Discourse markers in non-native English

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

39 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I. Introduction

II. What exactly is University Parliamentary Debating ?
II.1.General information on debating
II.2. Debating guidelines and the process of a debate

III. What exactly are Discourse Markers ?
III.1. A brief outline on the history in the research on Discourse Markers
III.1.1. Markers and cohesion
III.1.2. Markers and discourse
III.1.3. Markers and pragmatics
III.2. Properties of Discourse Markers in general
III.2.1. Connectivity
III.2.2. Non-truth conditionality
III.2.3. Type of meaning encoded by Discourse Markers
III.2.4. Multi-categoriality
III.2.5. Weak clause association and phonological independence
III.2.6. Sentence position
III.2.7. Optionality of Discourse Markers
III.2.8. The scope of Discourse Markers
III.3 The definition of Discourse Markers used in this paper
III.4. The application of the definition on a sample text

IV. A survey on the circumstances of the collection of data for this paper
IV.1. A few notes on the circumstances of the recordings
IV.2 The circumstance of the speeches being performed by non native speakers of English

V. The analysis of the Discourse Markers
V.1. Statistical evaluations of the use of Discourse Markers in UPB
V.1.1 The scope of the collected data for this paper
V.1.2 The frequency of the Discourse Markers
V.2. The analysis of the most frequent Discourse Markers
V.2.1. The Discourse Marker So
V.2.2. The Discourse Marker Well
V.2.3. The Discourse Marker Actually
V.2.4. The Discourse Marker I think, I think that
V.2.5. The Discourse Marker OK
V.2.6. Other frequent Discourse Markers

VI. Summary

VII. Works cited

I. Introduction

Discourse Marker is a term which is relatively hard to define. A simplified way is to say that it refers to words or phrases which are usually used to structure sequences of a speech or a written text. Examples of Discourse Markers include expressions like actually, you know, well or OK. Discourse Markers are lexemes which could often simply be left out, without changing the semantic function of a sentence, because they usually don’t contribute to the sentence’s truth-condition or the propositional content. However, they often have other important functions. Apart from being used in order to organise and structure a speech, they often indicate some aspects of attitude (Renkema 2004:169) and the relation between different utterances. Discourse Markers appear very frequently in speeches (usually every few seconds); in written texts they are very frequent as well, though usually not as frequent as in verbal speech. Discourse Markers can also give information about social dimensions, group identity and relations between communicating people (Aijmer 2002:14). Although this definition is by far not entirely comprehensive, it should serve for the moment in order to clarify the subject of this paper. This paper is going to explain the term Discourse Markers in some detail and then analyse the use of Discourse Markers by speakers of non native English, namely members of University Parliamentary Debating competitions (a close definition will follow in chapter 2), who are from the countries Germany, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey and Malaysia. It will be analysed and explored how often Discourse Markers occur in the speeches of different speakers and what exactly the different Discourse Markers are used for.

II. What exactly is University Parliamentary Debating ?

The speeches which will serve as reference for the analysis of the use of Discourse Markers in the following chapters are taken from recordings that were made in University Parliamentary Debating competitions. In order to clarify the purpose of the analysed material, it is useful to give an overview of what University Parliamentary Debating (UPD) is about. University Parliamentary Debating organisations are academic groups which regularly meet, in order to verbally discuss given topics according to certain rules. Debating can be considered a game where the most skilled speaker wins. Each speaker is given a certain amount of time (usually either five or seven minutes) to hold his speech and must not be interrupted by the other participants, unless he allows them to briefly do so. The aim of active participants in debating events is to improve their skills in free speech and discussion and their ability to develop persuading arguments about a certain topic, usually within a short time. Debating organisations are in most cases sponsored and supported by their respective universities, which they usually represent in contests with debating organisations from other universities.

II.1.General information on debating

Debating in the way as we have it today has a long tradition of almost 200 years, particularly in England it has been a training ground for many future politicians. Especially the debating societies in Oxford and Cambridge have strong reputations and receive international media attention. They have hosted world famous celebrities as speakers including Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, to name a few. There are national and international competitions in debating, including annual European and World Championships. International championships are held in English; however, there are debating organisations in many different countries, many members of which do not have English as their native language and prefer to debate in their native tongue. Nevertheless, many debating societies from countries where English is not the native language also debate in English, in order to improve their foreign language skills and to be able to participate in international tournaments. Usually non-native speakers of English are not as successful in English-speaking debates as native speakers are. The World Championships exist since 1981 and up to the present day there have never been world champions in debating who did not originate from a country where the native language is English. All world champions up to the present day came from England, Australia, Scotland, New Zealand, Ireland or the United States of America. The European Championships, which are held since 1986 were always won by English or Scottish teams, except for one competition in 2004 that was won by speakers from the Netherlands. Because of the dominance of speakers with English as native language there are also separate international tournaments only for non-native speakers of English, so-called English-as-a-second-language- (ESL) or English-as-foreign-language- (EFL) competitions.

II.2. Debating guidelines and the process of a debate

Debating follows certain rules and guidelines, usually the so-called British Parliamentary Style (BPS). There are also other formats like the American and the Australian Parliamentary Styles as well as the World Schools Style, which are slightly different from BPS. The British Parliamentary Style is the most common format. In this kind of debating there are eight speakers, which form four teams of two speakers each, so-called factions. In addition there is a jury, referred to as the judge. It is the judge’s task to evaluate the speakers’ persuasiveness after the debate. In most debates there is only one judge but there can also be more than one. At the beginning of the debate the judge introduces a motion for the debate. Possible motions for debates could be for example:

- This house would make parents liable for the crimes of their children
- This house would introduce state run brothels
- This house believes that god is a delusion
- This house would place a duty on hosts (e.g. of a party) to prevent drunk driving
- This house believes Marx would have approved of the internet

The motions in debates can also be very controversial or unserious, for example:

- This house would assassinate Vladimir Putin.
- This house would sell Bavaria to Switzerland

Before the motion is introduced, it is drawn which teams defend the motion and which teams attack it, or in other words, which teams represent the proposition (or “government”) and which teams represent the opposition. Thus, the speakers can not decide if they want to argue against or in favour of the motion. It is also drawn if a team is the opening or the closing faction, i.e. if their team speaks at the beginning or at the end of the debate. It is also decided if the speakers will have five or seven minutes for their speeches. After the motion is introduced, the respective teams usually have 15 minutes time to prepare the debate and their strategy. Apart from finding persuasive arguments the two speakers from one faction have to decide who speaks first and who speaks second and find a structure of argumentation so that they are not going to repeat or contradict themselves.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

At the beginning of the debate, the judge calls the first speaker of the proposition (or “government”) to the podium. The speaker has either five or seven minutes for his speech, according to what was decided beforehand. In a five minute speech the judge knocks on the table after one minute and again after four minutes so that the speaker knows how much time he has left. After five minutes he knocks twice so that the speaker knows that he has to come to an end within a few seconds. If a speaker needs far too much time or finishes much too early he will get fewer points for his speech in the evaluation. If a participant from the opposite side wants to interrupt the current speaker in order to object, he can stand up, hold out his left hand and say “point of information”. Then it is up to the speaker to accept or refuse the interruption. A convincing reply to an objection can improve a speech but a persuasive objection can also be very bad for the speaker. Participants who never try to object are likely to have fewer points in the evaluation.

After the first speaker, who is always from the side of the proposition, has finished, it is the turn of the first speaker of the opposition. Speakers of the proposition and the opposition speak alternately. Different roles have different functions. For example, the first speaker of the opening proposition has to define what is exactly meant by the motion, while speakers at the end of the debate have to rebut the arguments of the previous speakers, apart from giving own persuasive arguments in order to be successful.

III. What exactly are Discourse Markers ?

As it was already mentioned, the term Discourse Marker is difficult to define and has been used in many different ways (Aijmer 1996:203). Discourse Markers are lexemes, sometimes merely expletives or fill words, which don’t have a truth-condition in a sentence and are usually used in order to structure and connect a speech or a text. They appear as “dispensable elements, functioning as sign-posts in the communication facilitating the hearer’s interpretation of the utterance on the basis of various contextual clues” (Aijmer 2002:2). They appear both in written and spoken language but are usually more frequent in spoken language. As Altenberg pointed out, according to his research, Discourse Items (which includes e.g. greetings, thanks and apologies, apart from all kinds of Discourse Markers) accounted for 9,4% of all word-class tokens. Thus, they constitute the fourth largest word-class, outranked only by verbs, pronouns and nouns (qtd in Aijmer 2002:3). The interest in Discourse Markers has expanded since the 1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hence, the linguistic research has gotten many new insights on the nature of these lexical units over the past decades. Fraser called the research on Discourse Markers: ”A growth market in linguistics” (qtd in Schiffrin 2003:54). Consequently, many studies about Discourse Markers have emerged, covering various linguistic fields, such as pragmatics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics and second language acquisition (Del Saz 2007:13).

In spite of Discourse Markers being an attractive field of study for researchers, there is not always agreement among linguists about several aspects regarding their nature. For example, it is not even completely undisputed how to label them (Del Saz 2007:14). There is a variety of expressions for this kind of lexical units (e.g. Discourse Particles, Discourse Connectives, Discourse Operators, Cue Phrases etc.) and the term Discourse Markers is just one of them, though it is probably the one that is used most frequently. The various expressions for Discourse Markers usually include certain attributes and exclude others. Among authors of research papers on the topic there is little agreement what the different types of Discourse Markers have in common, which makes the notion of Discourse Markers more or less fuzzy (Aijmer 1996:203). A close definition of what is considered Discourse Markers in this paper will follow in section III.3.

III.1. A brief outline on the history in the research on Discourse Markers

In order to clarify the term Discourse Marker further, it is useful to take a brief look at the history of research that was carried out on this topic since the 1970s. Different studies have used different perspectives and approaches.

III.1.1. Markers and cohesion

Cohesion in English, co-authored by Halliday and Hasan (1976) was an important work in the field of discourse coherence. Cohesion refers to stylistic devices that link sentences on the syntactic level (but not necessarily on the semantic level). Halliday and Hasan distinguished five categories of cohesion in English, one of them being conjunctions. Although the concept of Discourse Markers was still unknown, Halliday and Hasan explained functions of Discourse Markers such as I mean, that is to say, in other words or to put it in another way (Del Saz 2007:25). Halliday and Hasan wrote that most cohesive features establish cohesion through anaphoric or cataphoric devices, conjunctions on the other hand “express certain meanings which presuppose the presence of other components in the discourse” (qtd in Schiffrin 2003:55).

III.1.2. Markers and discourse

One of the most important and most popular works on Discourse Markers was written by Deborah Schiffrin (1987). It receives special recognition because it is one of the pioneering works in the field of the analysis of Discourse Markers. Until today it is considered a benchmark in the respective research. The terminology Schiffrin used in her book is widely accepted in today’s research of Discourse Markers. In her book, Schiffrin analyses eleven different Discourse Markers and their roles. She comes to the conclusion that Discourse Markers serve as discourse-“glue”, which makes a text coherent and contextualizes the speaker’s message. She also defines Discourse Markers as ”sequentially dependent elements which bracket units of talk” (Del Saz 2007:34).

Schiffrin introduced five different “planes” of talk within which Discourse Markers have roles in order to be able to differentiate different types of Discourse Markers. She analysed Discourse Markers in reference to their significance in coherence, their meanings, and their functions. She came to the conclusion that Discourse Markers select and display relationships between utterances. Apart from that, she wrote that Discourse Markers “bracket units of talk, i.e. <they are> non obligatory utterance-initial items that function in relation to ongoing talk and text” (qtd in Schiffrin 2003:57). “They bracket units of talk” means that they are used to separate speeches into different sections. They also highly contribute to the way a speaker intends a hearer to interpret an utterance, because they often provide a background or a contextual assumption for the hearer (qtd in Del Saz 2007:33 -5).

III.1.3. Markers and pragmatics

An important work about the pragmatic functions of Discourse Markers was written by Fraser (1990). In contrast to Halliday and Hasan his main interest were not cohesive devices but the meaning of sentences, in particular how one type of Pragmatic Marker in a sentence may relate the message conveyed by that sentence to the message of a prior sentence (qtd in Schiffrin 2003:58). Fraser classified Pragmatic Markers into three categories: Basic Pragmatic Markers (signals of illocutionary force, e.g. please) Commentary Pragmatic Markers (encoding of another message that comments on the basic, e.g. frankly) and Parallel Pragmatic Markers (encoding of another message separate from the basic and/or commentary message e.g. damn, vocatives). Discourse Markers are one type of Commentary Pragmatic Marker. They are “a class of expressions, each of which signals how the speaker intends the basic message that follows to relate to the prior discourse” (qtd in Schiffrin 2003:59).

III.2. Properties of Discourse Markers in general

This section will provide an overview about the characteristics of Discourse Markers. Although it is very difficult to find properties which are completely undisputed among linguists, there are some defining properties; however, most do not have to be necessarily true for all Discourse Markers. As Lenk put it, “not one single definition of the term Discourse Marker remained undisputed or unaltered by other researchers for their purposes” (qtd in Aijmer 2002:7). The listing of Discourse Marker properties in this chapter is strongly influenced by Del Saz’ enumeration of Discourse Marker properties (Del Saz 2007:65-80).

III.2.1. Connectivity

According to a number of authors of research papers on the topic of Discourse Markers, the most prominent feature of Discourse Markers is their ability to relate utterances to other discourse units; especially authors like Halliday and Hasan base much of their theory of cohesion on Discourse Markers and their linking properties (Del Saz 2007:65). Connectivity is one of the properties that is least disputed by writers of research papers on the topic. Although different authors have different approaches and opinions about the linking properties of Discourse Markers in detail (Del Saz 2007:67-8), these will not extensively be discussed in this paper.

1. This house would ban them because we think that they would harm our society

Example 1 shows a very easy case of the linking property of the Discourse Marker because. The two segments that could also exist as independent main clauses are connected by because. The sentence has the structure sequence1, Discourse Marker, sequence 2 or abbreviated S 1.DM.S2.

2. So it’s an investment, less freedom during the school time but on the long-term there’s good consequences so it’s worth to have that restriction well yes

The second example has the structure DM.S1.(S2).DM.S3.DM.S4.DM.S5, with the Discourse Markers so, but, so, and well. (S2 is put in brackets because it is not an independent utterance) The receiver of this message does not know what the first so refers to, but because of the Discourse Marker at the very beginning, he’s urged to imply that the sentence is taken from a certain context in a longer discourse. Discourse Markers often signal “a transition in the evolving progress of the conversation” (Longman Grammar 1999:1086). This is often particularly evident in the use of the Discourse Marker so. The lexeme but and the second so link the following sequences, which could also exist independently.


Excerpt out of 39 pages


Discourse markers in non-native English
University of Bayreuth  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Sprachwissenschaft)
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ISBN (Book)
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Discourse, Marker, Markers, Particle, Particles, Connectives, Operators, Connective, Operator, Cue, Phrase, Phrases, Debating, University, Parliamentary, non-native, non, native, English
Quote paper
Uwe Mehlbaum (Author), 2008, Discourse markers in non-native English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/142384


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