Discourse markers play a central role in unplanned communication
What are discourse-pragmatic markers? They are features of speech which generally do not contribute to the propositional content of communication but which have important functions in the way that we manage our conversations. Researcher Jean E. Fox Tree takes a look at what constitutes a discourse marker (DM), what they do, what is known about children’s and second language learners’ acquisition of discourse markers and how they can vary across settings and speakers.
Fox Tree provides an inventory of some of the discourse markers that have been investigated in previous research studies and includes such features as like, well, you know, I mean, and everything, sort of, kind of, and, but, so, because and you see. There are many others. Switch on the radio or TV and listen to a spontaneous interview or discussion and you’ll hear that the speech of people from all spheres of life is littered with these constructions. So if discourse markers do not add anything to the content of the interaction why do they exist? Most researchers agree that discourse markers fulfil many functions and that they are important, if not vital, to successful communication.
The fact that discourse markers fulfil so many different functions makes it difficult to know which function applies in a particular context. One solution has been to assign a core meaning (or basic meaning) to the discourse marker and to consider all other uses as interpretations built on that core meaning. As a demonstration, Fox Tree discusses the basic meaning of like (when it is used as a DM) as ‘indicating upcoming loose language’ or as being a ‘deliberate marker of vagueness’. An example might be ‘I was there at like 3 o’clock and stayed for like two hours’ where the speaker might want to indicate vague timings. Another example she gives is the use of discourse marker well and suggests that the core meaning is to indicate to a listener that a less-obvious interpretation of some aspect of the discourse is coming. Think about when someone says something and then another person says, ‘Well, not necessarily…..’ and proceeds to give a different explanation/interpretation. Not only is a different interpretation given but the use of well also softens the disagreement.
Fox Tree also discusses the acquisition of discourse markers in first and second language learners. As far as children acquiring discourse markers as part of their first language is concerned, research has generally found that children use a narrower range of discourse markers with a narrower range of functions. There is evidence to suggest that children are still learning to use discourse markers in adult-like ways after the age of nine years old. The acquisition of discourse markers for second language learners is also developmental; their use increases along with increased proficiency and as speakers modify their speech in line with their new environment (if applicable).
One very interesting aspect that Fox Tree discusses is the use of discourse markers in computer-mediated discourse. In the past, it has generally been considered that writing is carefully planned and would therefore not entail the use of the discourse markers discussed above, which are seen primarily as features of speech. However, modern communicative technologies have blurred the distinction between speech and writing; written communication such as email, instant messaging and texting is much closer to speech than earlier forms of writing. This has brought with it ‘a wealth of written discourse marker use’ because users of these forms of communication tend to treat the interactions rather like a conversation. Discourse markers found in instant messaging include I mean, you know, well, oh, I dunno and like. The frequencies of use shown in studies so far have tended to be lower in instant messaging compared to conversations but this is a fruitful area for future research and for monitoring the development of discourse markers in these forms of written communication.
Fox Tree, Jean. E. 2010. Discourse Markers across Speakers and Settings. Language and Linguistics Compass 4/5: 269-281.
doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-818x.2010.0015.x
This summary was written by Sue Fox