What are these discourse thingies anyway?

Discourse markers are used in conversational speech more than in any other form of communication. They are, broadly speaking, expressions which, taken out of the context in which they are used, rarely mean a thing, but within context give us extra information relating to the conversation in hand.

Come again?

Okay. Let's start from the beginning. Discourse means a chunk of speech or writing. When we are talking, we can help our listeners follow what we are saying more easily by using certain expressions to flag points in the conversation. These flags, or markers, take the shape of single words, groups of words and sounds. By inserting these little markers into our speech in appropriate places, we can let our listeners know all sorts of extra stuff. Perhaps that we disagree with the idea we are about to relay or suggest a cause and effect relationship between what we just said and the next bit on its way. We can emphasise or empathise, structure our argument or attempt to persuade our interlocutor.

I wouldn't recognise a discourse marker if it slapped me across the face with a wet mackerel.

I hate to be contrary, but I think you would. In fact, you used one earlier: anyway is a classic discourse marker. A common misperception of discourse markers is that they are used as 'fillers' to bridge a gap in conversation while you rummage around your vocabulary looking for the right word. We do sometimes use them in this way, but not always. And more importantly, each discourse marker has its own purpose. And neither can they be randomly inserted into conversation at will, it just won't work. Here are just a few to convince you.

  • Focus: as far as ... is concerned, speaking of which
  • Clarification: I mean, actually
  • Contrast: on the other hand, mind you, whereas
  • Dismissal of previous discourse: anyway, whatever
  • Change of subject: whatever, by the way, ok
  • Consequence: so, then, as a result

You recognise them, right? You probably use a fair few, too. If you don't believe me, leave a voice recorder running while you are chatting with your friends sometime. When you go back and listen to it you will be surprised. And quite possibly appalled. Or maybe that's just me.

So, like, if I want to be cool and trendy I should use them?

Funny you should say that....When word fads happen, it is frequently within the realm of the discourse marker. Of course, there are those who rail against words such as like and their seemingly random incursion into the English language. Like has become a discourse marker and as such abides by rules (see Tlogmer's write-up in the Like node). Usually a discourse marker makes its way into the language by means of grammaticisation. Not strictly speaking a neologism, but the word takes on a new function within the language and as the process of finding its new home progresses, we find ourselves a little lost as to where and when we can apply this well-known word in its new guise. This lack of certainty as to rules of usage wanes as the new function solidifies into a syntactic or discourse dictated slot. Until that time, however, it is perfectly normal for speakers of the language to be unsure of how to use it and so it crops up all over the place. The prevalence of use is often not noticed until it is well on its way through the grammaticisation process. When the new expression/old-word-with-new-function becomes salient and rises above the level of social consciousness, then the media pounce on it, parents and school teachers scold young people for using it. Suddenly everyone is aware of it and it is heralded as The New Evil™. That is the price we pay for linguistic innovation and it deserves a node of its own, so I will say no more on that here.

What do the pros say about all this, then?

Discourse markers have been around for an awful long time and linguists, as is to be expected, have been deconstructing them for just as long. The various different schools of linguistics have each given their particular take on the whys and wherefores. The general theories vary from impossible-to-take-seriously psychobabble to fairly solid theories backed up by facts and figures. The two main fields to look at this phenomenon are Discourse Analysis and Variationist Sociolinguistics.

Discourse Analysts look at the reason why we use each of them and they generally attribute underlying interactional negotiation techniques to the selective use of discourse markers. (Case in point: I am currently reading a paper which analyses the use of just in the speech of local politicians and claims that the word is used unconsciously to distance the speaker from their involvement in political activity, given the current anti-ideological environment.) The Variationists focus on finding out why and how the specific discourse marker came to be by dredging the history of the language. They then look at how far this use has permeated the language by recording speech in the community and subsequently measuring the frequency of use. (Another case in point: A study conducted on a corpus of teenage speech, collected in London in the 1980's, shows that the word just "is the most frequent lexeme after you know and like in the speech of English adolescents" - coming soon to a conversation near you!) I know whose side I'm on, but I'm trying to be impartial here. The fact of the matter is that discourse markers are useful and can even be elegant. They are so frequently dismissed as being symptomatic of slovenly speech but this is neither a fair nor accurate description. What is more, from a historical or variationist linguistics point of view they are positively enthralling. And, like, you know, they are kind of here to stay. So, I mean, you might as well get used to the idea, right?

brought to you in association with A Social Sciences Quest, Node your Homework and linguistics 101 with princess loulou


The pragmatics of peremptory assertion: an ideological analysis of the use of the word 'just' in local politicians' denials of politics David Weltman, University of Bath. Discourse in Society Vol. 13. 2003
Britt Erman. 1996. 'Guy's just such a dickhead'; the context and function of just in teenage talk. Proceedings from the Conference on Teenage Language, 14-16 June, 1996. Stockholm, Sweden.

Further reading:

Once again, I strongly recommend Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. 2nd Edition. 1995. Oxford: OUP.
You will also find that a half-decent dictionary should clear up any doubts.
Deborah Schiffrin. 1987. Discourse Markers Cambridge: CUP.

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