Monday, 18 February 2013

Interesting, isn't it?

it's on the left, isn't it?

It’s on the left isn’t it is a typical English tag question: there’s a statement (it’s on the left) followed by a reduced question (isn’t it?). The form is sometimes linked to the characteristic dual functions of tag questions. They can show that we are less than certain about the statement we’ve just made: so, it’s on the left isn’t it can convey less confidence than it’s on the left. At the same time, tags can involve the listener: it’s on the left isn’t it is more likely to get a response than it’s on the left.

Many English tags, though, are just single words: think, for example, of right, eh, huh or innit. Marianne Mithun set out to discover whether all tags, whatever their form, are united by having some core function. She examined the way people use tags not only in English but also in a language with a very different structure: Mohawk, an Iroquoian language spoken in Northeast America. She found some striking initial similarities in the functions of tags in the two languages, but beyond these were some interesting differences. These, she claims, can be understood in terms of some of the deeper characteristics of human language.

In Mohawk tags are very frequent, but unlike English there is just one form, the single word wáhi’. Mohawk speakers use the tag to show how certain they are about what they have just said and to appeal to their audience for confirmation, in just the same way as speakers of English.

However Mohawk speakers can also use the same tag form to achieve the opposite effect. The example in the box illustrates this. Here speaker B first uses the particle ki’ to show that the contribution is relevant to what A has just said, then uses wáhi’ to confirm A’s statement. Rather than indicating a lack of certainty, then, the tag shows confidence, albeit in a polite consensual way. Speaker C’s contribution serves the same function.

A:  That’s the reason there’s a lot of cancer nowadays. It’s the food.
      They mix in all kinds of stuff.
B:  Ki’ wáhi’.
      ‘That’s right, isn’t it.’
C:  Ki’ wáhi’.
      ‘Isn’t that so.’

Note: A’s utterance, though uttered in Mohawk, is given in English by Mithun for ease of interpretation

A further difference lies in the type of discourse where tags occur. Speakers of English use tags more frequently in the discussion parts of a conversation rather than in the narrative sections. In Mohawk, though, the division between narrative and discussion is less clearcut. Mithun found that narratives of varying length were typically embedded throughout conversations, especially where there were many speakers. In these narratives the tag was used very frequently, with a range of important discourse-structuring functions. It could highlight the topic or the setting of a story, draw attention to key points, and emphasise background information, explanations, evaluations or other kinds of commentary. In these contexts tags do not directly solicit a response, but their function is still interactive, checking that listeners are following the story. In English these kinds of functions tend to filled not by tags but by other discourse pragmatic features such as y’know, right or are you with me.

Mithun concludes that English and Mohawk tag constructions share a functional core, mingling interactive functions with an indication of the speaker’s degree of certainty about what they have just said. These overlapping meanings lie at the root of the cross-linguistic similarities and differences between the two languages, allowing speakers to sometimes privilege one meaning and sometimes another. The contexts in which tags are used, Mithun claims, are ultimately constrained by both universal and language specific factors. These include the grammatical structure of the tag form, the presence in the language of competing forms like English y’know, the social relationships among speakers, and culturally-specific styles of interaction such as the greater use of narrative in Mohawk. The differences reflect a deeper characteristic common to speakers of all languages: the propensity to exploit available linguistic resources for creative acts of communication.

Mithun, Marianne (2012) Tags: Cross-linguistic diversity and commonality. Journal of Pragmatics 44: 2165- 2182.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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