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Review of  English Discourse Particles

Reviewer: Anna-Maria De Cesare Greenwald
Book Title: English Discourse Particles
Book Author: Karin Aijmer
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.87

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Date: Thu, 9 Jan 2003 10:12:55 -0600 (CST)
From: Anna Maria De Cesare
Subject: Corpus Linguistics: Review of Aijmer (2002), "English Discourse Particles"

Aijmer, Karin (2002) English Discourse Particles, Evidence from a
Corpus. Benjamins, xvi, 298 pp., Hardback ISBN 90 272 2280 0 (95.00 Eur.),
1 58811 284 5 (86.00 USD)
Book announcement on Linguist 13.2636

This book is vol. 10 in the collection "Studies in Corpus Linguistics",
edited by Elena Tognini-Bonelli and Wolfgang Teubert

Reviewed byAnna-Maria De Cesare, University of Chicago

Purpose of the book

The purpose of the book "English Discourse Particles" by Karin Aijmer (a
specialist in discourse particles working in Sweden) is, as she states, to
"contribute to the study of discourse particles by showing how the methods
of corpus linguistics can sharpen the description of discourse particles
and increase our understanding of what they are doing in
discourse" (p. 277). This book thus is a "contribution to the ongoing
debate in particle research about the contexts and functions of discourse
particles" (p. 56). Specifically, the analysis proposed focuses on "the
functions of discourse particles on two macrolevels" (p. 13): the textual
level and the phatic or interpersonal level.

Aijmer's book presents a bottom-up approach to discourse particles
(henceforth DPs): the different functions recognized are the result of the
study of DPs in their contexts. Aijmer provides a new description of
discourse particles (which include 'now', 'oh', 'sort of',
'actually') based on a corpus of English spoken texts. The use of corpora
in the study of DPs is relatively new, and consequently Aijmer's book is
an important example of this emerging method.

Aijmer bases her study primarily on the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken
English (LLC), a corpus consisting of about half a million English words
at the time of the analysis. The particularity of the LLC is its prosodic
transcription (based on Crystal 1969) and the fact that it lends itself to
the analysis of long stretches of texts. In addition to the LLC, Aijmer
occasionally employs the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus (LOB) and the Corpus
of London Teenager (COLT) for comparative purposes.

As Aijmer argues, the use of corpora to study DPs is advantageous not only
because corpora represent the actual performance of language but also
because corpora "provide the opportunity to study the distribution and
function of particles in extensive text extracts representing different
registers" (p. 3). The use of corpora further allows one to "analyse the
functions of discourse particles in their social and situational
context" (p. 277).

In addition to providing a theoretical analysis of DPs, Aijmer also points
out some practical benefits of her study, claiming that it will "be useful
for learners and would furnish a grounding to scholars dealing with
discourse particles in different languages" (p. 3) (see for instance
Bazzanella 1990; Bazzanella and Morra 2000, interested in the contrast
between English and Italian DPs).


The main body of the book consists of a long introductory chapter about
DPs (chap. 1, pp. 1-56), six chapters on selected particles (chap. 2-7,
pp. 57-275), and a brief conclusion (chap. 8, pp. 277-279).

The purpose of chapter 1 is to "focus on how the methods and tools of
corpus linguistics can sharpen the definition and description of discourse
particles and contribute to our understanding of what they are doing in
discourse" (p. 3). By discussing among other things the theoretical
frameworks in which DPs have been analysed in the past decade, chapter 1
provides a long introduction to the study of DPs. Chapter 1 serves as the
basis for the empirical studies of different (groups) of DPs in chapters
2-7. In addition to providing a theoretical basis for the following
chapters, chapter 1 also anticipates some of the study's results, allowing
for a comparison and a correction of the data of previous studies (cf. for
instance the data related to 'now' in different text types, p. 34).

Chapter 2 describes the 'topic-changer' 'now' (pp. 57-95); chapter 3 the
interjections 'oh' and 'ah' (pp. 97-151); chapter 4 the interpersonal
particles 'just' (pp. 153-174); chapter 5 the 'adjuster' 'sort of'
(pp. 175-209); chapter 6 the particles with vague reference 'and that sort
of thing' (pp. 211-249); chapter 7 the 'expectation marker' 'actually'
(pp. 251-275). It should be noted that the name of certain chapters does
not always reflect their content. Chapter 3 deals primarily with the
interjection 'oh' and only occasionally with 'ah'. On the other hand, some
chapters deal with more DPs than suggested by the title: chapter 5 not
only deals with 'sort of' but also compares 'sort of' with 'type of' and
'you know' (pp. 203ff); chapter 6 deals with the utterance-final tags
introduced by 'and' as well as 'or'; chapter 7 not only describes
'actually' but also discusses some differences between 'actually', 'in
fact' and 'really' (pp. 255f). Finally, throughout the book, Aijmer
compares the DPs selected with other DPs that are not the focus of the
book. One of the most frequent DPs used in such comparisons is the
often-studied 'well'.

Chapters 2-7 are organized uniformly. After a general introduction, each
chapter presents and discusses the core meaning and function of the
particle(s) under discussion, their grammaticalisation, the clues to their
interpretation, their different discourse functions (textual and phatic or
interpersonal) and a conclusion serving as a summary for the entire
chapter. The clues to the interpretation of a DP include 1) their
collocation (mainly with other particles), 2) prosodic properties, 3) the
text type in which they appear, 4) some social cues (sex and age of the
speaker, etc.) and 5) their distribution. These clues allow not only for a
better description of the functions of DPs but also for a distinction
between the use of a certain item as a DP and a conjunction, adverb,
etc. (cf. for instance 'now' and 'actually').


Overall I found Aijmer's book "English Discourse Particles" to be very
manageable, accessible and pleasant to read. In what follows, I present
only some of the many observations that came to me while reading this
thought-provoking book.

Aijmer presents an original description of a collection of words or
phrases formerly called 'fillers'. Through its extensive analysis and rich
content, this book very convincingly demonstrates the functional
complexity of DPs such as 'oh'. Despite the abstract nature of the meaning
of DPs, and hence the difficulty of circumscribing their content, this
book offers an clear and detailed explanation of the functions of several
DPs. As Aijmer puts it in her important introduction, DPs "seem to be
dispensable elements functioning as signposts in the communication
facilitating the hearer's interpretation of the utterance on the basis of
various contextual clues" (p. 2). Of central importance for Aijmer's
description of DPs is the notion of indexicality. As she writes, "The most
important property of discourse particles is their indexicality. This
property explains that they are linked to attitudes, evaluation, types of
speakers and other dimensions of the communication situation" (p. 5).

In addition to providing an original account of DPs, Aijmer's book also
benefits from its illuminating account of past and present research on
English DPs. In particular, Aijmer discusses several different pragmatic
frameworks in which DPs have been analysed so far. Aijmer not only
describes DPs from a pragmatic point of view, but she also provides a
semantic explanation (their core meaning), syntactic and prosodic
information, and a brief account of the diachronic evolution of every DP
or group of DPs analysed. Interestingly, grammaticalisation (or as she
puts it once 'pragmaticalisation' p. 19) is her way of accounting for the
polyfunctionality and what she considers the polysemy of DPs (cf. the
paragraph called "homonymy or polysemy").

Prosody is of particular importance for Aijmer. As she writes, "Prosody is
a neglected area in connection with individual words and phrases although
prosodic cues are important clues to their interpretation" (p. 262).
Thanks to the prosodic transcription of the LLC, Aijmer is able to
describe more adequately the functions of several DPs and differentiate
them from other functions, such as the adverbial one. A very basic
observation related to prosody is for instance to examine "whether the
discourse particle is a separate tone unit" (p. 32). If 'now' is a
separate tone unit, it functions as a discourse element rather than a
temporal adverb. Other prosodic features taken into account throughout the
book include stress and nucleus position, tone and pausing before and
after the DP (pp. 67ff).

I found Aijmer's empirical chapters analysing DPs to be very clear and
thus easy to read, and the descriptions of the different functions of
these DPs are convincing. I particularly appreciated Aijmer's account of
the interjection 'oh', the adjuster 'sort of' and the particles with vague
references such as 'and that sort of thing'. Furthermore, these chapters
(but also the others) demonstrate very well how the use of corpora helps
us understand in what contexts these particular DPs occur. For example,
through the use of the LLC, Aijmer demonstrates that 'oh' only rarely
occurs alone as a separate tone unit (freestanding 'oh' occurs only in 5%
of the tokens, p. 113). Additionally, Aijmer found that 'oh' is "more
frequent after wh-questions than after yes-no questions or after a
sentence with a tag question" (pp. 120-9). Moreover, in analysing the
particles with vague reference, Aijmer found that 'and' and 'or' tags
differ "dramatically with regard to their collocations" (p. 223). 'And'
tags collocate with the universal quantifiers 'all' and 'everything',
while 'or' tags collocate with the existential quantifier 'some'.

Throughout the book, Aijmer uses a wide array of concepts from different
works and theoretical backgrounds to describe the DPs selected. Of
particular importance for the book are the works of Brown & Levinson
(1987), Oestman (1981), Schiffrin (1987) and Stenstroem (1994). The
inclusion of different descriptions of and perspectives on DPs makes the
book very rich and most interesting from both a theoretical and empirical
point of view. It also allows Aijmer to compare her findings with the
results of previous research as well as to account more fully for the
polysemy of DPs by highlighting their various aspects. Moreover, in citing
these works, Aijmer helpfully includes the original definitions of several
key concepts often taken for granted in the literature. In particular, I
enjoyed reading an account of the concepts of 'negative' and 'positive
politeness' strategies by Brown & Levinson (1987) (pp. 164, 168). These
key linguistic concepts are further illuminated by the numerous examples
of DPs in which they are at work.

The clarity of the book derives from the numerous tables, well-chosen
examples and additional comments before each example. The description of
an example precedes in almost all of the cases the example itself in the
form of a paragraph. However, the organization of the description and
explanation of some examples is sometimes confusing. The discussion
related to a given example is occasionally broken down into two paragraphs
for no apparent reason, which can be misleading to the reader (for some
instances of this phenomenon, cf. beginning p. 130; first paragraph
p. 136, line 2 for a mistake related to this question; paragraph three
p. 207; first paragraph p. 268; last paragraph p. 271).

In addition, while Aijmer's analysis is generally convincing and helpful,
I found the descriptions of 'now', 'just' and 'actually' a little bit less
satisfactory. I sometimes found the differences between the various
functions of 'now' difficult to understand. In several cases it seemed
that some paragraphs contained the same description, and yet they were
dealing with two different functions of the DP. To give just one example, is devoted to 'now' as "marking the steps in an argument or a
narrative", while to 'now' and listing. In the first one, Aijmer
claims "the lecturer uses 'now' to focus on certain points that are
important" (p. 82); in the second, she writes that "In sports
commentaries, 'now' highlights the points the reporter wants to comment
on" (p. 84). While I do not see a clear cut difference here, I recognize
that the functions of a DP can be related, making it difficult - if not
impossible - to fully dissociate them (the use of 'now' between sub-topics
for instance is said to be "not unrelated to other uses of 'now' to
introduce a topic change" p. 79). As Aijmer herself puts it, DPs are
"polysemous items whose meanings can be related to each other in a
motivated way, for example as extensions from a prototype" (p. 22).

My reserve towards the description of 'just' and 'actually' is due to the
fact that the two chapters devoted to them are much less developed than
the others. Because of its relative brevity, the chapter devoted to
'actually' does not include examples of cases in which a speaker
(B) contradicts another speaker (A) but uses 'actually' before that move
to soften its contradiction. All the examples given are instances of one
or two speakers that use 'actually' to contradict a statement that
concerns the same speaker. Thus, the examples provided are almost all
instances of self-correction, explanation or justification (maybe with the
exception of examples 29 and 35 in which I also see 'actually' as
expressing a contrast). It seems to me, though, that the contrastive
function of 'actually' as well as its polite and conciliatory uses would
have been better illustrated by showing how one can contradict its partner
without threatening its face (As in: A: I am glad Bush did not attack Iraq
last December B: Actually, he bombed it in December several times).

To conclude, Aijmer's book "English Discourse Particles" gives a very
thorough and fine-grained description of the functions of some frequent
English DPs. This book is a very rich source of information about the
studies that have been undertaken in English (as well as in other
languages, such as Italian, French, German and Swedish). This book will
therefore be useful to a large group of people, primarily those interested
in discourse analysis in general and in DPs in particular. Because this
book is very important for the insights it provides about the principles
and the mechanisms or routines that are in place when we talk, this volume
will certainly also be of much interest to those dealing with more
practical applications of linguistic studies: language teachers and
lexicographers. As Aijmer writes, the analysis of the contexts in which
DPs can occur and the proposition of functional categories and
descriptions "can be used in dictionaries and handbooks" (p. 55).

I would like to conclude with Aijmer's observation that "the area of
discourse particles is very large" and therefore that "subclassifications
need to be carried out" (p. 279). One possible way of sharpening our
descriptions and understanding of DPs will be achieved through the
contrastive study of DPs in two or more languages. Aijmer's book provides
a very useful basis for conducting such research in the future.


Bazzanella, C. (1990), "Phatic connectives as interactional cues in
contemporary spoken Italian", Journal of Pragmatics 14: 639-47

Bazzanella, C. and L. Morra (2000), "Discourse markers and the
indeterminacy of translation", in I. Korzen and C. Marello (eds.),
Argomenti per una linguistica della traduzione, Ed. dell'Orso

Brown, P. and S. C. Levinson (1987), Politeness. Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge University Press

Crystal, D. (1969), Prosodic systems and intonation in English, Cambridge
University Press

Oestman, J.-O. (1981), 'You know'. A Discourse-functional Approach. John

Schiffrin, D. (1987), Discourse markers. Cambridge University Press

Stenstroem, A.-B. (1994), An introduction to spoken-interaction. Longman.
Anna-Maria De Cesare holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of
Geneva, Switzerland and is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Department
of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. Her
academic interests include lexical semantics (adverbs and particles),
lexicography, corpus linguistics, and contrastive linguistics (Italian
compared to French and English). She is currently working on a specialized
Italian-English dictionary of adverbs and particles.