 'undisclosed thinking', the claims made will not depend on inquisitions into what any particular speaker was thinking on a specific occasion. To do so would rob this inquiry of its empirical foundation. Matters undisclosed will be left, as they must, to the imagination. on the other hand, one would not do well to deny the existence of unexpressed thinking, and for this reason it will be of use here to briefly survey the nature and importance of the 'invisible' aspects of conversation.

1.2 Covert Thinking in Conversation

It is intuitively obvious that conversants do not say aloud everything that crosses their minds. Rather, they select some 'mental contents' as appropriate to verbalize and retain others. Or unexpressed thinking may be temporarily 'shelved' and introduced later whenperhaps through attempts at redirecting the conversation--its verbalization in some form has become appropriate. It is unimportant to the real matter of this distinction between talk and covert thinking whether what is deferred or left unexpressed is 'silent speech' or instead some kind of nonlinguistic or quasilinguistic mental activity; in either case what gets spoken is only part of what comes to mind.
Numerous aspects of conversational behavior are nonspontaneous and therefore point to a divergence of talk and thought. The many recent explorations of conversational structure by sociologists (Goffman, Sacks, Schegloff, Jefferson, and others) have been helpful in establishing that speakers do not practice an absolute extemporaneity--voicing their thoughts as they arise--but judiciously retain, shape, and sequentially place them in ways that often display considerable gamesmanship. There is room within the tonus1 of a conversation for much private thought. We form overall judgments. plan provisional responses. rank and revise them, store questions. foresee the need for further conversations, and so on, and routinely do these things while someone else is talking, or while we ourselves hold the turn.
Speakers sometimes report thoughts as having occurred covertly during talk by introducing their subsequent verbalization of them with a prefix like those in (1): 2
(1) I thought of this while you were/I was talking ...
I was going to say ...
Your mentioning cholera a moment ago reminded me ...
It is not unacceptable. and is often expected. that conversants ponder what is said, and they may affect this by head scratching or chin pulling, as well as by the considered responsiveness of what they say. Private thought is troublesome only if it becomes preoccupation.
Items like What in the world! represent another way speakers naturalize covert thought into their speech, though here the subcurrent of thought is ostensibly verbalized as it occurs. The dual status of such utterances has been discussed by Goffman. Using them, the speaker "renders readily accessible to witnesses what he chooses to assign to his inward state" (Goffman 1978:794). Muttering is much the same (ibid. 796).
There is of course also mental activity involved in the routine processing of speech. Beyond the auto-matte and largely unconscious cognitive processing involved in basic speech production and comprehension, we draw inferences, devise and notice implicatures. reconstruct the targets of speech errors. distinguish given and new, recover material elided in ritualized encounters, take note of lurking presuppositions, identify denigrations, and marshal various other monitorings and pragmatic operations the extent of which is apt to be grossly underestimated if one looks only at solitary, unsituated sentences.
What we call speakers are also thinkers, with one foot in the interactive world of their talk and other behavior, and the other in an internal world of mental proceedings, which they may, or not, choose to express.
The inaccessibility of covert thinking to the researcher is what has sometimes been called the problem of 'intention', 'meaning', or 'motivation' (see Duncan and Fiske 1977:17). Students of conversation are for the most part3 limited to working with what is said or done rather than what is thought, and to the extent that conversants themselves find each other's thoughts indiscernible, it has seemed both necessary and fair to researchers to restrict their attention to what is audibly and, if video equipment is used, visibly expressed. It nevertheless remains true that there is thought 'beneath' the speech and other overt behavior of participants in a conversation, and that the course of their thoughts may not be entirely synchronous or identical to the course of their talk, let alone fully accessible to even the most talented of researchers.
The bias toward what is manifest is often simply adopted as a methodological principle (e.g. Duncan and Fiske 1977:17); or. as in the work of Sacks, Schegloff, and others, may be taken to define the range of phenomena under investigation:
Our analysis has sought to explicate the ways in which the materials are produced by members in orderly ways that exhibit their orderliness, have their orderliness appreciated and used, and have that appreciation displayed and treated as the basis for subsequent action (Schegloff and Sacks 1973:290).
Even in conversational analyses supposedly limited to 'observables', however, the researcher must often engage in guesswork. Studies of this kind are peppered with qualifiers necessary because what is displayed by conversants permits multiple interactional interpretations all consistent with their talk.
What is unmanifested is not entirely excludable from the analysis of conversation, then, but neither-practically speaking--can it be fully included. The middle ground, though an unsettled one, is to acknowledge the existence and importance of unexpressed thinking to what is said and done by conversants, and also to acknowledge its inaccessibility to direct observation. This tempered point of view seems to characterize much of the work of Garfinkel and Goffman (see, esp., Garfinkel 1972).

1.3 Three 'Worlds' of the Speaker

Though some conversation analysts may, for practical reasons, exclude covert thinking from consideration, speakers do not. To describe the position of the individual participant in a conversation, a tripartite model seems essential. The covert thinking of the speaker, what that speaker has presently in mind but has not disclosed will be referred to below as the private world; what is on display as talk and other behavior on the part of conversants and is thus available to both the speaker and any other(s) will be called the shared world; and the covert thinking of other conversants, which is inaccessible to the speaker, will be called the other world. This terminology is applicable equally to any of the participants in a conversation, so that what is private world for one conversant may, for another, be other world.
That conversants should be described as orienting to the existence of these three different spheres of activity is certainly not a revolutionary claim, though it seems that conversants are not often conceived of in this way and are more often simply viewed as manufacturers of audible, recordable talk.4
There will be repeated occasion in later chapters to refer to the tripartite model of the speaker's world just proposed. The disclosure problem discussed above, which will be the basis for understanding items such as like, well, and you know, can be restated in the context of this model as follows:
The Disclosure Problem: Current undisclosed material in the private and other worlds may be communicatively relevant to what the speaker is now doing, or has just now done5 or will just now be doing, in the shared world.5
In the discussion that follows it will be helpful to keep in mind that the 'contents' of the shared world differ in some important respects from those of the two covert worlds. Material spoken into the shared world may be strategically placed there and is subject to what Sacks et al. have called recipient design:
a multitude of respects in which the talk by a party in a conversation is constructed or designed in ways which display an orientation and sensitivity to the particular other(s) who are the co-participants (1974:727).
Moreover, speakers are constrained by the sequential requirements of conversation. Answers, to take a well-worked example, are contingent upon questions; or, more precisely, what follows a question should be placed there with sensitivity to the conditioned relevance of an answer at that point (cf. Goffman 1976). The recent literature on conversational repair, to take a second example, illustrates the strategic nature of some contributions of talk. Speakers regularly fail to initiate repair on another's repairable utterance until it becomes obvious that the repairable will not be self corrected by its speaker (Schegloff et al., 1977). On other occasions participants choose not to initiate repair on some obviously repairable item (Schegloff et al. 1977:375 refer to these occasions as 'opportunities NOT TAKEN'), possibly because the repair, which would involve work by both parties, doesn't seem worth the trouble, or might implicate disagreement. In these situations--delayed repair and intentional non-repair--it appears that thinking is left temporarily unexpressed in the first case, and altogether unexpressed in the second.
The shared world, then, is...

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