Using language – “languaging” (Becker 1988) – is possible at two levels of discourse. Generally, when we use language, we look through it at a world we believe to exist beyond language. However, we can also use language for metalanguaging, i.e., in order to look through it at the process of using language itself. Discourse markers can be viewed as linguistic elements employed for metalanguaging – languaging about the interaction, as opposed to languaging about the extralingual world. In other words, rather than referring to the world perceived by speakers to exist beyond language, discourse markers refer to the text itself, to the interaction among its speakers, or to the cognitive processes taking place in their minds during verbalization (Maschler 1994).
Discourse markers have been investigated from a multitude of linguistic approaches. The terms used to refer to these elements vary greatly, e.g., pragmatic particle, pragmatic operator, pragmatic expression, discourse particle, discourse connective, discourse operator, marker of pragmatic structure, cue phrase, parenthetic phrase, and even mystery particle.
Discourse markers can be classified into three major types: (1) those operating in the realm of the structure of the text, signaling relationships between the conversational actions taking place (“textual discourse markers,” e.g., and, but, so, because, first of all, anyway); (2) those functioning in the realm of the interaction among text participants (“interpersonal discourse markers,” e.g., yeah, no, look, really?, wow!, great, mhm); and (3) those referring to (in the sense of attesting) the cognitive processes taking place in the speaker’s mind during verbalization (“cognitive discourse markers,” e.g., uh, uhm, oh, Hebrew ke’ilu (“like” recognizing the need for self-rephrasal; Maschler 2002). Of course, since all utterances are always constrained by the various contextual realms shaping discourse, discourse markers often function in more than one realm, and they often do so simultaneously (e.g., English okay, which can be both textual and interpersonal, Hebrew ’oy (“oh no”), which can be both cognitive and interpersonal). Often, however, one of the realms is more pronounced, warranting a broad classification such as that above (cf. Schiffrin 1987).
In his influential study of grammaticization, Hopper conceives of grammar as a product of structuration, “an unintended outcome of communicative behavior . . . , rather than a bounded object to be thought of as structure” (1998: 158). The emergence of discourse markers from longer metalingual utterances, as well as their multifunctionality in several discourse realms, motivates studies investigating their grammaticization.
Common to all of these metalingual utterances is their function in negotiating a frame shift (Goffman 1981), or conversational action boundary in interaction (Maschler 1997). Studies of bilingual discourse show that bilinguals consistently switch languages in verbalizing discourse markers (e.g., Maschler 2000). This strategy suggests that discourse markers are perceived as a distinct and unified category – the category of utterances employed to metalanguage conversational action boundaries – constituting evidence that the category “Discourse Marker” is not merely a linguist’s construct, but rather a substantial and meaningful category for speakers.
Discourse markers constitute a system exhibiting two more types of patterning involving: (1) the moments at which discourse markers are employed in interaction, and (2) their structural properties. As for (1), in general, the higher the boundary between conversational actions, the more linguistic material necessary for its construction. “arger packages,” such as the beginning of a new episode in a narrative, typically open with more discourse markers – and particularly more clusters of discourse markers (e.g., anyway, uhm, listen) – than “smaller packages,” such as the beginning of a “second” in an adjacency pair.
In terms of their structural properties, discourse markers have developed from a variety of parts of speech: adverbs, interjections, conjunctions, deictics, verbs of saying, verbs of perception, nouns, adjectives, quantifiers, and even clauses. Besides having the semantic property of metalinguality, discourse markers share a prosodic property: 94 percent of the discourse markers in a spoken Israeli Hebrew corpus were found to occur at intonationunit initial position, either at a point of speaker change, or, in same-speaker talk, immediately following any intonation contour other than continuing intonation (unless they appear in a cluster of discourse markers). For example:
. . . we talked a lot,
. . about this whole thing,
. . about compliments.
. . . . because,
. . . to me,
. . . that was really
. . that’s something,
. . that I can’t stand.
The discourse marker because appears here in same-speaker talk following final intonation (marked by the period following compliments). The remaining 6 percent of the discourse markers function at lower-level conversational action boundaries, such as introducing a voice “of second order” of the same speaker. For example, in
’amarti la tir’i,
I told her look,
tir’i occurs intonation-unit internally (Maschler 1997, 2002). The system of discourse markers punctuating interaction, then, constitutes part of a larger, iconic system of grammatical, prosodic, and kinesic features, helping participants distinguish higherorder frame shifts from those that are more subtle in nature.
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- Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Hopper, P. J. (1998). Emergent grammar. In M. Tomaselo (ed.), The new psychology of language. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 155 –175.
- Maschler, Y. (1994). Metalanguaging and discourse markers in bilingual conversation. Language in Society, 23, 325 –366.
- Maschler, Y. (1997). Discourse markers at frame shifts in Israeli Hebrew talk-in-interaction. Pragmatics, 72, 183 –211.
- Maschler, Y. (ed.) (2000). Discourse markers in bilingual conversation. Special issue of International Journal of Bilingualism, 4, 437–561.
- Maschler, Y. (2002). The role of discourse markers in the construction of multivocality in Israeli Hebrew talk-in-interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 35, 1–38.
- Schiffrin, D. (1987). Discourse markers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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